NORFOLK, Va. — Dustin Allison was riding in an armored vehicle at the head of a convoy in Iraq one morning in 2007 when an improvised explosive device went off, killing the driver and leaving Allison badly wounded.
Shrapnel struck the Utah National Guard platoon leader behind his left ear, fracturing his skull and taking off a small piece of his ear. The radio behind his head was destroyed.
"I was definitely lucky," said Allison, a former Utah State Trooper from the Salt Lake suburbs who had volunteered for duty in Iraq.
But unlike many wounded in war, Allison bore few outward signs of having been badly hurt. He has a scar, but once he returned to Utah he also found out he was incapable of running without getting sick. He also says he experienced vertigo as a result, but that can be difficult to prove to government bureaucrats looking to safeguard against fraud.
"If you lose your leg it's pretty clear what happened, whereas if you get hit in the head and you get migraines and dizzy and vertigo and all kinds of more subjective things that happen, that makes it harder" to diagnose, said Allison, who now lives in Baltimore.
He joined thousands of others struggling to navigate the Veterans Administration's benefits claims process. But his choice to attend business and law school at the College of William & Mary in 2008 allowed him to become one of the school's first clients for a veterans benefits legal clinic its law school was starting.
The clinic uses law students and a faculty member to tackle complex cases on a pro bono basis in which veterans can have difficulty providing the evidence they need to substantiate their claims. Veterans receive disability compensation for injuries and illness incurred or aggravated during their active military service. The amount of the compensation is based on a rating assigned by the VA.
The cases the clinic takes on often involve post-traumatic stress disorder either from warfare or a sexual assault that there may be no record of. In one case, a World War II veteran who injured his knee in basic training in 1943 didn't report a claim until 1971; the claim was repeatedly denied until the clinic stepped in.
The clinic is being touted by members of Congress as a national model for inexpensively dealing with the Veterans Administration's backlog. Between 2009 and August 2012, the clinic has helped 46 clients with submission of 343 claimed injuries or illnesses.
"At 50 clients you're directly representing at a time, that's certainly not going to impact the backlog in a way that it needs to be. But if you get more law schools across the country to do this work then you're exponentially leveraging the passion and the experience of law students across the country to help with that backlog," said Patty Roberts, director of clinical programs at William & Mary's law school.
The VA has come under heavy criticism for the number of disability claims pending longer than 125 days — about 570,000. That's nearly two-thirds of all claims pending.
"We want to respect our veterans, but when you've got people waiting, often times in excess of a year to get their claims processed, that's not a good sign," said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. "This is a national embarrassment."
Warner has urged Senate colleagues to work with law schools in their states to create similar legal clinics. He also urged VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to help move that process along.
The Williamsburg college has been contacted by White House officials to see what could help replicate the program elsewhere. In response, the school developed a playbook for starting similar legal clinics. So far, Warner's office has forwarded that playbook to about 10 law schools, including those at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Colorado and Oregon State.
The effort gained momentum last month when U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., introduced a bill that authorizes the VA to provide support to law school programs that provide legal assistance to veterans. The Veterans Legal Support Act of 2013 would allow the VA to spend up to $1 million a year assisting those programs.
Shaheen's office says that since 2008, 30 law schools in 18 states have developed clinical programs that specifically assist veterans in some manner.
Financial assistance is one of the things that could help schools currently helping veterans take on more clients or get other schools' programs off the ground, said Stacey-Rae Simcox, an Army veteran who serves as the managing attorney at William & Mary's Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic.
School officials said it's difficult to pinpoint the exact cost of the clinic because it uses existing space and faculty, but Simcox said William & Mary's program runs on a 'shoestring' budget. Still, she spends part of her time fundraising to help make ends meet and pay for things like psychological assessments and travel to homeless shelters where many veterans reside.
"These clinics don't require that much of an investment, but they do require some," Simcox said.
Simcox said she got the idea to help veterans because she and her husband, who was also an Army lawyer, had such a difficult time navigating the benefits' claim process after he left the military.
"It was complicated and there was a lot of paperwork and the rules were complex. And we realized that if two JAG attorneys were having issues understanding how the system works and figuring out all the paperwork and stuff, that the average soldier or Marine is never going to be able to do it by themselves," she said.
That's something Allison said he has personal experience with.
"It's truly impossible to do it well by yourself," said Allison, whose claims took about two years to resolve. "If you don't provide the evidence, they're going to deny you. If you don't know what you need to provide or what that standard of proof is on your own, you need support somehow."
After his claims were resolved in a little less than two years, Allison spent his final year in law school last year helping out other veterans by working at the clinic.
"I had been in a wounded warrior unit. I know what people have to go through. I was very fortunate. It was an easy choice to feel like I needed to pay it back," he said.