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April 01, 2008

Human Rights Hero

by Barton F. Stichman

It is particularly appropriate to celebrate as a Human Rights Hero a person who dedicated his entire professional career to vindicating the rights of the often scorned warriors who fought the unpopular American war in Vietnam. David Addlestone began his service to these warriors while they were still in uniform. He took his wife and small child to live in Vietnam, where he represented military personnel in courts-martial and administrative discharge proceedings.

Upon returning to the States in the 1970s, Addlestone took up the cause of the more than 690,000 Vietnam veterans who had been issued less than honorable discharges, a stigma that sentenced them to a lifetime of underemployment and often deprived them of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and medical care. Using funds he raised from private foundations, Addlestone led a nationwide effort to train attorneys to represent these vets on their applications to military discharge review agencies for upgrades in discharge. The lawyers he hired brought lawsuits resulting in the upgrades of thousands of less than honorable discharges and forcing the discharge review agencies to explain their decisions in writing and to make them publicly available.

Admittedly, Addlestone’s work during this period did not always result in law reform. For example, Addlestone represented Tech. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, who sued the U.S. Air Force for involuntarily discharging him on the sole ground that he was a homosexual. After Matlovich appeared on the September 8, 1975, cover of Time, the Air Force bought him off to save its homosexual discharge policy from court review.

In recent years, the U.S. policy to deny aliens imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay access to attorneys and federal civilian courts has been a controversial issue of public importance. But in 1980—when Addlestone helped found the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) and refocused his efforts on veterans benefits—federal statutes imposed a similar policy on American citizens who had served their country in military uniform. Veterans could not legally hire attorneys to represent them on claims for VA benefits. And if a claim was ultimately denied, the veteran was barred by law from appealing the VA denial to federal court.

Addlestone spearheaded an effort to repeal these anachronistic laws. The repeal campaign was truly a David versus Goliath battle—no pun intended. Addlestone lobbied for repeal with the only veterans service organization that supported the change: the Vietnam Veterans of America, which had 50,000 members. Staunchly opposing repeal was the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and the traditional veterans service organizations, which had millions of members and a monopoly on the system for representing VA claimants. Finally, in 1988 Addlestone and his small band at the Vietnam Veterans of America prevailed. Congress partially repealed the bar to paid attorney representation and created a new court—the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims—with authority to review VA decisions denying benefits.

Because lawyers knew little about veterans law, veterans who initially appealed to this court had great difficulty finding lawyers to represent them. With Addlestone leading the way, NVLSP joined three other veterans service organizations to operate a program that over the last sixteen years has recruited, trained, and mentored thousands of attorneys to represent veterans before the court on a pro bono basis.

Addlestone also helped convince the judge who presided over the class action brought by Vietnam veterans against the chemical company manufacturers of Agent Orange to give the NVLSP a grant from the settlement funds. The NVLSP used these funds, in turn, to litigate a separate lawsuit challenging the VA regulation mandating denial of claims based on Agent Orange exposure. The court invalidated the VA regulation, and as a result the VA has paid out over the last seventeen years hundreds of millions of dollars in disability and death benefits to disabled Vietnam veterans and their survivors.

David Addlestone recently retired from the NVLSP, but only after earning his place as a true Human Rights Hero..

Barton F. Stichman

Barton F. Stichman has represented veterans for over thirty years and is the joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.