Lawyers with Center City's Morgan Lewis & Bockius have filed a class-action suit against the Department of Defense, alleging that it illegally denied medical and disability benefits to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The lawsuit said the Army failed to follow its own rules when it denied the services and payments to the veterans.
"Almost two million U.S. armed services personnel have been deployed around the world as part of the U.S. efforts to combat global terrorism," said the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington. "Countless thousands of these service men and women have been exposed to traumatic events during combat, and many have returned home with a variety of psychological and mental injuries."
The lawsuit shines a light on the long-festering psychological and physical ailments of some returning veterans.
It also illustrates a longstanding tradition among larger law firms in which they donate legal services to persons who cannot afford legal representation.
Lawyers say they hope to burnish the reputation of their profession with these so called pro-bono representations, while also bolstering the legal system itself, which is, in the end, the source of their income.
The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of five Army veterans along with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a nonprofit group that represents veterans and active service members in disputes with the government.
The veterans allege that they each were discharged from duty after an Army review board concluded that they had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and thus could no longer serve.
Yet, in violation of federal law, the suit contends, the veterans' disabilities were not rated severe enough to qualify them for both ongoing disability payments and medical coverage for themselves and their families.
The Army has not seen the suit and, as a result, declined to comment on it, according to Lt. Colonel George Wright of the Public Affairs Office in Washington.
According to Barton Stichman, co-director of the veterans legal services program, the veterans named in the lawsuit should qualify for between $120 and $660 a month in disability payments.
James Kelley II, a Morgan Lewis labor and employment lawyer based in Washington who helped draft the complaint, said that class action, if it succeeds, could hike benefits for thousands of veterans who have been denied disability and medical benefits. Congress added language to a defense appropriation bill earlier this year that sought to require the Pentagon to pay the benefits, Kelley said.
"The Army disregarded that," he said.
Each of the veterans named in the lawsuit saw combat action in either Iraq or Afghanistan and returned home with classic symptoms of (PTSD) - anxiety attacks, moment of paranoia, sleepless nights, nightmares and other maladies.
One of the plaintiffs, Juan Perez, enlisted in the Army in May 2002 and was deployed to Iraq a year later. He was stationed near the border of Iraq and Syria. While there, he was exposed to multiple explosions from mortars, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) or roadside bombs, and small-arms fire.
He returned to the United States after completing a tour of duty. He was sent back to Iraq in April 2005 and again was involved in combat. For his service, he was given the Army Commendation Medal and the Combat Action Patch.
When Perez returned to the United States, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. In April 2006, he was found unfit for continued military service because of the disorder, but the Army failed to sign off on disability payments for him, according to the lawsuit.
"There is a pact our country has with people who serve our country in time of war," said Stichman. "And it is very disappointing when the Army does not comply with that."