Author: Rebecca Berfanger
An attorney who lives on a former Army base in Indianapolis and works out of a law office in Marion didn’t always plan to represent veterans, their dependents, and survivors in claims that concern the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but after joining the Army Reserve he started taking their cases. Word got out among veterans about what he was doing, and now their cases are the only ones he takes. Ralph Bratch, of the firm Bosley & Bratch in Marion, represents clients at various levels of the VA, including appeals. Not many attorneys in the country practice this kind of work, and he strongly advises attorneys without military experience to help veterans in other ways due to the involvement and challenge of each case.
It is because of his military experience in the reserve that he has been able to sift through piles of documents, understand military codes, and earn his clients’ trust because he is also a soldier. This is no easy feat when he speaks with Vietnam veterans who haven’t forgiven themselves for things that happened more than 30 years ago that continue to cause pain and suffering. But Bratch hasn’t always been a military man. He signed up more than a decade after his 1990 graduation from Valparaiso University School of Law, which he attended after graduating from Ball State University in 1987. His brother-in-law in the Air Force Reserve talked about his own experiences, and that “planted the seed.”
After practicing law for 10 years, Bratch was also thinking of what else he could do with his time. He enjoys the fraternity aspect of the organization, including the physical activity of outdoor training, field exercises, and competitive sports. “It goes back to the 12-year-old boy who wants to join the Army,” Bratch said of why he joined. But as an adult, he recognized he had responsibilities he didn’t have as a 12-year-old, including his law practice and his family, so he didn’t make the decision lightly.
He graduated from the Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course in 2003, completed the Judge Advocate Officer Advanced Course in 2005, and then attended Combined Arms and Services Staff School in 2005. He is currently a member of the JAG Corps of the Army Reserve serving as defense counsel in the 154th Legal Support Organization headquartered in Alexandria, Va. In his work for the military, he represents soldiers in administrative and criminal proceedings. Former assignments include: trial counsel and civil law attorney for the Army Reserve Medical Command in Pinellas Park, Fla.; and team leader, trial counsel, and legal assistance attorney in the 91st Legal Support Organization in Indianapolis. He also serves as a volunteer ombudsman with the Employer Support of the Guard & Reserve (ESGR) ensuring employer compliance with laws guaranteeing employment rights of military service members. He got involved with the JAG Corps because he wasn’t sure what else he was qualified to do. Looking back, he said he has enjoyed the work and plans to continue in that aspect of his service. And because his practice only involves veterans, their survivors, and dependents, he considers that a part of his service as well.
Each meeting with a prospective client tends to come from contact with a veteran who has a friend of a friend who recommended Bratch. For every five who call, he estimates he accepts one or two clients. He takes the time to field all veterans questions to figure out if they have a compelling case. If they do, he takes the next step, which includes obtaining mountains of forms from the VA and the veteran. If they don’t have a case he will not only explain to the veteran why he doesn’t think they have a case, but also will explain how they can pursue it on their own. This is also why Bratch will talk to veterans who contact him; if there are cases that will likely not be approved, he can tell them their other options and possibly shorten the waiting time for veterans who have more convincing claims.
He tries to help as many people as possible because they have no formal right to counsel in the claims and appeals process, and many of them don’t have the formal education to know what they need. Even the importance of making extra copies to keep for personal files, as Bratch knows of cases where forms disappeared after they were submitted to VA offices and the veterans didn’t have their own back ups because they just didn’t think to make copies. Without representation, he said, it can also be difficult for a veteran to argue his side of the three things the VA considers: if the injury is connected to service, the severity of the injury in 10 percent increments, and the effective date – whether it’s the filing date or date of the injury. How veterans can go through the system to make a claim or appeal a decision by the VA is also not clearly explained as they leave the military.
The backlog of cases is another concern, but recent reports from the VA have mentioned that it is planning to move to a paperless system to alleviate the backlog. Prior to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a backlog of claims largely from Vietnam veterans. Add to that mix veterans who’ve left the military after their time in the Middle East and the backlog has only gotten worse, he said. Bratch is also concerned about talk by the VA to fast track claims involving Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Some Vietnam veterans already think the VA doesn’t care about them, and this decision doesn’t help that perception, he said. But regardless of the person or claim or in what capacity they served their country, he said, he remains disappointed about how long each case can take.
In some cases, just getting copies of files can take six months to a year, and a worst case scenario can involve 10 years to get a favorable decision on a claim. While waiting, the injuries may get worse. One example is a soldier who made a claim based on his Type 2 diabetes from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam – a link the VA recognizes – and had since developed diabetic neuropathy, which caused a fall, which left him in a wheelchair. But, he said, “To see the look on a guy’s face, to see a Vietnam veteran crying when you win, is that worth it? It is to me. Because it’s right. At the end of the day, they deserve better.”
If you need assistance with a VA benefits claim, our attorneys are here to help. Call Bosley & Bratch at (800) 953-6224 or complete our free veterans benefits case evaluation form.