UM’s Veterans Advocacy Clinic Wins Appeal for Army Veteran Sexually Assaulted in Service

MISSOULA – The Veterans Advocacy Clinic at the University of Montana’s Blewett School of Law won an appeal at the Board of Veterans Appeals for an Army veteran who was sexually assaulted by fellow service members during service.

The successful appeal was made possible through the effort of recent School of Law graduate, Elizabeth Webster, Class of 2020, who now clerks for Montana Supreme Court Justice Dirk Sandefur. Webster wrote a brief to the Board of Veterans Appeals while a third-year law student in the Veterans Advocacy Clinic, under the supervision of UM Professor Hillary Wandler.

Wandler praised Webster’s work on the appeal, describing it as “above and beyond.

“Elizabeth gathered extensive facts and records through meetings with the client and records requests to formulate and then support her argument,” said Wandler. “Her diligent and detailed review of the medical records revealed an error in VA’s reasoning on the effective date of this veteran’s service connection. Elizabeth’s argument was successful because it persuasively marshalled the facts to present overwhelming support for reversing the VA’s original decision.”

The veteran served in the Army during the Gulf War era. The VA granted the veteran service connection disability for trauma-related mental health symptoms, but it assigned an erroneously-late effective date. Based on Webster’s arguments, the Board determined that the VA Regional Office had erred by failing to recognize the severity of the veteran’s disabling symptoms when she first filed her claim. The Board directed the VA Regional Office to reconsider the effective date and award back pay of more than $120,000.

Webster was thrilled that her brief resulted in a win for her client. “This veteran’s story needed to be told, and needed to be told in a way that would compel the board to hear it, understand it, and act on it. I am grateful for the Veterans Clinic and the opportunity to do meaningful work for clients, grateful for the outcome, and grateful for this veteran’s strength and courage throughout the process.”

The retroactive compensation was only part of the victory for the veteran, who reacted with relief and appreciation for the closure the Board’s decision finally provided.

“It still comes in waves,” said the veteran, whose name is not being disclosed because of privacy standards that are supported by the court and UM, “The fight for adequate support was taxing mentally, physically, and spiritually. I am thankful for Professor Wandler and Elizabeth Webster and University of Montana for their support. Being heard and validated, even vindicated through proper acknowledgment, has played a role in my continuing to pursue my best health on all levels.”

The Veterans Advocacy Clinic provides free legal representation to military veterans seeking disability benefits from the VA and to military veterans seeking upgraded discharges. The Veterans Advocacy Clinic is part of the School of Law’s Clinical Program, founded in 1966, in which law faculty and other supervising attorneys supervise third-year students in a variety of practice settings, from criminal defense and prosecutors’ offices to environmental nonprofits and government agencies. The Clinical Program is a capstone of the School of Law’s required curriculum designed to help law students prepare for practice before they graduate.


Contact: Hillary Wandler, professor UM Alexander Blewett III School of Law, 406-243-6788,