BRATTLEBORO — Dealing with the bureaucracy of a federal agency is never easy, but it is a task that Thomas M. French has gladly done to help his fellow veterans.
It is also a task he is very good at - and a task for which French, 86, was honored on June 19 with the 2022 Legionnaire of the Year award from the American Legion's Department of Vermont.
Over the past five years, the longtime Brattleboro attorney formally brought 15 actions against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in representing veterans who were fighting the VA for the benefits they were entitled to for their service to their country.
In those 15 actions, French succeeded in 14 of them, resulting in more than $1 million awarded to the veterans who took on the VA. Nine of the individuals won a 100 percent disability rating from the VA, which resulted in an average monthly payment of up to $3,400 for veterans and increased benefits for their survivors.
And French never took a dime in compensation for his work.
“The VA makes attorneys go through all kinds of hoops to get their fees,” French said. “I didn't want to worry about it, and the veterans I represented needed the money more than I did.”
“And, because I didn't have the expectation of getting money, I could tell the VA what I really thought,” he added.
A long legal career
A native of Muskegon, Mich., French earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Michigan in 1958, and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1961.
He then served in the Air Force from 1961 to 1965 as a commissioned officer in the judge advocate general's office. He was at first stationed at Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Ga., and later went Wiesbaden, Germany. He was honorably discharged at the rank of captain.
French said that when he and his wife, Cecile, and their family came to back to the United States in 1966, two job opportunities came up - one in Savannah and one in Brattleboro. He said Savannah “was too redneck for me,” so he decided to look into the Brattleboro opening.
“My first visit to Vermont was the day I interviewed with Osmer C. Fitts for a job in his [law] firm,” French said. “That was the only visit I needed.”
A year later, French established his own law practice and handled everything from divorces and probate to personal injury cases and immigration law.
His expertise was recognized by the U.S. State Department, which in 1989 asked him to be part of a 750-person delegation that went to the then–Soviet Union to assist it with its legal and economic restructuring at the end of the Cold War.
After French retired in 2015 from general legal practice, he began his post-retirement career of representing veterans in their disability cases with the VA.
“I felt I still had some gas in the tank and still wanted to help people who needed representation,” he said, “but I didn't want to be a slave to the docket.”
A new chapter
French was a natural for this type of work, due to his own personal experiences as an Air Force officer as well as his five decades of private legal practice.
“From the Air Force, I learned the workings of a bureaucracy and what it can and can't do,” said French. “And I did a lot of personal injury cases as an attorney in private practice.”
French applied for and was accepted as a VA-approved attorney in 2015 and within a few months, he started holding weekly informal consultations at the Post 5 home in Linden Street with veterans having problems with the federal agency. Within a year, he took on his first case.
“Dealing with the VA is just about impossible in court,” said French. “You have to fight them for everything you get. I have no complaints with the VA's medical system. It's the bureaucracy you have to go through to get what you've earned.”
A layperson can easily be overwhelmed dealing with the VA's claims operating procedures and the ins and outs of the Veterans Benefits Manual, which contains and identifies the sources of all of the VA procedures required to successfully process either a disability claim or a pension claim.
French has helped veterans from conflicts ranging from World War II to the Iraq War. He says his oldest client is 97 years old and served with the Army Air Forces in World War II in the European theater.
French said his client flew many bombing missions over Germany and, of the 100 men he trained with at the start of the war, he was the only man alive at war's end. French ended up getting the man a 100 percent disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Another client did two tours in Iraq, was injured multiple times and, by French's reckoning, suffered enough trauma to earn a 450 percent disability rating. The client ended up with the full disability benefit to which he was entitled.
A Navy enlisted man who repaired asbestos-clad pipes on naval vessels for 13 years without masks or protective gear suffered and eventually died from that exposure. French won a 60 percent disability rating benefit for his surviving spouse.
One of French's more complicated cases involved a Marine Corps veteran who fought in Vietnam and received a 30 percent disability rating for service-related PTSD. French said his client was then diagnosed with cancer due to exposure to Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant that U.S. forces used heavily during the Vietnam War.
That claim was denied but, after further digging, French discovered his client's particular cancer was instead caused by exposure to the drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he had been stationed. French won a 100 percent disability award for the Marine.
“It can take years for veterans to get compensation,” said French. “The VA doesn't make it easy, and most veterans haven't got the resources to navigate the system.”
Honors from his peers
The award was presented during a luncheon at Brattleboro Post 5, where French has been a member since 1965.
There, French said that he was “stunned” that he was getting the Legionnaire of the Year award, which he felt belonged to the veterans with whom he has worked over the past few years.
He also received letters of praise from his colleagues in the Vermont legal community, and others, that were read at the event.
Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber praised French for his “selfless service in retirement to those less fortunate.”
The Vermont Bar Association sent a letter of congratulations and said French's many hours of pro bono work on behalf of veterans “represents all that is good and noble about the profession.”
Vermont Adjutant General Gregory Knight lauded French's “steadfast and dedicated support” in ensuring that his clients “are represented and receive benefits they have earned.”
And Post 5 commander Dave Findlayson announced that the post is creating the Thomas M. French Service Award, which would be presented annually to the member “who most serves the needs of veterans and their families.”
He added that French would be the first awardee.
French said he is gradually winding down his work with veterans and preparing to hand the work off to his successor, but he still has one more case he is working on.
“I'd like to say that I am retiring,” French said, “but not completely.”