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Patrick R. Burns, John Degnan, John Satorius, Patrick Mahlberg, Virgil Bradley, and Judy Ojard

Attorneys of the Year: Larry Stigen Legal Team

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John Degnan

“The wheels of justice grind slow but grind fine,” Sun Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and general, famously observed. But if Sun Tzu had ever met Vietnam War veteran Larry Stigen, he might have felt compelled to amend his aphorism by inserting “excruciatingly” in front of the word “slow.”

The origins of Stigen’s odyssey stretch back more than four decades, when, in the early morning hours of May 12, 1969, he was holed up in a bunker near the Cambodian border. With rocket-propelled grenades exploding all around, Stigen and his fellow soldiers defended their ground with hand grenades and M16 rifles while helicopters and gunships doused the enemy with napalm.

By sunrise, the ferocious firefight was over but morning light revealed a scene of horror — burning bodies, severed limbs, blood everywhere, and, as Stigen later recounted to a reporter, the stench of death. According to the official tally, 55 enemy combatants and seven American soldiers were killed in the fighting, including two of Stigen’s close friends. Temporarily deafened, traumatized and in shock, the 18-year-old soldier went AWOL before ultimately returning to the States and receiving a less-than-honorable discharge.

Over the decades, Stigen struggled privately with anxieties and nightmares until he finally consulted with a psychiatrist, who promptly diagnosed him with PTSD. Encouraged by a daughter, he applied for military benefits but, because of his discharge status, was denied. That’s when a second battle began.

In 2007, Stigen relayed his story to lawyer Patrick R. Burns, a former Army JAG officer, who then put out a call for pro bono assistance. John Satorius, a senior corporate lawyer at Fredrikson & Byron and also a Vietnam vet, felt compelled to help. But he realized that Stigen needed a lawyer with more expertise in PTSD and military law.

Two more attorneys soon joined the fray — John Degnan, a Briggs and Morgan lawyer with years of experience in medical malpractice (and also a Vietnam vet), and Patrick Mahlberg, an associate at Frederickson. Armed with psychiatric reports and accounts of his battlefield experience, the team focused on getting the VA to recognize the PTSD diagnosis. After years of frustrating delays and rejection, yet another lawyer entered the mix — Virgil Bradley of Cornerstone Family Law. An Iraq War veteran and one of the founders of Minnesota Veterans Legal Assistance, Bradley mounted a new appeal — this one aimed at upgrading Stigen’s discharge. The VA rejected the appeal in 2013.

Judy Ojard, an expert in VA appeals with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, joined the fight and, last February, the VA finally acknowledged what was always apparent to Stigen’s advocates: he deserved mental health treatment and disability benefits for PTSD.

Among those impressed by the dedication of Stigen’s team is attorney Sheila Engelmeier. “They worked on that case for eight years. It was a phenomenal amount of work and they did it all pro bono,” she observes. “And without people like that, folks in need just dry up and die.”

 

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