Linda Heeyoung Park, JD ‘21, a student in LSC’s Safety Net Project, shares the story of her client, Jay, a veteran who came to LSC for help protecting his disability benefits.
Jay loved his job as a tower agent with US Airways. Seated high in Logan Airport’s control tower, he guided planes to and from their gates. He was a commander of sorts, a role that was familiar to him from his previous career.
Before working at the airport, Jay served as a Marine.
After being called to active duty in 2004, he quickly climbed up the ranks and, by 2006, became a sergeant. With the other Marines in his unit, he traversed Iraq by Humvee, sending radio signals to different camps through the night. One night in June 2006, everything came to a halt. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED), hidden under the road detonated, destroying the Humvee, injuring the people inside, obliterating Jay’s right leg, and severely damaging his right elbow and his left foot.
When Jay returned stateside for rehabilitation, his body was in shambles. He could no longer extend his right arm and could barely put weight on his broken left foot. The phantom pain from the right leg he lost was intense and perplexing. His right foot, the foot that no longer existed, felt numb.
Pain spurred reflection. “It’s hard to see all the soldiers returning from Iraq,” Jay confessed. “What were we there for? Why did we die?”
Still, Jay persevered. He endured intensive physical therapy, started using prosthetics, and learned to walk again. Most importantly, he learned to accept his disabilities. Within four years, Jay was directing planes for US Airways, starting a new life with his new body.
But Jay’s disabilities followed him like a shadow. Every morning at work, Jay walked up three flights of stairs with no elevators and no railings. He had to stop every other step, leaning against the wall until the shooting pain from his phantom limb subsided. Going to the bathroom during work, which involved going up and down the stairs, was not a possibility. Jay would be drenched in sweat throughout the day from the effort he exerted to complete his work. After two years of enduring the pain, Jay was forced to quit.
This was the story that Jay told me when I met him at our first intake meeting. As he recounted his story, his eyes remained still and his face calm. I tried to reflect his composure, but my mind spiraled. Images of bombs, blood, and hidden tears flashed in front of my eyes. I managed to squeeze out a question.
“So, how can we help you today?”
Jay explained that his disability benefits had been discontinued after he stopped working, because he was no longer considered disabled. Really? I asked him. Even to me, a student only one month into my work on disability benefits cases at LSC’s Safety Net Project, the notion that Jay was not ‘disabled’ in some basic sense seemed absurd.
“I received a bunch of letters years ago,” he said. “I didn’t know what they were saying. Now I know that Social Security Administration (SSA) is discontinuing my benefits. I have a hearing in three weeks.”
Three weeks meant we had no time to spare. I had to dig through thousands of pages of medical records, schedule a meeting with Jay every week leading up to the hearing, and find out why SSA rejected his benefits. I had to get to know Jay and understand his story and his struggles as soon as possible.
Every day at work, I shuffled through the thick stack of Jay’s medical records. Those medical records, especially from Jay’s first few years of rehabilitation, served as Jay’s biography. They revealed in great detail a side of Jay that he did not explicitly present to me: Jay’s life hidden behind the closed doors of hospitals. Words like “depression,” “agoraphobia,” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” permeated the records.
Thinking about how eloquent and resilient Jay is, I realized that Jay had additional disabilities that were invisible to our eyes. Beneath his thick jeans Jay wore a prosthetic leg. Beneath his skin, Jay was suffering from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Jay woke up in middle of the night, panting and paralyzed by his nightmares. He downed liquor to forget the bright orange flames he saw in his dreams. He jolted when people approached him at work.
SSA neglected to consider Jay’s symptoms. The agency dismissed Jay’s physical disabilities because he worked for a period of time, not knowing the pain he fought through every day. SSA denied Jay his benefits when he needed them most, and failed to consider the other vestiges of war: the emotional injuries he sustained as a Marine.
Jay and I met every week leading up to the hearing. I asked him questions that drew out the stories SSA had ignored. As we both were getting exhausted from the prepping, Jay lamented, “They say, ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ I’ve done my share for the country. I gave it everything. What has the country done for me?” I didn’t know how to answer his question. Jay had served his country, but nobody fought for him when he needed help.
On the hearing day, Jay was wearing his usual jeans and gray jacket. Other than his slight limp, Jay, like always, appeared able-bodied and articulate. The administrative law judge (ALJ) peppered Jay with questions. How are you able to go to school when you’re disabled? What changed in between your time at US Airways and now? Are you really disabled?
Jay solemnly told his story. He advocated for himself, understanding now the relevant experiences that mattered most to the judge. He was vulnerable yet unapologetic. He was brave. He told of the pain hidden underneath the veneer of normalcy and calm. He admitted his reliance on substances and explained the causes for it. After listening to Jay, the judge questioned the vocational expert and let a few seconds of silence pass. Then, she looked at Jay and thanked him.
“I have never done this during my time as an ALJ,” she said. “But I’m going to state on the record that you won your case. Thank you for your service. This country is honored to have a veteran like you.”
When I explained the ALJ’s bench ruling to Jay outside of the courtroom—how he would be awarded his benefits dating back to the date of application in 2012 and would not have to wait anxiously for the decision—Jay simply smiled at the news. Even as my supervisor and I profusely congratulated him, he nodded and thanked us. Then he returned to his beloved two cats and his life.
In retrospect, the long and winding path to Jay’s victory could have been shortened if the system offered Jay the proper assistance when he first needed it. SSA could have acknowledged the seriousness of Jay’s mental injuries. Legal aid organizations could have been more accessible to Jay and his community to help him out in the initial stages of his case. SSA could have not punished recipients for attempting to find work despite their disabilities. Too many systemic barriers impeded Jay from accessing the benefits that he was entitled to and needed.
I read a lot of medical reports for my clients. According to those reports, a doctor diagnoses the problem, comes up with a solution, and communicates with the patient about ways to move forward. Social security benefits attorneys are like doctors. They see the issues in a client’s case, discuss a strategy to tackle the issue, and work with the client to achieve a goal. Just as every patient should be able to see a doctor, every client should be able to see an attorney.
Sometimes, on the Orange Line train back to campus from the Legal Services Center, I’m lucky enough to grab a seat. As I sit down, close my eyes, and allow my thoughts to wander, I often feel crushed by the weight of not only Jay’s, but all my clients’ stories. The stories that rarely get told yet must be heard. The responsibilities that come with knowing the stories. Sometimes these stories consume me, and I have to sneakily wipe away the tears. How unprofessional, I think to myself.
The day Jay and I won the case, I cried unabashedly on the train. A lady who sat next to me offered tissues. She asked if I was okay, and I explained through the tears that my client won his case. She congratulated me. She told me that I would be a good lawyer. Listening to her, I realized that I do want to be the lawyer that she envisioned me as. I want to be a lawyer who treats every story with the significance it deserves and who gives it its proper stage.
Linda Heeyoung Park is a 2L student at Harvard Law School. This is her first semester working with LSC’s Safety Net Project.