UI Law students represent U.S. veterans in court

Since 2018, UI law professor Amy Kretkowski has offered students who have successfully completed her course in Veterans Benefits Law a chance to represent U.S. veterans.



University of Iowa law Professor Amy Kretkowski

Cooper Worth, News Reporter

University of Iowa College of Law students are representing veterans in their cases to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Amy Kretkowski, a UI law professor and practicing attorney, has offered the opportunity to students who have completed her upper-level fall course in Veterans Benefits Law since 2018. The course gives students a chance to serve alongside her in an appellate advocacy independent study program. 

During the spring semester, up to four students will work with Kretkowski in the national Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program to represent U.S. veterans and their family members who have filed appeals regarding Veterans Claims. The program also serves to recruit and train attorneys in veterans’ law. 

Kretkowski — who has been a mentoring attorney for the program since 2012 — has current law school students serve as co-counsel in the cases while she oversees them under Iowa’s student-practice rule. 

Kretkowski said the students who serve as co-counsel enjoy the real-world experience of the program. 

“The students who’ve done this with me really love this because they get to dig into something that’s real,” she said. “A lot of what they’re doing in law school is very theoretical, and it’s fun for them to work on something that’s not a hypothetical scenario.”

Since the program started four years ago, 12 UI law students have worked on 24 cases through the consortium. Kretkowski said the program paused its cases during the 2020-21 academic year due to the pandemic. 

In these cases, she said hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial compensation have been granted for veterans and their families. 

Kretkowski, the daughter of a World War II veteran, said it would trouble her seeing recurring VA errors in veterans’ cases while serving as a law clerk at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington D.C. 

“These people, who had served our country in a way that I had not, and the notion that they would be given a difficult time getting disability benefits, just made no sense to me,” she said. 

Sam Stender, a 2019 UI law school graduate who worked on five cases with Kretkowski, said working through the consortium was by far the best thing he did in law school. 

“You’re helping serve a community of veterans that are entitled to benefits,” he said. “Working with Amy and being part of her process is incredibly valuable, and no matter where your practice takes you professionally after you graduate, the lessons you pick up from her go across all facets of practicing the law.”

Stender said he worked on a case where a veteran received disability benefits from Veterans Affairs for the hearing loss he developed while serving, but not for his tinnitus, which developed at the same time. Stender focused on non-precedential cases to argue that the veteran’s tinnitus as part of his original claim of hearing loss.

The attorney for the VA agreed to settle the case by doing a joint motion to terminate the appeal with a stipulated agreement and grant the veteran retroactive disability benefits.

Stender said one reason why these veterans’ cases are so prevalent — especially with veterans who experience active duty that occurred within the last 60 years — is that service members were unaware they could file for claims. 

“As veterans are increasing in age, more health issues are coming to rise and based on lack of education by the Department of Defense on how you apply for service benefits, a lot of veterans essentially didn’t file their claims, and a lot of them are getting caught up on solving their VA claims now,” he said.  

Stender served in active duty as a U.S. Marine Corps Officer from 2010-2016 and is currently a corporate and securities associate at New York Mayer Brown law firm.

Jason Holmes, a 2020 UI law school graduate who worked with Kretkowski on two veterans’ cases, said taking Kretkowski’s course and working with her introduced him to the legal work of representing veterans. The work he was doing with Kretkowski is what he does now for a career. 

“A lot of people don’t know about this area of the law, so getting the opportunity to explore veterans benefits law opened my eyes to it,” he said. “Working with her ultimately made me want to work in that area of the law, and that’s what I ended up doing.” 

Holmes served on active duty for the U.S. Army for 10 years and currently works as a staff attorney for Legal Aid Chicago. He said that working with Kretkowski introduced him to the amount of effort that goes into these cases. 

“I started by reviewing the record of what happened and that’s like hundreds of pages— I think one [case] might have been over 800 pages of records,” he said. “Then I had to write a rule 10 conference memo basically identifying things to appeal that you think the VA made a mistake on.”

Holmes said veterans have the right to be reimbursed for the physical and mental injuries they face during their service. 

“They shouldn’t have to go fight for their country and suffer injuries in the service and then come out and not get compensated,” he said.

Kretkowski said her students get the experience of dealing with veterans from all over the country, as students have represented clients in Texas, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, and California.

Kretkowski said the pride she has in her work is what inspires her to continue advocating for veterans. 

 “I do feel that it’s a really righteous type of work we do,” she said. “I feel really good about the work that I’m doing every day, and I don’t know a lot of attorneys who can say that.”