Willie Alvin Cousin served in the U.S. Army’s 31st Infantry Division during the Korean War and injured his back and legs on active duty. He spent 30 days in the hospital at Fort Sheridan in Illinois and later was instructed to file for benefits after being discharged from the military.
That began what turned out to be a 66-year battle with the U.S. government that never ended in Cousin’s favor – until he connected with The American Legion.
In late September, Cousin was awarded a 40-percent Department of Veterans Affairs disability rating retroactive to 1953. It ended decades of getting a “no” every time he filed his claim, and came after the 90-year-old Legionnaire teamed up with American Legion Department of Connecticut Service Officer K. Robert Lewis starting in 2011.
Cousin had previously used another veterans service organization and then a veterans agency to help with his claim, to no avail. The veteran said that before he met Lewis, “Honestly, I thought ‘why do this?’ I’d get the same thing over and over again. I met (Lewis) and (he) convinced me it was worthwhile.”
Lewis set out on finding the necessary evidence and did so the old-fashioned way.
“Back at that time, veterans’ claim files were actually paper folders. Mr. Cousin had a pretty healthy file,” Lewis said. “When he came with us and I decided to take a look at the file, lo and behold, the very first documents were there from 1953 was the medical evidence of him getting hurt – and, a permanent profile in his personnel file through the end of his active duty and directions to file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs. And they subsequently turned him down, saying there was no evidence.”
In order to reopen the claim, Lewis needed what he called “new and material evidence – evidence that of and by itself changes the outcome. So I pulled the necessary documents from his folder, copied them, submitted them as new and material evidence, and they reopened the claim and said, ‘Oh yes, this makes sense.’”
Once the claim was granted in 2017 to give Cousin a 40-percent disability rating, Lewis moved to do “what was right” and make the claim retroactive to 1953. Originally, the claim was only granted retroactive two years.
Cousin’s appeal was denied at the Regional Office level, and then at both the Board of Veterans Appeals and Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. But in August of 2018, at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit level – and with representation from attorney Andrew Dufresne of the law firm Perkins Coie – Cousins was victorious. And on Sept. 20 of this year, Cousin was notified that his claim was now retroactive to 1953.
“If it hadn’t been for Mr. Lewis, I would have never stuck by (this) that long,” said Cousin, a member of McKinney-King Post 142 in Hartford, Conn. “But (Lewis) gave me encouragement. I was about to give up when I met (him). I wouldn’t have known where to go.”
Hearing that “is very positive for me as a service officer,” Lewis said. “What we do, and I’ve long said this, is we get to make people’s lives better every day just by doing our job. This claim has been active for longer than I have been alive. The fact that we were able to help (Cousin), in my opinion, right a wrong, that was 64 years in the making, that just makes me feel good. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Finding out his claim had been approved from his initial date of filing was a shock to Cousin – and his family. “My wife, she just screamed,” he said. “It had finally come through. My wife stuck with me. The family, the kids, they stuck with me. (The Legion) stuck with me. It’s really a thrill to know that you have people that care. (Lewis) stuck with me.”
Cousin’s situation will stay with Lewis well into the future. “Every once in a while you take on a case that’s kind of vindication,” he said. “This is why we do what we do. That’s what The American Legion has been about.
“I fully believe in doing the right thing for all the right reasons, and Mr. Cousin’s case was absolutely the right thing.”