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Too Good To Be True
My favorite Alex Humphrey story begins in January 1996, the day he first called to volunteer with Vietnam Veterans of America. He said he was an attorney who wanted to represent, without charge, disabled veterans and their families. I asked him to mail me a resumé and then we would set up an interview.

When his resumé arrived, I could not believe it. Literally. His background was so impressive that I thought he must be crazy or lying or both. Service with the Special Forces in Vietnam. Yale undergraduate degree. Harvard Law School. Department of Justice. Lobbyist and senior counsel for General Electric. In addition, he wanted to work full time for free. Too good to be true.

It took a few weeks, but I was able to verify that he was for real. He started work in late January and never stopped for twelve years until he died February 16. He represented veterans at all levels—the VA Regional Office through the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Mainly, he represented veterans at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA).

He knew how to put together the strongest possible case. He spoke candidly with our clients and told them the strengths and weaknesses of their cases. He then worked with them to gather the necessary evidence and present it to the BVA in a brief. In some cases, he represented our clients at personal hearings where they testified about their disabilities. His work resulted in hundreds of veterans getting the benefits that they had earned by their military service.

Alex was opinionated, irreverent, and not intimidated by anyone. At a conference in Denver, we picked Judge Donald L. Ivers up from the airport and drove him to the hotel in a snowstorm. As I drove, Alex ignored the blinding snow and talked nonstop to the judge, asking for every detail about how he and his staff processed and decided veterans’ cases. Fortunately, the judge was friendly and did not mind the interrogation.

On that same trip, Alex confided that he had muscular dystrophy, which was the reason he had retired from General Electric. Over the next three years that we worked together, he hardly mentioned his disease. We got him voice-recognition software when typing became difficult, but he never slowed down. He truly overcame a severe disability because helping veterans meant so much to him.

After leaving VVA in 1999, I would stop by the BVA building and have lunch with Alex occasionally. He loved to talk about cases he had won, politics, and his wife and daughter, to whom he was devoted. He filed comments on proposed VA regulations I had helped write, and he cut me no slack. Spending an hour with Alex reminded me how small my problems were and how to pursue your goals without letting obstacles slow you down. I will greatly miss Alex, and I remember him very, very well.

Bill Russo was director of VVA’s Veterans Benefits Program from 1994 to 1999. He currently serves as director of regulations policy and management at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

ALexander the great
I feel quite fortunate that my career in the veterans’ service arena has been intertwined with that of Alex Humphrey. I used to see Alex hanging around our office when I was working as an attorney with the VA general counsel. I remember thinking, Why would opposing counsel spend so much time in “enemy” territory? Although veterans’ attorneys were allowed to review VA records in our office, they generally stayed in a designated area and left immediately after they were done. Not Alex.

He would visit with the staff attorneys individually, whether he knew them or not. He often sat in the law library, which was next to our conference room—usually while we had staff meetings or moot court practice sessions to prepare for upcoming arguments before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

Although he would never admit it, I always felt that Alex was engaging in a bit of intelligence gathering. He was that kind of advocate. Alex was untiring in his efforts to help his clients, and his keen intellect demanded that he find out everything he could to win a case. It was at the VA where I first became aware of Alex’s esteemed reputation.

After leaving the VA, I worked briefly for the Veterans Pro Bono Consortium, where Alex had been a volunteer attorney. I was delighted when I was seated at Alex’s old desk and given his computer to work on. Jackpot! Locked in the computer’s memory were Alex’s case reviews, legal briefs, and reference lists. Yes, I raided his documents on a regular basis.

When I came to VVA, I was thrilled to work with Alex. For several years, Alex had been the backbone of VVA’s appellate representation program, representing veterans and their families before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the veterans’ court.

When I brought young attorneys on board to handle veterans’ appeals along with Alex, he immediately took them under his wing and became their mentor. The breathing room provided by the new staff left Alex free to select the cases that he wanted to work on. Naturally, he chose the most complex ones and the cases that presented novel questions of law, and he almost always prevailed.

I was proud that VVA consistently had the highest percentage of favorable Board of Veterans’ Appeals decisions among all veterans’ service organizations during my tenure. Alex’s contribution was vital.

While Alex enjoyed his role as mentor to VVA’s staff attorneys, he also relished his role as mentor to veterans’ attorneys and service officers nationwide. They would call him constantly for advice on claims and appeals. I often sought Alex’s counsel myself, which I’m sure pleased him no end. He used to quiz me playfully all the time, asking me, “What was the name of that case where the court held that…?” I’ll always remember his devilish grin when he stumped me.

Alex never let his disability stop him from doing what he loved. Helping veterans, beating the VA, sharing his knowledge with his peers—this is vintage Alex. He was my friend and mentor. A Yoda to veterans advocates. He will be greatly missed.

Leonard J. Selfon, J.D., CAE, was director of VVA’s Veterans Benefits Program from 1999 to 2005. He currently serves as senior vice-president for veterans affairs with United Spinal Association.

By David Houppert
I came onto the veterans benefits scene in the fall of 2004 as an appellate attorney working for VVA. In that position, I worked in VVA’s office at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals in Washington with Alex Humphrey. Alex had been a fixture at the Board for almost a decade. He knew everybody and everything. Alex was one of those unique individuals who had an institutional memory of everything pertaining to veterans’ benefits laws. I cannot begin to imagine how many people he has helped over the last years.

Everyone who worked with Alex learned a great deal from him. Although I greatly enjoyed talking about veterans law with Alex, I enjoyed more his stories about his time in the Special Forces and at Harvard and Yale. Let’s face it: Anybody who serves in the Green Berets in Vietnam is going to have some great stories and Alex had some of the best. Although many were inappropriate for print, I remember him telling about his Special Forces medical training.

In the Special Forces, it is common practice for individuals to be cross-trained in various military and medical disciplines. While at Fort Bragg, Alex was attending a medical training course. As part of the training, animals would be shot with live ammunition and the soldier-students were required to perform medical procedures to save the animals. Upon the successful completion of their training, the students were told to “dispatch” their patients.

One day Alex and his fellow students decided not to kill the animals: instead, they snuck them out at night. I later learned that many other students did the same thing over many years. As a result, there was a trailer park near the base that had generations of three-legged dogs running loose.

In addition to practicing veterans benefits law, Alex also enjoyed painting and writing. He entered at least one VA art competition. He always joked that when he retired he would become a much more serious painter and writer.

I worked in the office with Alex for a little over a year before I became the director of Veterans Benefits and moved to VVA National Headquarters. During my time as appellate attorney and director, I frequently asked Alex to write an article or to allow us to write an article about him for this publication. He always said, “Not now, when I retire.” In his retirement he also planned to complete his memoirs, which I looked forward to reading.
Alex was a trooper. He came into the office almost every day. Whether feeling good or bad, he was there helping veterans on his own time. It’s not too often you find an attorney who will work for free—let alone an attorney educated at Yale and Harvard.

I was always certain that Alex would retire in the not-so-near future and spend his days with a brush or a pen in his hand. His passing is a huge blow to veterans everywhere.

David L. Houppert, Esq., is the current director of VVA’s Veterans Benefits Program.



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