Returning the favor: Legal community extends helping hand to returning troops

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

Every Memorial Day weekend, families across Michigan take time out from planting flowers and grilling steaks to attend small-town parades and listen to veterans' speeches in observance of the true purpose of the holiday--to remember those who have died in military service to our country. First observed in 1868, the national holiday also is a fitting time to honor our living veterans and active duty soldiers, and it reminds us that the troops deserve our support all year long for the sacrifices they make. One way military families feel support is through the Service to Soldiers: Legal Assistance Referral Program sponsored by Cooley Law School.

Since April of 2007, more than 3,000 Michigan military personnel and their families have been helped by this program, which offers assistance with civilian legal matters to service men and women with a rank of Enlisted 5 or lower.

The brainchild of Heather Spielmaker, director of Cooley's Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism, the Service to Soldiers Program offers pro bono services to soldiers who will deploy, are deployed, or have returned from deployment. While family law and creditor/debtor issues comprise the majority of cases, soldiers have been helped with a variety of concerns, including government disability determination and reemployment--all of which can complicate their reintegration into civilian life after a long deployment. Before deployment, soldiers find peace of mind in having their estate planning documents in order.

"With regards to our pre-deployment assistance, this program is very popular not only with our students, who are anxious to help and to get hands-on experience, but also with over 180 participating attorneys statewide, many of whom are Cooley graduates," says Spielmaker, who also credits the Michigan National Guard for its support since the inception of the program. The 220 students who have signed up vie for slots to serve at Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP) events, and they make the 300-mile round trip at their own expense, as do the volunteer attorneys. Many of our staff and faculty also give generously of their time and welcome the chance to give back to those who protect freedom."

Spielmaker says that in the four years since the program was launched, the Cooley staff, students, volunteer attorneys, alumni, and faculty have assisted JAG officers in completing 2,200 wills and powers of attorney for deploying troops. Between the value of these documents and the pro bono cases handled for returning troops, the Service to Soldiers Program and its participating attorneys have provided an estimated $835,000 worth of free legal services for Michigan troops. In May of this year alone, 800 documents were prepared at a value of $160,000.

Service to Soldiers has enjoyed many milestones during its four-year reign. In February 2009, Spielmaker was invited to speak at a Michigan Senate hearing on the needs of veterans in our state. That spring, Service to Soldiers teamed with the Michigan State Bar Foundation and Honigman, Miller, Schwartz, and Cohn LLP to write and publish "The Judge's Guide to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act." Using grant monies from the Michigan State Bar Foundation, this book was distributed to every judge in the state. That summer, the program arranged for deployed Cooley - Auburn Hills graduate Major Miles Gengler to take the lawyer's oath via satellite from Iraq. While then Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly presided over the swearing in ceremony, Gengler's family and friends and his Cooley "family" supported him from 6,000 miles away.

In 2010, the program received the Legion of Merit Award from the Michigan Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. Major General Thomas Cutler, adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard, presented Spielmaker with the award, which is one of the highest recognitions that can be granted to service members or civilians.

Major Kevin Weise, general counsel for the Michigan Army National Guard, commends the program for its significant work in drafting and notarizing wills and powers of attorney for deploying Michigan National Guard soldiers.

"The peace of mind that the soldiers and their families gain from this is especially important when they are dealing with all of the other pressures of preparing for, conducting, and returning from overseas deployments," says Weise.

Weise says the Judge Advocates, paralegals, and Service to Soldiers volunteers work side-by-side to draft the documents and offer advice to soldiers preparing to deploy. Everyone involved in the program is willing to go out of his or her way to make sure the soldiers' needs are being met in a timely fashion, even when that is not an easy task to accomplish.

"One National Guardsman was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease," says Weise. "He wanted to update his will and life insurance documents, but he fell very ill very quickly. The Service to Soldiers Program received a panicked call on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving asking for assistance. The next day, one of the program's volunteer attorneys and Heather's administrative assistant drove 70 miles to meet with the soldier in the hospital. Although the soldier could only communicate through a series of eye blinks, he was able to answer a series of yes or no questions sufficient to establish his intent and indicate the changes he wanted made to his documents. The process took about five hours to complete, but once finished, there was one more soldier who had peace of mind about his legal affairs thanks to the Service to Soldiers program."

Since the program has proved beneficial to so many Michigan soldiers, Weise would like to see it expand nationwide.

"With the increased deployment frequency of Guardsmen over the last 10 years, coupled with the current economy, the number of soldiers who are confronted with pressing legal issues has risen dramatically," says Weise. "Another benefit of the program overall is the increase in awareness of soldier issues and the laws that protect soldiers within the local legal community. Each volunteer attorney or student becomes a little bit smarter about these issues and can end up being an effective advocate for all of our soldiers."

The program welcomes additional attorneys who are willing to provide pro bono services to returning troops. Anyone interested may contact Spielmaker at spielmah@cooley.edu.

Published: Thu, Jun 2, 2011

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