New Jersey State Bar Association - The voluntary Bar Association of New Jersey, serving members since 1899.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 11/25/08
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Program That Helps Vets Nees Volunteers

A CALL TO SERVICE

Program That Helps Vets Needs Volunteers

Sgt. James Lawler is from a family of soldiers.

As a young man, he served in the Army for four years. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks he joined the New Jersey National Guard. In 2005, he went to Iraq where he escorted prisoners and dignitaries from city to city, coming under attack dozens of times. Once, he got close enough to a roadside bomb that he could see the colors of its detonator wires.

Lawler came home with a collection of injuries, among them an ankle so shattered that the weight of a single bed sheet caused him excruciating pain. Yet, the Department of Defense found he was only partially disabled.

“The Army decided I was no longer of use to them,” said Lawler, 42, of Moorestown. “I was furious. … I was worried, asking myself, ‘What was my future going to be?’”

Desperate for help, Lawler turned to the Military Legal Assistance Program, an outreach project of the New Jersey State Bar Association that provides free civil legal help to veteran reservists of Iraq and Afghanistan. With the program’s aid, he retired from the service earlier this year with full disability benefits and health care.

“They basically saved our family because we wouldn’t have made it with what the army had offered. We would not have been able to stay in the house. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s our house,” said Lawler.

The assistance program was formed through the bar’s Military Law and Veterans’ Affairs Committee in conjunction with McCarter and English. For the past two years, it has helped soldiers navigate the justice system as they worked through disability claims, child custody issues, support payment disputes, and employment problems.

This week, when the state’s jurists gather for judicial college, the program and issues facing soldiers will be a focus of discussion. Federal judges will turn their attention to the program next month at a conference.

“Things are picking up,” said retired Brig. Gen. William Greenberg, the McCarter partner who spearheaded the program. “There aren’t sufficient military lawyers to deal with the everyday problems of life for them and their families … We are trying to make sure that if trouble comes a soldier’s way while he is overseas that we’ll handle it. And we’re gearing up for the inevitable problems when they come back home.”

LAWYERS WANTED

Today, more than 4,000 New Jersey soldiers are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in the reserve components of the armed forces, including the largest deployment in 50 years of the state’s National Guard. And with a steady stream of soldiers being shipped out and still others coming home, the legal assistance program is poised to take on an even greater role in the lives of New Jersey’s veterans.

The program is picking up steam. The bar’s board of trustees recently elevated the military law and veterans’ affairs committee to section status. But more lawyers are needed in the program, organizers said.

In the last 18 months, over two dozen cases have come to the program. Now, more cases are being added every day.

“The problems are increasing, not decreasing and we will be inundated,” Greenberg said.

New Jersey State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner praised the program’s mission.

“We applaud and support the efforts… in making certain our citizen-soldiers get needed legal assistance before, during and after their deployment overseas. The many lawyers who have volunteered their time and expertise exemplify the noblest tradition of the legal profession,” Rabner said.

The project has attracted volunteers from some of the state’s biggest law firms, said Greenberg. About 20 McCarter lawyers have signed up so far.

Other firms include Bridgewater’s Norris, McLaughlin and Marcus, and Lum, Drasco and Positan in Roseland. In addition, attorneys at McCarter are also working with lawyers from Lowenstein Sandler, in Roseland, to develop a manual on military law for civilian attorneys.

HELPING HANDS

Longtime family lawyer, Michael Stanton is a Navy veteran but doesn’t have a military law background. The Bridgewater lawyer has handled about eight cases, including one in which he had to get an emergency custody order drafted for a female soldier. She was about to be sent overseas and needed to make sure her husband could get custody over her child from another marriage. The work, said Stanton, is professionally and emotionally satisfying.

“There are some complex cases. And there are just some heartbreaking circumstances,” he said. “I’ve been doing this stuff for 29 years and this is the best I have felt about my work, ever. Nobody deserves it more than they do.”

Soldiers going overseas or returning home face challenges that run the legal gamut, from issues with creditors to marital disputes. Their struggles are compounded since military lawyers do not typically appear in court for soldiers on civilian matters.

The result is that cases can sometimes drag out.

Representing himself, Sgt. David Scott’s case languished for nearly two years since his return from Iraq. He was seeking disability benefits with the federal Veteran’s Administration.

That’s when lawyers from the assistance program stepped in. Within a few months, the administration said the Essex County man deserved lifelong benefits, said Michael Pasquale, of McCarter and English.

“Because of your help not only did I receive (a) favorable decision but it is far more than I expected,” said Scott in a note to his attorney. “Thank you does not seem enough for what you and this firm have done for me and my family, both me and my wife feel that when we had nowhere else to turn you and your team extended a helping hand.”

As for Lawler, the Moorestown soldier, he is trying to figure out what comes next.

Growing up in South Jersey, he always figured military service would be part of his life.

“It’s what I always wanted to do,” said Lawler, who worked as a police officer and in private security.

In Iraq, he completed 420 combat patrols and was nominated for several honors, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

But his injuries mean he won’t return to a battlefield. He has plans to write a book and hopes that down the road he’ll be able to go back to work.

One thing he does know is that without the help of the legal assistance program, his prospects would be less promising.

“I probably would have ended up a homeless vet somewhere. They provided us with security,” said Lawler, who is married with two children. “They provided us with nothing more than what we deserved from the military, but economically they provided us with a life.”

The New Jersey State Bar Association incorporated in 1899 is dedicated to the continuing education of lawyers and the public, to reforming and improving the legal system, to encouraging participation in voluntary pro bono activities and to aiding in the administration of justice. Visit the Association’s website at www.njsba.com.