OBA initiative helps veterans with legal problems
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
- Organization: Tulsa World
Almost an hour before the doors even opened, the veterans arrived - soldiers from so many wars, falling into line on a scorching August morning for a free, one-day legal clinic in Muskogee.
At 9 a.m., more than two dozen veterans, spanning four generations, were ready for their interviews. Their presence underscored a cold reality - sometimes a soldier's toughest battles, the personal ones, are fought on the home front, long after the war has ended.
By the time the five-hour clinic wrapped up at 2 p.m., representatives from Oklahoma Lawyers for America's Heroes, a year-old initiative created by the Oklahoma Bar Association, had either assigned out a veteran's case to a volunteer lawyer or given advice on the spot.
One visitor that day was an 83-year-old World War II veteran who had lent money and couldn't get it back despite repeated calls, requests and demands.
The lawyer who interviewed him was outraged over the older man's plight. This could be fixed, he thought, so he took the case himself. Within the week he had recovered the borrowed money for his "client" and gone one step further, setting up an estate plan so the veteran would not be taken advantage of again.
The legal services for those two dozen veterans all were provided for free or at a very low cost. A grant from the Oklahoma Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the OBA, offsets many of the filing fees and legal expenses.
Oklahoma has one of the highest per-capita military deployment rates in the nation as well as a growing military population - active duty or veterans. Many are beset with hardships: joblessness, debilitating injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, strained or failed marriages, consumer issues, foreclosures, mounting debts, difficulty obtaining timely veterans benefits. Some are even in trouble with the law. Many probably have felt that they had nowhere to turn for legal advice, or that they couldn't afford services.
As a lawyer of 20 years in Eufaula, Deborah H. Reheard had dealt with such problems on behalf of clients long before she became OBA president almost a year ago.
Those legal difficulties nagged at her. She and a whole lot of other members of her profession strongly believe that those serving the country deserve far better. So, she pledged that helping veterans would be her top focus as OBA president. Even before she took office Jan. 1, Oklahoma Lawyers for America's Heroes was off the ground, its creation announced on Veterans Day a year ago.
"We put out a call to arms," she said. "In February, 250 lawyers turned up in Oklahoma City for a one-day training session, each pledging to volunteer at least 20 hours of pro bono legal services."
This volunteer army of attorneys grew to 400 and, at last count, at least $1.5 million in free legal services had been donated to 600 veterans.
"Just as no one is left behind on the battlefield, no one who has given honorable service to this country will be left behind in the legal system," Reheard said.
Readjusting to life back home can be difficult for any veteran who has served in a combat zone. When that service is combined with depression, PTSD, a traumatic brain injury, life can unwind quickly, she said. The initiative has specially trained attorneys who can deal with most issues, including criminal cases, and may be able to divert a veteran from prison to treatment.
If there isn't an initiative lawyer in a particular county, Reheard said, a call goes out for help and "someone always steps up."
The program has received national attention and become a model for other states hoping to help their military. OBA's program celebrates its first anniversary Friday, on Veterans Day. More help for veterans, active military and, in some cases, their families, will continue.
"The response has been overwhelming," said Reheard, who was a speaker at an event marking the deployment to Afghanistan of the 3,200 members of the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.. When those troops return, Reheard wants initiative lawyers geared up to help them.
Oklahoma Attorneys for America's Heroes couldn't come at a better time. The need for its services is great and ongoing. Organizations such as Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, where veterans might have turned, are struggling with funding cutbacks and fewer personnel.
"The initiative actually could use 400 more attorneys," Reheard said.
If that call goes out, she's confident that it will be answered.
"Nobody," Reheard said, speaking from experience, "ever says no."
By Julie Delcour, Associate Editor