Program offers free legal help to Michigan military families

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By Nick McWherter
LANSING – When a landlord insisted that a Michigan soldier and his pregnant wife couldn’t break their lease before the soldier was about to be deployed, a free legal help program for military families came to the rescue.
“They didn’t break the lease right away; they actually waited for her to have the child before they moved into a new place,” said Army Staff Sgt. Steven Schultz. “The landlord was telling them that they had to pay out the remainder of the lease in exact opposition to the service member relief act.”
The mess was cleared up with the help of Cooley Law School’s Service to Soldiers: Legal Assistance Referral Program. The organization provides lawyers to people in the military who are deploying, deployed or within six months of returning from deployment.
The program addresses diverse legal problems, including those stemming from soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Kathy Lawrence, administrative assistant at the Center of Ethics, Service, and Professionalism at Cooley Law School.
“That is why actually the program is so helpful to them, because soldiers that really need the help, instead of just throwing them in jail or whatever, then we can find them treatment programs that help with the anger issues or the stress that they are going through,” she said.
The school supplies a list of attorneys throughout Michigan willing to help soldiers. There are 180 attorneys providing the assistance. Cooley also sends volunteer students to meet with soldiers to assist with wills and power of attorneys and give briefings on soldier’s rights before deployment.
“To be able to give back to someone that stands guard for you, I mean we have a piece of mind because of those people,” said Lawrence. “How could you not want to do all you can for them? I absolutely love the program, and totally believe in it.”
The program has assisted approximately 2,500 people in the military. A total of 3,147 wills and powers of attorney have been administered for soldiers before deployment. Another 307 were referred to attorneys in Michigan and 128 were given legal advice by Cooley Law School.
Family law and credit issues are the most common cases but these volunteer lawyers can assist in a number of legal issues, according to Cooley officials.
Service to Soldiers is available to men and women in every branch of the military. In 2010 Michigan’s Department of Military and Veteran Affairs presented the legal assistance referral program with the Legion of Merit Award, on the highest recognitions granted to civilians or service members.
“It has been a huge help to our organization, absolutely,” said Schultz, who works with the group for the Army. “It really is critical to have that help in place, so that when they are deployed they can focus on their mission and they don’t have to worry about those things back here.”
The program cannot assist people attempting to avoid deployment or with military discipline matters.
“When I was deployed I was fortunate enough to have a very good support system through my extended family back here to take care of my house, and my car and making sure my bills were paid,” Schultz said.
“But so many of our soldiers just don’t have that. A lot of them are young and single and don’t have extended family that they can count on to do those things. Having someone that can help them get all those tools in place before they go, it really does add a piece of mind that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Schultz.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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