Nov. 3 2010 12:00 AM

Vets get legal help from U of D Mercy Law School

On the morning of Election Day, a mobile law office sat outside the Volunteers of America building in downtown Lansing, providing legal advice for the area’s veterans.

The four-man team – two students, one attorney, and a driver – are all affiliated with Project SALUTE, a program of University of Detroit Mercy Law School. Project SALUTE travels in its mobile law office, a mobile home redesigned to act as an office space donated by General Motors, to help low-income veterans by providing legal counsel aimed at helping them procure their pension benefits and disabilities compensation.

Project SALUTE, which was started in fall 2007, has been to 24 states, counseling as many as 3,000 vets across the country.

Gar Pope, a Lansing area veteran, said he was grateful for the services that Project SALUTE provides.

“It is much appreciated and needed,” he said.

Pope was surprised to learn how many vets there were throughout the country, but said that it was shocking how little was being done for them as far as benefits go.

“There aren’t many organizations that provide this kind of help. There’s too much red tape out there now.”

Another Lansing area veteran, Maurice Barnes, said that he looks for every opportunity that Project SALUTE comes to the Lansing area.

“We have to find these organizations, because no one is telling us,” he said.

Project SALUTE makes it to the Lansing area at least four or five times a year. Tuesday’s stop was an opportunity for vets to come and get interviewed by students and attorneys, talk about their specific situations and issues. That information then goes back to the school, where Project SALUTE later follows up with the vets and if necessary helps to process their claims at the appellate level. It’s an opportunity for Project SALUTE to see who these veterans are and assess their needs.

For U of D legal administration student and disabled vet, Michael McCain, Tuesday was his first day working with Project SALUTE.

“I really like being able to help,” he said,” It is just shocking how much help is needed for these veterans.”

Not only do veterans benefit from Project SALUTE’s services, but it is also an opportunity to give students like McCain real world legal experience, and educate attorneys in veterans’ benefits law. Project SALUTE has counseled more than 600 veterans and trained more than 200 pro bono attorneys in Michigan.

Expanding the network of attorneys trained in veterans’ benefits law is important to Project SALUTE. Battle Creek attorney Robert Walsh, who is an adjunct professor at U of D, said that the court system for veteran benefits is just overwhelmed.

“There are 57 VA offices, 1.3 million claims backlogged in the system, and seven judges to see to the needs of 23 million vets, you do the math,” Walsh said.

Walsh also stressed the importance of vets and their families not to get discouraged, and to keep trying. Walsh said that the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans claims is still a relatively young bar, and that legislation is still changing. For instance, because of a recent lawsuit, some veteran widows can now reopen their claims and possibly collect benefits.

“It’s important for veterans and their families to go see their veteran service offices, and revisit their claims. That money is retroactive,” Walsh said.

Project SALUTE takes its mobile office across Michigan approximately two to three days a week, but the program also services veterans all over the country.

“We’ve been as far west as San Diego, and as far east as the Carolinas, from Miami to the Upper Peninsula,” said Ohlen Baird, the driver of the mobile office.

Tammy Kudialis, the director of Project SALUTE, said that the program has been quite impactful not just in Michigan but in other states as well. Project SALUTE is working with other organizations and law schools to set up similar programs to help the vets across the country.

“We’ve recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars for vets, and trained a growing network of pro bono attorneys now practicing this type of law,” she said. “We’ve opened a lot of doors.”