Project SALUTE—Lawyers Serving the Needs of Those Who Serve Us All
By Lee Matthews
Lee Matthews is an assistant editor of The Affiliate.
Anne Frank poignantly wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” At the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law (UDM Law), improving the world began one year ago with a free legal clinic to help local low-income veterans with federal benefits issues. When a Detroit Free Press article highlighting the program hit the newsstands, the first call from a veteran came in at 6:12 a.m. that same morning. As Mark Gordon, Dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, tells the story, “Suddenly, within two weeks, we had 600 veterans in need come to us for assistance.”
A Volunteer Network
Now, Project SALUTE, as the clinic has come to be known, has grown to a network of 500 volunteer UDM law students and local attorneys, serving over 2,000 veterans across the country. According to Dean Gordon, nearly 50 percent of these veterans served in Vietnam, 20 percent served in the Gulf War, and approximately 5 percent served in either World War II or the Korean War. The vast majority of the remaining clients served recently in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Dean Gordon rightly stated, “No matter who you are, or what your politics are, we all agree that we need to help the veterans. Project SALUTE offers great training, great service, and a wonderful way for attorneys to contribute.”
And thanks to a team of five charitable executives at General Motors Corporation, all of whom are veterans, UDM became the only law school in the country with a Mobile Law Office (MLO). The MLO is a recreational vehicle outfitted as a law office, custom designed and outfitted by GM at a cost of $100,000. The MLO allows volunteer attorneys to conduct client interviews in any city in a confidential environment.
The MLO’s first stop was San Antonio, Texas. One hour before students and faculty arrived, forty veterans were waiting in line for assistance. And in Jacksonville, Florida, Project SALUTE estimates that attorneys met with nearly 400 veterans. Since that first stop, the Project SALUTE MLO has logged over 40,000 miles traveling across the country! For Professor Tammy M. Kudialis, the Director of Project SALUTE, the project has literally become a family affair. “The driver, Ohlen Baird, is my father and his co-pilot, Beverly Baird, is my mother who also makes all of our travel arrangements. You might say it is somewhat of a family affair for me. I believe they would provide you with an interesting perspective on how touched veterans are to see Project SALUTE rolling down the highway and pulling into town.” In coming issues of The Affiliate , we will share some of their stories. And we will bring you stories from the veterans whose lives have been dramatically changed by Project SALUTE’s volunteers.
For now, Dean Gordon explains the response of the veterans, “The sense of gratitude that somebody is listening to them and trying to help them is overwhelming and remarkably satisfying.” He continued, “You cannot help but be moved by their stories. One student was moved to tears.” Alesa Silver, Project SALUTE’s Event Coordinator, said of Project SALUTE’s stop in Chattanooga, Tennessee: “The community really answered the call. We are always seeking to expand our network of local attorneys. The Chattanooga Area Veterans Council did a fantastic job of getting the word out. And somehow, in every city we visit, the word manages to get around.” Explaining her experiences, Professor Kudialis added, “You get a good sense of what is going on around the country. The veterans are in need of help, and so many communities are stepping up to the plate. The response has been remarkable.”
Professor Kudialis summarized what to expect as a volunteer, stating, “Project SALUTE provides a full day of training in federal benefits law, typically involving federal disability and pension benefits matters. Once the training is completed, lawyers are assigned to conduct client interviews and assist their clients in pursuing their cases.” Professor Kudialis further explained that many veterans are receiving legal assistance for the first time in their lives. Some cases may involve educating veterans about their benefits and filing a claim on their behalf for the very first time. In other instances, the case may involve a previously denied claim for benefits. The remedy for the case may be straightforward, such as filing the proper paperwork with the government or correcting a deficiency in a previous filing. In more complex matters, claims may involve either litigation or appeals. A case can last from six months to two years, depending on the nature of the claim.
Find a Way to Participate
Speaking with Dean Gordon, Professor Kudialis, and Alesa Silver, you cannot help being struck by their passion, dedication, and patriotism. As young lawyers, our lives can become overwhelmingly busy. We are trying to meet billable hour requirements or manage enormous caseloads. We have briefs to write, arguments to make in court, and deals to close. We have family commitments. And we constantly strive to find a balance between work and our personal lives. Regrettably, for many of us, pro bono service gets moved to the backburner. We all want to help and get involved; however, something else is always occupying our time. Project SALUTE offers a rare opportunity for us. We can serve our country, serve our profession, and, most importantly, serve those in desperate need of help who gave so much for us all. Now is the time to heed the call to action, make the time, and find a way to participate. Be the first in line to help when the Project SALUTE MLO rolls into town. The rewards are immeasurable.
For more information on becoming a Project SALUTE volunteer, visit the program web site at . Click on the Volunteer Today link to register. In addition to registering, the website offers a wealth of information about the project, including scheduled stops, blogs from student volunteers, and contact information for the Project SALUTE leadership. You might be amazed at the number of lives you can touch through this innovative and exciting project.