Mission United Veterans Pro Bono Project has provided free legal assistance to approximately 1,500 veterans in Broward County, Florida.

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In Miami, Veterans Are Lawyering Up

Mission United, a coalition of attorneys in South Florida, is bringing much-needed legal aid to underserved vets.

When Guillermo Rose, 70, a retired Vietnam veteran, returned from a four-month trip in Panama, he expected to find his car where he’d left it: in a handicapped spot at the Miami International Airport parking garage, where disabled veterans were promised free parking. But the car had been moved elsewhere in the garage — and Rose had been slammed with a $1,600 bill for the space, far more than he could afford on his disability checks. He made the charge on his credit card and drove home, panicked.

Through his contacts at the American Legion and the VA, Rose heard about Mission United Veterans Pro Bono Project, which offers free legal assistance to South Florida vets. Housed within the Legal Aid Service and the charity United Way, a team of two staff lawyers and 380 volunteer attorneys help 1,500 former warriors, pilots, sailors and marines in Broward County annually with any legal questions they may have. Whether it’s fighting evictions, navigating family court, negotiating with creditors, changing discharge status or contesting parking tickets, the volunteer lawyers will take on any case. Within three weeks, Mission United had persuaded the Miami airport to reverse the charge — a small but important victory to a veteran who once felt ignored by American society.

“When I came back from Vietnam in 1971, they didn’t do anything for us: no jobs, no nothing. As soon as you’d tell employers you’re back from Vietnam, they weren’t interested,” says Rose, a disabled vet. “We’re treated better today than when I was a young guy. It makes me feel good that, finally, they’re helping out the veterans.”

Compared to half a century ago, veterans’ transition back into civilian society has been relatively smooth. While far from perfect, more medical options are available, the GI Bill still guarantees free college, housing authorities expedite applications from homeless vets, and job training can follow a tour of duty. Missing from that list, though, is legal help, which can affect everything else, note the attorneys who started Mission United three years ago. An improper discharge, for example, could limit a vet from receiving valuable benefits, or it might be misinterpreted by prospective landlords and employers as being found guilty before a court-martial.

This extra bit of know-how can be essential as veterans try to get their affairs back in order after years at sea or fighting abroad, adds Melissa Malone, a spokeswoman for Mission United. “These young men and women left their homes, their bank accounts, their family and kids. They left their lives here, and oftentimes, they put someone else in charge of it,” she says. “When they come home, it’s been a length of time and things might not be the same as before. Perhaps they have PTSD or some other war zone–induced challenges.” Seeing off-the-charts suicide rates for post-combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, Malone wonders how many took their own lives because they felt mired in a situation where a lawyer could have intervened.

While some critics take issue with the program offering help only to veterans, its volunteers see an underserved population with a unique set of circumstances. Repeated experience working with the Department of Defense or a VA hospital allows the project’s attorneys to develop an expertise, says James Heaton, Mission United’s lead lawyer. The situation often necessitates “some specialty,” and that only comes from “dealing day-to-day with the issues facing veterans,” he adds.

Heaton says the project developed from a long-seated desire to work in public service. After graduating law school and moving back home to Broward County, he contacted several veterans groups to volunteer his time. When Mission United asked him to take a full-time position developing legal assistance for former military, Heaton says he couldn’t refuse. “I went all in, and I haven’t had any regrets since.”

These days, Heaton is working on expanding the model nationally. He presented the idea to other United Way chapters earlier this year at a conference, and he discussed building a national network at a recent summit hosted by the American Bar Association. While nothing is officially on the books, Heaton says he’s already seen a glimmer of what a national network could accomplish when he calls colleagues across the country to ask if similar legal developments are popping up in their communities. “It’s not only a network for veterans, but also a network for professionals.”

That’s good news to Rose’s ears. He never expected to need legal help, but he recognizes that only an expert could have helped him reverse the airport’s steep bill. “I’m just happy Mission United helped me out,” he says. “And I’m glad to let other veterans who might need legal help know where they can find it.”

Heaton emphasizes that former service members helped civilians by honorably serving our country. Mission United’s legal aid, to him, is simply paying back what we owe in return.

The Mission United Veterans Pro Bono Project is a recipient of the 21st Century Solutions grant powered by the NBCUniversal Foundation, in partnership with NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The grant celebrates nonprofits that are embracing innovative solutions to advance community-based programs in the areas of civic engagement, education, environment, jobs and economic empowerment, media and technology.

Homepage photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.