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Returning veterans will now have access to free legal help from nearly 40 lawyer volunteers through a new committee formed by the Nassau County Bar Association. Dubbed the Veterans Legal Advocacy Project and headed by general practitioner John P. Reali, a former Marine Corps reservist, the group will take pro bono cases ranging from divorce and child custody to employment issues and bank foreclosures. While it is unlawful to foreclose or enter and attempt to collect a default judgment on someone who is overseas on military duty, that sometimes happens, said Mr. Reali. “We’re going to serve as a clearinghouse and refer them if they need help with a criminal matters, or their car got repossessed. It’s just a way to support our troops in a time of need,” said Mr. Reali, of Jericho, citing an example of two California Marines who had their vehicles repossessed while on the front lines. “It’s a question of what we can do to make their return home easier.” Nassau County has around 87,000 veterans and Suffolk County has about 100,000, said Edward G. Aulman, who heads Nassau County’s Veterans Service Agency. Around 4,500 Nassau veterans have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent study by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government found that the conflicts there will produce at least 2.5 million veterans nationwide before combat ends. “There are a lot of middle-aged guys that have been in the reserves for years, and are now getting called up and activated,” said Mr. Aulman, adding that a large number of requests for legal help come from soldiers and marines on active duty. “When they come back, their job is not waiting for them and in the past we’ve referred them to the Department of Labor, but now there is the opportunity for private attorneys to get involved and help. The thing that we were missing for a number of years is a legal advisor.” The Suffolk County Bar Association has had a committee on military law for some time. It is currently headed by Supreme Court Justice John C. Bivona ( See Profile). “No one’s really reached out to us,” said the judge, in his second year as chair of the committee. “Veterans do have many sources of information available to them, but we have the capability to provide advice and service if requested.” For Patricia Manzo, the challenge is personal. An Army brat who married a combat Marine, the Jericho lawyer feels a strong emotional connection to veterans returning from the front lines with little fanfare and even fewer resources to help regain a sense of normalcy. “If I could help anybody in any way ease their way back into civilian life, that’s the goal,” she said. “Veterans, like mothers, are the backbone of the U.S.” A current client of Ms. Manzo’s returned home after an 18-month stint in Iraq to a divorce, a scenario that happens far too often, according to Ms. Manzo. “A lot of the time what they do need is some form of counseling, how to put their lives back in order,” she said. Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Edward W. McCarty III ) has been deployed twice – once to the Persian Gulf in the Gulf War in 1991, and the second time to Haiti in 1995. Surrounded by military memorabilia during a recent interview in his Mineola chambers, the judge recalled eating breakfast in the desert while air raid sirens were going off, signaling an incoming attack. “I asked the young soldier next to me, ‘What do we do?’ and he said, ‘Finish breakfast, sir,’” said Justice McCarty, who dove for shelter in a nearby bunker when the shelling hit close to the base. “That’s when I thought, ‘Just days earlier, I was back in Hempstead, now I’m running for cover in the desert.’” The judge was unscarred by his time in the Gulf War, but many soldiers return home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, some to the point where they can no longer function in their jobs, said the judge. “Our goal is protecting the rights of returning veterans and also to sensitize members of the bar to the issue of . . . personal and professional challenges that deployment can cause,” said Justice McCarty. Federal law provides that employers may not deny employment, re-employment, promotion or other benefits based on military service. But the veteran as a civilian employee is often caught in limbo, struggling to adjust to a job from which he was absent for a long period of time, yet uncertain if he will be called up again. That makes readjustment difficult for both employer and employee. “There’s a host of problems there that we need to make people aware of,” Justice McCarty said. Similar Initiative The Nassau lawyers are not the only attorneys working to alleviate veterans’ problems. Last month, nearly 100 volunteers came together in Manhattan to form the New York City Bar Association’s Veterans Legal Clinic. ( NYLJ, Oct. 26). That clinic will provide free legal help to veterans whose annual income is less than three times the federal poverty level, as determined by the Department of Health and Human Services. That level is currently $10,210 for individuals in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C., rising by stages to $34,570 for a household of eight. Lance D. Clarke, president of the Nassau County Bar Association, said that while he was not aware of the city bar efforts, this is a fortunate coincidence for veterans seeking legal help. “It’s not over when the veterans come home. I wish every bar association would do something like this. We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude,” said Mr. Clarke, who stressed that the Nassau organization will strive to point vets in the right direction to solve their problems in addition to taking cases pro bono. “Veterans are not necessarily protected unless someone advocates for them.” For more information about the Nassau veterans advocacy program, call 516-747-4832. - Vesselin Mitev can be reached at [email protected] .

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