Helping The Local Heroes

June 20, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The goal of the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) Pro Bono Program is to help West Michigan’s real heroes. And the creators of the program are hoping that at least 400 local attorneys will volunteer their time and talents to serve them while they serve the nation.

The OEF pro bono effort plans to provide free legal services to all reservists, National Guardsmen and civilian emergency personnel, and their families, who are pressed into active duty as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The legal services will cover most aspects of daily life such as stopping evictions, protecting against mortgage foreclosures, and writing wills and trusts.

All these actions, and more, can be initiated on behalf of those actively serving the nation under the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act of 1940. Reservists and members of the National Guard are protected by the law when they are on active duty.

The program has the blessing and cooperation of the Grand Rapids Bar Association and the State Bar Association of Michigan. OEF also has drawn the interest of the Federal Bar Association of West Michigan, which is funding the program, as are grants from the GR Bar and in-kind donations from The PrintSource.

Jim Redford, a partner at Plunkett & Cooney and a commander in the Naval Reserves, came up with the idea for the OEF program after receiving a number of calls from reservists after the attacks. He first contacted Joe Rossi, an attorney with Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge and a reserve line officer with the Marines, as both Redford and Rossi provide legal assistance to area reservists.

“He and I talked about it and we both sort of thought that we might get recalled ourselves. So we needed to get something in place in the event we’re activated that service members who are in the process of being activated would be able to obtain the necessary services, given the obvious disruption to their personal and professional lives,” he said.

Redford, who is also a Naval judge advocate and an executive officer of a large unit in the nation’s capital, then turned to neighbor and friend Bruce Courtade for help. Courtade, a partner at Rhoades, McKee, Boer, Goodrich & Titta, started and managed a prototype pro bono program for servicemen and women during Operation Desert Storm. Courtade was honored for his work by the state bar with the John W. Cummiskey Pro Bono Award in 1991.

“I knew of his really huge efforts during the gulf war to help service members,” said Redford. “So I decided to get a hold of Grand Rapids Bar Association President Dale Ann Iverson. We talked about what I perceived and Joe Rossi perceived as a possible need, and she told us to establish some sort of ad hoc committee.”

Shortly after that conversation, the OEF Steering Committee was created with Redford, Rossi, Courtade and David Carrier, a Rockford attorney who served in the Army, co-chairing the effort. The program came together rather quickly, only a week after the attacks.

“She was very supportive of the idea,” Redford said of Iverson. “And Bruce was the go-to guy because he had the program’s template.”

More than 350 local lawyers got involved with the Desert Storm pro bono effort organized by Courtade a decade ago. About 80 families received legal assistance from that program.

“We did everything from setting up nonprofit corporations so they could do fundraising and get those tax advantages, to helping people that were facing eviction from their landlords. We helped one reservist whose wife filed for divorce and tried to get the kids when he went to Saudi Arabia. We got a stay put in place then,” said Courtade. “And we did a lot of wills and trusts for the reservists before they left.”

In all, Courtade said he put in 400 hours of work into that effort and other attorneys accounted for another 400 hours. Added up, the Desert Storm program gave area reservists about $150,000 worth of free legal services.

“We’re really not sure whether this program is going to be more involved or less involved. It just depends on how the military operation falls into place,” said Courtade. “With Desert Storm it was an immediate call-up of a lot of people for a fairly limited duration. So it was a lot of work very quickly.

“With the scenario that we’re facing right now, my guess is that there will be fewer reservists called at any given time. But there will be a number of call-ups over a substantial period of time,” he added.

Attorneys interested in getting involved with the OEF pro bono program should contact Andrea Smith, lawyer referral and information services coordinator for the local bar, at 454-9493. Reservists, guardsmen and public safety workers can get their questions answered by also calling Smith. Law firms and any local companies that wish to make a monetary contribution to the effort can do so by calling the bar at 454-5500.

As for the program itself, Redford said it’s ready to go if it’s needed.

“If we’re fortunate maybe it’ll be a service that is not needed at all. But just to be able to be in a position where it’s ready is, I think, very worthwhile,” said Redford.

“We’re getting contacts from people on the east side of the state, from the Air Force JAG, the Air Guard JAG,” he said. “Everybody is in a position to try to provide the resources, the materials and the information necessary to help out service members and their families and the volunteers in the fire department and the public safety people, who are also involved.”

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