COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – South Carolina's military veterans gained access Saturday to free legal help filing or appealing benefits claims with the Veterans Administration.
The Richland County Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division teamed up with Service Members and Veterans in Law, a student organization at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
The two groups launched Richland County's Project Salute. Volunteer attorneys, many of whom have served in the military, planned a session to advise veterans about benefits and the claims process, and answer questions.
Organizers say the event Saturday at the University of South Carolina School of Law's Columbia campus is their first in the state, and they hope to schedule more. At least a dozen veterans attended, said organizer and attorney Will Harter.
“We are very happy with how everything went and look forward to building the program moving forward,” Harter said.
The 33-year-old attorney is a former Marine Corps helicopter crew chief who served for five years from 1998 to 2003 and deployed to Japan and Iraq.
After returning to South Carolina to attend the university, Harter said he went on to get a law degree, as have several others who are working on the effort.
The students from the law school aren't able to provide legal advice, which is left to the volunteer attorneys, but they helped organize the event.
South Carolina is host to eight major military installations. In all, there are nearly 133,000 uniformed military members, civilian Department of Defense workers and military retirees living in the state.
The Veterans Administration requires attorneys who assist veterans to be admitted to the bar and have three hours of specific training about its processes, Harter said.
While the volunteer attorneys are able to provide legal guidance, the law students have helped by putting out fliers, contacting veterans' organizations and reaching out to military veterans among the region's homeless population, Harter said.
Harter said the new joint program is patterned on one first established by the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
John Wall, president of the law students' group, said his fellow students learned about the Detroit program and decided it would be a good fit for South Carolina.
About half a dozen attorneys and students had webinar training during the past week to prepare for the event, Harter said.
The attorney said the groups plan additional programs, maybe even reaching out to other bar associations in the state.
“It's been challenging, but the support we've gotten so far has been pretty impressive,” Harter said. “Our plan is to use this as a launching pad and then determine what kind of need there is in this community and others around the state and go from there to see if it needs to expand.”
Susanne M. Schafer can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap