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By Kurt Anthony King

Legal News

When she graduated from Harvard University Law School in 2003, Jocelyn Benson wanted to use her law degree as a tool for helping people.

"It was a critical element for my purposes that everyone is given a fair shake in the legal process and the political process. I went to study election law, which is the area of law I practice today," explained Benson, 34, of Detroit, who graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College and as a Marshall Scholar with a graduate degree in sociology from the University of Oxford in England.

Benson, who was raised in Pittsburgh, is the founder and director of the Michigan Center of Election Law, based out of Wayne State University, where she is also an associate law professor. Additionally, she is a member of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Election Law and the author of the 2010 book, "State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process."

Her credentials don't stop there. Benson ran for Michigan Secretary of State as the Democratic candidate in 2010, but was narrowly defeated by Ruth Johnson.

"I've always seen the political process as an avenue to change," said Benson. "As I developed my practice in election law, I discovered the federal government is limited from the legal and legislative standpoint that everyone has full access to vote. The critical guardian over voting is the Secretary of State, who is the chief election administrator and chief enforcer of election law. I could never run for office for the sole purpose to run for office. For me, it was a strong desire to get into that position. The only way to get it is run for office, which I did."

Another title Benson now bears is military wife. Her husband of six years, Army Spc. Ryan Friedrichs, an Ann Arbor native and fellow Harvard alumnus, is currently deployed in Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Wanting to help others who are in the unenviable position of being a military spouse, Benson founded Military Spouses of Michigan earlier this year. This organization is dedicated to building a network of support services for military spouses and their family members. Benson pointed out since there is no strong active duty base in Michigan, family members feel alone and isolated. They also don't have any access to the Family Readiness Group resources readily available to them if they were stationed on active duty bases.

"Our military families are scattered across the state and often don't recognize one another until we are introduced in the right context. For this reason, it can be extremely isolating and wearing to face deployments, PCS (permanent change of station, where families move to a new duty assignment, which tends to be every three years), and other types of uncertainties without the shared experience of others," explained Tracy Wharton, a founding board member and the current treasurer of MSoM.

Wharton is the daughter of an army colonel and has siblings currently serving in the military.

She added: "Facing (the challenges of military spouses/families) in isolation is a difficult stressor. MSoM was created around the motto, 'We've got your back.' We want families to know that they are not alone, however much it might feel that way sometimes."

Despite its name, all family members--not just the spouse--are welcome, whether their loved one is in the military or is a military-connected contractor. MSoM is also different from other military family support groups because it's connected to referral sources for pro-bono legal assistance for military families.

Military spouses, partners and families often need legal counsel or representation as they seek to access their rights or protections promised to them under the law. In addition, many legal problems--some unrelated to military service--may emerge while a soldier is deployed or stationed away from their home. MSoM also provides free legal consultation and, if needed, representation for spouses, family members, and veterans.

"My vision is for MSoM to be a regular referral for families in Michigan with enough visibility that people know they can join a group where they will be supported and understood in their context," said Wharton. "I want for us to have a vibrant group that involves both an online discussion/support form and an in-person social group."

For further information, go to www.milspousemichigan.org.

Published: Mon, Oct 15, 2012

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