Project SALUTE has positive impact on veterans-- Program has held more than 65 clinics across the state

By Mike Scott

Legal News

More than 800 veterans in the state of Michigan have received assistance from Project SALUTE at the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) School of Law. But with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ongoing, such needs are only continuing to grow.

The efforts of a dedicated group of lawyers have kept Project SALUTE top of mind around the area. Combined with the law school's Veterans Law Clinic, the two UDM-run programs are designed to address the compelling legal needs of veterans around the state. The programs focus on veterans' federal disability and pension benefits through education, law student representation, and pro bono attorney referral.

Thus far the clinic and Project SALUTE organizers have trained more than 300 statewide lawyers to serve as pro bono advocates on behalf of these veterans. As of early August, there were approximately 140 lawyers working on client cases. And Project SALUTE has held more than 65 clinics for veterans around Michigan so far this year, with 35 more scheduled for this fall, said Executive Director Tammy Kudialis.

"You may think of the Veterans' Administration helping older veterans who served in Vietnam, Korea and even World War II but Afghanistan is the longest running war in U.S. history," Kudialis said. "More than 36,000 troops have been wounded in action (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and all those veterans need our help.

"They had our back when our country needed defending and how we need to have their back. That is why we do this."

The typical Project SALUTE client is a Vietnam veteran but many of the clients are sick and need immediate medical assistance. Without their disability and pension checks, it can be hard to afford the medical attention they need to get well. That goes for veterans of all ages, as many clients who have served one or more tours overseas this decade have suffered PSD or other brain injuries hindering their ability to function normally.

"This is a group of people who have immediate needs and they may not even know where to go to get their benefits," Kudialis said.

Project SALUTE has also trained legal aid organizations around the state on how best to handle client needs and get veterans the benefits they are owed, Kudialis said. It can be difficult for veterans to even understand what they are eligible for without such personal assistance.

That's where volunteer lawyers and law school volunteers come in. Project SALUTE hosts monthly Web-based training programs for volunteer lawyers that are available in either three or eight-hour segments, which allow volunteers to understand how they can help and the information they can provide veterans. On average around 100 second and third-year UDM Law students also help clients through the program, with many of the students directly handling client cases.

Volunteers to Project SALUTE come from all backgrounds -- from corporate attorneys at Fortune 500 firms to sole practitioners who are starting their own firm. Many of the volunteer lawyers have a direct link to veterans, family members such as parents, siblings and sons or daughters who have, or currently do serve in the military, Kudialis said.

"There is an attraction to helping our veterans but I don't think most people understand the need," said Kudialis, a UDM Law graduate who is passionate about the subject. "We see many of our volunteers come back and take on more difficult cases because it is something that you can lose yourself in. Seeing some of these cases makes you feel heartbroken."

The numbers are staggering. There are more than 90,000 new veterans' benefits claims filed each year with the VA nationally and more than 200,000 pending appeals. Just by taking the fraction of cases involving Michigan residents is significant.

This fall Project SALUTE will continue to remain active throughout Michigan. It will be available to veterans at two statewide stand-down events, which helps veterans with an array of needs. Those events will be held September in Detroit and October in Kalamazoo. Ford Motor's Volunteer Corps will help train volunteer attorneys this fall at Detroit's VA Hospital and Center, providing veterans with times to meet with volunteer lawyers to help them sort out questions about disability and pension benefits.

Project SALUTE also will be involved in helping clients housed at Highland Park's Piquette Square, a housing program designed specifically for veterans.

"We are looking for partners to help spread the word even more," said Kudialis, who also teaches an advanced veterans' law class at UDM Law. "We want to partner with more legal aid agencies and train them on components of (veterans') law so that they can provide valuable outreach, guidance and consultation.

There is a national component to Project SALUTE as well. Since February 2008 students, faculty and staff of Project SALUTE have toured Michigan and the country in a 31-foot Mobile Law Office (MLO), custom designed, built and generously donated by General Motors. During the first year, Project SALUTE's MLO travelled more than 35,000 miles to 22 cities in 13 states.

In this classroom-on-wheels, UDM School of Law students experience a higher level of hands-on training than any other law school currently offers. Along the way, Project SALUTE is also developing a national network of pro bono attorneys to provide free legal services to veterans.

For Kudialis, this cause has become a family affair. Her father, Ohlen Baird, drives Project SALUTE's mobile office. Mother Beverly handles the project's many administrative responsibilities. And husband Kurt, a Navy veteran, also provides assistance.

The Clinton Township resident first became involved with the cause when as part of her LL.M. degree at Stetson University, she had the opportunity to study veterans' law with Judge Robert N. Davis of the United States Court of Appeals of Veterans Claims.

"It's a program that is so necessary and yet you may not think of when you're looking for (pro bono work) as a lawyer," said Kudialis.

Published: Mon, Aug 23, 2010