CINCINNATI – After the warehouse where he worked for nearly three decades closed and he faced the prospect of losing his unemployment benefits, Steve Brannan didn't know where to turn for legal help. An Army veteran, he had no money for a lawyer.
"I didn't know where to turn, and I had to go to a lot of places before I found help," said Brannan, 53, of Wilmington.
He eventually resolved the problem with help from the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, but now, Brannan and other veterans will have help just for them. A call center to open this month in central Ohio will pair low-income veterans, active military personnel and their families who can't afford attorneys with volunteer lawyers providing free representation in non-criminal cases. It's part of what legal experts and others say it a growing effort across the United States to meet the legal needs of those who have served their country, including programs in Maine, Georgia and Oklahoma.
"We need to make sure those who have given so much to our country receive the help they need," said former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton, who retired from the court last year to devote much of her time to helping veterans with mental health and legal issues.
Spearheaded by Stratton, the Columbus-based center is a joint project of the Ohio Military/Veterans Legal Assistance Project and Capital University Law School. It will provide referral service in Franklin, Delaware, Fairfield, Licking, Madison, Pickaway and Union counties, and officials hope it eventually can be expanded across Ohio and perhaps become a model for other areas. To be eligible for legal aid, , the income of the veterans and others seeking help can't exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
"The end goal is to make sure no veteran or service member is denied the opportunity for legal assistance," OMVLAP Director Mike Renner said.
There are no data on how many veterans and service members may need legal assistance in the U.S. But demand will only increase as more service members return to civilian life, said retired Army Col. David Sutherland, who heads the Washington-based Dixon Center, which works to address needs of veterans, military service members and their families.
"About 1,000 service members are leaving the military or being demobilized each day," said Sutherland, and his organization estimates that about 1 million will leave over the next three years.
Though some free assistance for veterans and service members was available through legal aid agencies and other organizations in Ohio, Stratton said she worried that "agencies didn't always know about each other."
"I would like to see all of the state organizations together in one pro bono program," said Stratton."
Established partly with Columbus Foundation funding, Ohio's center will offer help for problems including foreclosures, divorces and landlord-tenant and creditor-debtor issues. About 40 lawyers have volunteered so far.
The center joins similar projects developed by bar associations, law schools and other groups in a few states.
More such projects are showing up every few months, said Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine, a statewide organization that provides free, civil legal assistance to low-income people. Pine Tree also helped create Stateside Legal, a website highlighting unique legal needs of veterans, military personnel and their families and resources to help solve those problems.
Special laws have been designed to protect veterans, service members and their families, but lack of knowledge about those laws can actually create headaches.
"A military family can come home and find their house has been foreclosed on, even though there's a law that says that's not supposed to happen," she said. Stateside Legal works to increase awareness of those laws.
The State Bar of Georgia's Military Legal Assistance Program has helped connect more than 900 people with lawyers since 2009. About half are family law issues such as divorce and child support, said Norman Zoller, the program's coordinating attorney.
"With multiple deployments, it's not surprising that many service members face these types of issues," Zoller said.
As part of Oklahoma Lawyers for America's Heroes program, about 500 volunteer lawyers have helped nearly 1,200 clients since 2010, said Deborah Reheard, former president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, which runs the program.
Reheard, now executive director of the Pros 4 Vets support organization, plans to establish an online clearinghouse to inform bar associations nationwide about existing legal assistance programs and encourage others to start them.
Former Army Capt. Stuart Sparker and Steve Lynch, the only fulltime civilian attorney assigned to provide legal assistance to active military personnel in Ohio, welcome the state's new call center.
Sparker, a law student at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University, says he knows of other veterans faced with child custody questions or divorce, and "without financial resources to hire an attorney, they're stuck."
Lynch says he gets calls frequently from those who need representation and can't afford it.
"I do what I can, but there is no way I can help everyone," he said.