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WASHINGTON — The University of Detroit Mercy School of Law has launched a national tour of its Mobile Law Office to provide low-income veterans free assistance or representation on federal benefits issues, and is training local attorneys to continue assisting veterans on a local level.

Project SALUTE, which stands for Students And Lawyers (Assisting) U.S. Troops Everywhere, will make stops in cities across the country, and has just finished touring Florida. Tentative dates for Atlanta have been set and additional dates will be added as the tour continues. Updates are available at www.law.udmercy.edu.

“We have had tremendous success since we began our national tour in February,” said Mark Gordon, the school’s dean. “We have seen more than 500 veterans and have trained well over 100 attorneys to handle their cases pro bono.”

Project SALUTE first offers veterans an informational session on getting federal benefits. Interviews are then conducted, giving veterans a chance to state their case. Local attorneys are also offered the opportunity to obtain continuing legal education credits by attending a training session on handling federal benefit issues.

“Based on the training, we then refer some of the cases,” said Gordon. “We refer cases only to those attorneys who are going to do it pro bono.”

Project SALUTE only provides assistance on cases relating to federal benefit issues.

“We are not allowed to practice state law in other states,” said Gordon.

However, local attorneys from the cities visited are stepping up to the plate.

“What we are seeing is local attorneys stepping forward to serve our veterans,” said Gordon. “For example the Houston Volunteers Lawyers Program is not only handling all cases in their county, but they have been particularly proactive in working with us and volunteering their time. They are a real model for the nation.”

Veterans must be present to receive assistance but a toll-free number is being established for call-ins, which in turn will require the development of a system to handle these types of cases.

“But we are not there yet,” said Gordon. “The key item in this respect is our developing the national network of attorneys willing to handle the cases, since, as you may imagine, even with numerous students, we are limited in the number of cases we can handle.”

In Houston, Project SALUTE helped Willie Williams Sr., who was awarded $93,200 in back pay for benefits that had been denied to him. He will receive a monthly benefits check of $2,900.

A letter he received from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows the original award beginning May 2005. The letter also states, “It has been determined that the previous decision to deny service connection for right leg amputation, coronary artery disease and diabetes militias type II was clearly and unmistakably erroneous.”

Williams applied for benefits in 2005 when he learned that his health problems may be linked to the Agent Orange exposure during his tour in Vietnam as an Army Specialist 4th Class. Benefits were denied. He resubmitted in November 2007 and then again in January after being tested again for linkage between his heart disease, nerve damage and the toxic herbicide.

“In 2007 I was told that there was no harm done,” said Williams. “My leg has been amputated three times because of diabetes. There is nothing more hurtful than losing your leg. I’ve also had three heart bypasses and eight back surgeries.”

Williams’ recent local news attention has earned him the name of “Hollywood Willie” among his closest friends but the people who really deserve the attention in this case is Project SALUTE, he said.

“I had never been able to see an attorney because I can’t afford it,” said Williams. “They need to be noted for what they’ve done. Nothing ever got done until I went to Project SALUTE.”

The idea for the clinic originated in April 2007 when the Detroit Free Press ran a story announcing UDM Law’s intention of establishing assistance for low-income veterans.

“The first call was logged in at 6:12 a.m. that Saturday morning,” said Gordon. “Within two weeks, we had heard from 300 veterans. The program has really taken off in terms of interest from veterans and the legal community.”

Originally, the tour was only making stops in cities across Michigan, thanks to a grant from the Michigan state legislature. That all changed when General Motors donated an RV that has been outfitted as a law office following ADA accessibility guidelines, including a wheel-chair lift, oversize bathroom and same-level floor throughout the coach.

“That grant enabled us to start touring around Michigan and we currently have a separate vehicle touring the state of Michigan for this whole year,” said Gordon. “The national tour was made possible by GM’s donating us another vehicle that we are using to go around the country.”

A new group of students is flown in once a week. Gordon says it’s an “eye-opener” for those participating. He believes the experience will also show them how they can use the law to help people in need.

“Our students are also learning what vets have done four our country,” he said. “No one deserves our help more than vets that have served our country. We are serving those who have already served.”

Low-income guidelines used by Project SALUTE

Project SALUTE qualifies low-income veterans by using 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For 2008, that translates to the following:

$20,800 Single individual

$28,000 Family of two

$35,200 Family of three

$42,400 Family of four

$49,600 Family of five

$56,800 Family of six

$64,000 Family of seven

$71,200 Family of eight

Source: Mark Gordon, UDM School of Law Dean

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