May 18, 2024
Fighting for Vets

Photo: Veterans Legal Collaborative

Dan Hendrickson (left) stands with three officers of the Sauls-Bridges Post 13, which hosts a legal clinic for veterans that's been commended by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Economic Backbone: Law

Fighting for Vets

A Tallahassee team goes to battle for veterans in need of legal help.

Laura Cassels | 7/19/2023

Remember Operation Just Cause? Perhaps not, but U.S. Marine Corps veteran Gregory Pruitt will never forget it. Known officially as the 1989 Incursion into Panama, the monthlong U.S. invasion to depose Panamanian dictator and drug trafficker Manuel Noriega left Pruitt with injuries that nearly derailed his life as a civilian — chronic pain and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, among them.

“I had anger/aggression problems that led to some brushes with the law. I couldn’t stand civilians. I lost jobs,” Pruitt explains while helping out at the Tallahassee Veterans Legal Collaborative, a weekly walk-in legal clinic at the American Legion Sauls-Bridges Post 13.

Other veterans at the event who have had brushes with the law are deep in conversation with attorneys and legal aides who are trying to help them sort things out. Several vets are arranging to perform community service hours that will clear their delinquent court fees. Others are in line to work with paralegal Delores McCoy on getting their driver’s licenses reinstated.

Pruitt, who has been on the receiving end of such assistance, is here to support others.

Held every Thursday, the collaborative provides local veterans in need of legal help an opportunity to meet with attorneys who work for them for free. Attorney and collaborative President Dan Hendrickson, a few part-time paid staff and a legion of volunteers help dozens of veterans such as Pruitt navigate the Veterans Administration to secure benefits and to resolve legal troubles, which can be barriers to employment and housing.

Hendrickson served as assistant public defender for 25 years in the 2nd Judicial Circuit based in Tallahassee. Over the years, he grew increasingly concerned about defendants whose legal problems are rooted in mental illness or behavioral disorders, which includes veterans, especially combat vets and others injured in the line of duty.

In 2013, he founded the North Florida Veterans Stand Down Legal Program, assembling an array of service providers for a military-style weekend at the North Florida Fairgrounds to tend to homeless and at-risk veterans. The now-annual events offer food, clothing, haircuts, health screenings, employment counseling, mental health counseling and more. Hendrickson made sure the events include free legal services and even arranged for formal court sessions at the fairgrounds.

In 2015, the team successfully advocated for the establishment of the Leon County Veterans Treatment Court, which specializes in diverting veterans away from criminal charges and into drug and alcohol treatment, mental health treatment, job placement, peer mentoring and other supervised support programs. Pruitt graduated from the court program with a dozen of his peers and has a clean slate.

In 2017, Hendrickson refined the group’s mission and changed its name to the Tallahassee Veterans Legal Collaborative, launching the weekly walk-in legal clinics at the Legion Hall. It secured two years of state funding for a Veterans Legal Clinic at Florida State University, in which approximately 100 law students gained experience in veterans legal affairs.

The collaborative has assisted more than 2,000 veterans with legal challenges, helped 270 vets earn back their driver’s licenses and resolved more than $100,000 in veterans’ delinquent criminal and civil court fees. It conducts 50 weekly clinics per year and has coordinated more than 300 clinics since its inception. It has applied for a VA services grant to expand its work. — By Laura Cassels

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