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Veterans get help from Hofstra law students

Iraq war veteran Randal Jernigan, of Huntington, shakes

Iraq war veteran Randal Jernigan, of Huntington, shakes hands with Rogerlyn Velez, CEO of Angels for Warriors as Hofstra Law School on Sunday, March 9, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

Army veteran Roosevelt Morring has faced a thicket of legal entanglements since he lost his job as a manager at Verizon in 2006. No money had been withheld from his $60,000 severance package, so he had a large tax bill. Borrowing against his 401(k) further snarled him with tax troubles. And an application for disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been stuck in limbo for more than a year, leaving Morring, who is legally blind and walks with a cane, with little money.

Morring was one of 43 veterans who sought advice Sunday at a free legal clinic organized by Hofstra law students with the school's Veterans Legal Assistance Project, at the university's campus in Hempstead.

Morring met with two volunteer attorneys who, using information Morring provided when he registered for the clinic, had a tax repayment plan tailor made for him. Later, a law student helped him prepare his 2013 tax return.

"Just their knowledge and expertise, they had their game plan in place when I walked in," said Morring, 45, who served with active duty, National Guard and Reserve units until his eyesight forced his discharge two years ago.

"I loved it," said Morring, who lives in subsidized veterans housing in Garden City. "I came home and recommended it to my neighbor."

The clinic was organized a year ago by five Hofstra law students -- four of them recent veterans -- who recognized that ex-troops sometimes struggle to acclimate to civilian life once they leave the military's tightly structured environment.

"That's why I'm so enthusiastic about this," said Tom Manzi, 30, a student volunteer from Port Jefferson. A former Army recruit, Manzi cleared roadside bombs in Afghanistan before enrolling at Hofstra Law last year. "I see these guys in here and I know what they went through downrange. I know they need help."

Because most Army enlistees join before they reach legal drinking age, and have their housing, medical and other needs provided for, many leave the service with scant understanding of household budgeting, credit scores or navigating marital problems.

After years of relatively low pay, frequent relocations, long periods away from spouses, or combat stress, former troops often find themselves facing broken marriages, tangled finances, landlord-tenant disputes, car repossessions, homelessness or other legal issues.

"Being in the military, it's almost like living under your parents' roof," said Morring, who joined the Army when he was 17, was stationed in Germany, and struggled with credit problems after his discharge four years later.

The Hofstra program, offered one day per semester, is seeking a grant that would allow it to expand into a full-time veterans law clinic like the one run by Touro Law School. Touro, in Central Islip, is the only full-time law clinic serving Long Island's more than 150,000 veterans.

Some attendees sought the advice of Army Reserve Col. Gary Port, a Garden City military law specialist now in private practice who donated his time. He offered guidance to veterans with a less than an honorable discharge -- which can block veterans from receiving VA medical care, disability payments or GI Bill school aid, and often makes finding work more difficult -- on how they might have their status upgraded. "This has always been a problem," Port said of punitive military discharges. "And it's going to get worse as the military downsizes and needs to get rid of people."

Engelbert Morales, who served five years with the Marines after emigrating from Guatemala at 11, saw a counselor at the clinic for advice on upgrading his green card status to full U.S. citizenship. "It was very helpful," said Morales, who is studying engineering at Hofstra on the post-9/11 GI Bill.

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