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Lawyers recruited to assist armed forces

Desert camouflage, water, poison gas antidote _ what else does the American military reservist need for an assignment in Saudia Arabia? A lawyer.

That is not just another sales pitch from the Bar. U.S. military leaders confirm that personal legal problems contribute to a soldiers' low morale and combat inefficiency.

So the Hillsborough County Bar Association has begun organizing volunteer lawyers to assist soldiers, reservists and their dependents when the inevitable consequences of long-term duty hit home.

"As time goes on, a number of families are going to encounter difficulties," said John Wilcox, a lawyer with Rudnick and Wolfe, who also is a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve who just served a stint in the Mediterranean in support of Operation Desert Shield.

"People are going to have financial problems. They have them everyday anyway. You cut someone's pay for a month, and he leaves his family in a heck of a mess."

Cole Jeffries, a former Navy lawyer, or "JAG" for Judge Advocate General, is co-chairman of the local bar's effort. Jeffries, of Dykema, Gossett, said the regular military legal staff will likely handle most problems, but that the committee may serve as a valuable "clearinghouse, as ombudsmen and mediators."

He said the most basic needs, such as writing wills and powers of attorney, are usually handled by military lawyers.

There is special law, the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act, that protects military personnel from rabid creditors and impatient landlords and hasty employers.

The Act allows for the temporary suspension, without adverse effect on the reservist, of pending legal actions and many administrative proceedings. That means relief from pressing installment sales contracts, mortgages and foreclosures. It even covers spouses and parents who are jointly liable with an on-duty reservist.

One of the biggest concerns of any returning reservist is whether his or her job will be waiting. The law requires employers to keep jobs, although not the precise job, open for active duty reservists for up to four years.

"The bay area has been cooperative" on that issue, said Wilcox. "But statistics tell us there will be problems when they get back."

Last week, the committee handled its first two referrals. One involved an active duty Air Force nurse from MacDill who was sent overseas on short notice as part of Desert Shield, Wilcox said.

The nurse had to put her two children on a plane to Iowa and vacate her apartment on about 24 hours notice. Her landlord refused to return a deposit to the nurse's former father-in-law, who was trying to help her straighten out her affairs, Wilcox said.

After hitting a roadblock with military lawyers, the man heard about Wilcox and Jeffries through a television station, and they were able to get help to get the deposit back.

The volunteer lawyers will be gearing up to help solve tougher issues that often develop in wartime, such as divorce and death.

"If they start shooting and we start having casualties, the problem is exacerbated," Wilcox said. "We'll be settling estates."

Military personnel, reservists and their families who have questions related to Operation Desert Shield service can contact the Hillsborough Bar Association committee at 226-6431.

Bruce Vielmetti, a University of Michigan Law School graduate, covers federal courts in Tampa for the Times.