When injured service members return from deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq, they are welcomed home with mounds of paperwork and stressful proceedings.Instead of focusing on recovery and starting over in their civilian lives, these wounded soldiers have to navigate complex processes the federal government uses to determine their compensation, pension, health care benefits and tax exemptions.
It’s why Michael Pasquale has taken up the cause of helping them through his Montclair-based nonprofit, Officers of the Courts Corp, after two decades at a major New Jersey law firm. Already, Pasquale’s organization has represented nearly 20 injured service members and veterans as they go through their discharge process with the Department of Defense, the Department of Veteran Affairs and Social Security.
“The work I do with the service members it the best thing I’ve ever done in my life as a lawyer,” Pasquale said.
The origins of the work go back a decade, when a pro bono opportunity to help an injured veteran though this process came across the desk of the former McCarter & English attorney.
The case involved a 46-year-old reservist with two teenage daughters coming off of two tours of duty in the Middle East. He had a civilian career drafting blueprints as a civil engineer.
During his second tour, a mortar exploded nearby, sending the soldier 15 feet into the air and rendering him unconscious. When he awoke, his life had changed forever, and it changed for the worse.
He had seven operations on his ears to get his hearing back, but continued to suffer from tinnitus, or ringing in his ears. From head to toe, he had torn muscles and damaged joints. He suffered traumatic brain injuries and endured three-hour headaches every day. He would lose his bearings in his own hometown.
“The man who used to draft blueprints could no longer read them,” Pasquale said.
The Army initially decided to grant this soldier a one-time payment of $7,000. After Pasquale took the case, he was able to negotiate for the veteran to receive a pension equivalent to 75 percent of his base pay for life and health care for his family.
And he received the benefits tax-free.
Word of Pasquale’s work got around, and within a month of completing that first case, he had 10 more just like it. Ten years later, he has helped more than 200 injured service members.
In June, Pasquale left his 20-year, big-firm career to open Officers of the Courts Corp. And while there are many organizations that assist veterans with the latter part of this process, Pasquale said only a handful of lawyers handle the hearings.
“My goal is to raise enough money to hire attorneys who take on more cases,” Pasquale said. “You can’t rely on an attorney’s spare time to deal with this problem. The number of affected service members is just too big.”
The work has helped him fulfill a goal.
“I went to law school to try to do some good,” Pasquale said. “And while I did pro bono work throughout my career, my dreams of changing the world faded away.”
Now he has his second chance.
“The work I do with the service members it the best thing I’ve ever done in my life as a lawyer,” he said,
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