For the last four years, thousands of volunteer attorneys in Texas have provided free legal services to more than 13,000 low-income veterans and their spouses.
It’s another busy afternoon as vets gather on the second floor of a student center at Tarrant County College’s South Campus.
Air Force veteran Erin Yeazel is in the crowd.
“The most nerve-wrecking part was getting the information verified because you're not sure what's going on, and how many people are going to be here," she said.
The single mom is weeks away from giving birth to her second child, and well, she’s concerned about her delivery.
“When I was on active duty, there was always a JAG lawyer that was there," Yeazel said. "And now it's like I don't have any money to pay for this, and all I have is questions right now. I thought, do I have to re-do my will? Do I have to do a whole new one? Where do I start?
Truthfully, she says, she didn’t know this program even existed. Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans is an all-volunteer group, with almost no money to advertise its services.
“It’s disheartening because we’re like we’ve been here for four years," she said.
But she recognizes that many veterans don't visit Veterans Affairs offices or have transportation to get to pro bono clinics. Rivera says vets can call and make appointments, and regardless of income, at the Tarrant County clinics, a veteran can walk-in and get a free 20- 30 minute consultation.
“They put themselves and their family in the line for each one of us," she said. "To me, it hits home. My father was one. My grandfather was one. My father-in-law is one. You see, as you grow up, the struggles that they have to go through. Sometimes they just need you to tell them where to go."
Volunteer attorneys like Jeff Whitfield of Kelly Hart and Hallman has helped vets with bankruptcy, divorces, commercial litigation and more.
“I bet if somebody analyzed our cases, they’d have a great commentary on the economy," he said.
Whitfield is a veteran too. He served as an officer in the Air Force. In 1996, he witnessed a deadly terrorist attack at a housing complex in Saudi Arabia.
“I think about the young people that I served with," he said. "And they come in, and they look like their world is about to end. In a very simple conversation, you can give them comfort, you can give them hope. The legal system is not out to hurt people, it's out to give structure to society, and if you find the right help, you can deal with anything you face.”
Dan Mooney was once a homeless veteran, with a criminal record.
“I had a possession of a controlled substance," he said. "Which means if it was in my possession, I was probably possessing it in some form. I was addicted to drugs.”
He described himself as a functioning addict. But that was 20 years ago, and his case was dismissed. It remained on his record, making it hard to get a job. Through Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans, he got his record expunged. And now he’s hoping to get into law school to help other veterans.