ABC7 Salutes local lawyers who offer free legal help for veterans

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The staff at Veterans Legal Institute represent veterans in a variety of cases. (KABC)

Veterans face many challenges when they return home.

Sometimes those challenges involve legal issues, which unresolved, can hold veterans back from finding jobs, getting homes or even finishing their education.

But hiring a private attorney can cost thousands. That's why Dwight Stirling decided to try and do something about it. With his partner, Antoinette Balta, the two founded the nonprofit Veterans Legal Institute (VLI).

As a veteran himself, Stirling knows all about sacrifice and service. The former Navy JAG officer joined the Army National Guard shortly after 9/11.

It was after he returned from service that he and Balta, a fellow JAG officer, founded the nonprofit.

"A lot of our veterans are low-income," Stirling said. "They can't afford 400 to 500 dollars to pay for a private attorney."

The staff at VLI represent veterans in a variety of cases, from employment, to housing, to domestic issues -- as well as helping to clear up past legal issues.

"So, what we do is we come in and we tell the story for the veteran to the court, or the employer or the landlord," Stirling said.

They get about 10 applications a day, and Stirling says no matter the case, they try to help -- and it's all free.

Lawyer Allison Higley is part of the team. She says they're always looking for more volunteer attorneys who are willing to take on these pro bono cases.

"There's no shortage of military families that could use help, " Higley said. "A lot of times you're dealing with very strained family structures because of issues with PTSD or maybe a deployed spouse."

One client who is glad there's legal help for vets is Dwain Zanders. He served in the Marine Corps and returned home to start a successful career in real estate.

But he got very sick, and after rounds of seeing various doctors, he was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. However, as the disease progressed, he couldn't work anymore, and he struggled with financial issues and other problems.

He heard about Veterans Legal Institute from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I really appreciated all their help, and I don't know what I would do without them because I'm sure if I were to go to regular counsel, I wouldn't be able to afford it," Sanders said.

For Stirling, helping his fellow vets is his mission.

"What better thing can a lawyer do than to advocate for the rights, for the protection of those who served the country," he said.
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