Legal office recognized by American Bar Association

Law Award

JUNEAU, Alaska – Cmdr. William Dwyer, left, Petty Officer Second Class Evelyn Stumpf, Petty Officer 3rd Class Akeem Micheli and Lt. Cmdr. Greg Versaw received the 2011 Distinguished Service Award from the American Bar Association’s legal Assistance for Military Personnel on behalf of the 17th District legal office on June 18, 2012. The legal office handled 535 legal assistance matters in 2011, despite the significant challenges of operating in the nation’s largest state while understaffed. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Caitlin Goettler.

Story by Caitlin Goettler

 The 17th District legal office was awarded the 2011 Distinguished Service Award by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel in recognition for its efforts in legal assistance on June 18, 2012.

The 17th District legal office is responsible for providing operational and regulatory advice to Coast Guard units, in addition to legal assistance for all military personnel across the state of Alaska.

“There’s really not a typical day,” said Lt. Stan Fields of the 17th District legal office. “We could be responding to anything as far as something operational that develops. There could be military justice issues that arise or personnel issues.”

However, the Distinguished Service Award is specifically for legal assistance, which entails aiding service members in personal legal matters such as divorce, child custody, estate planning and designating a power of attorney. Legal assistance also includes representing service members in disputes with landlords and debt collection matters.

“It’s a service that is provided to all members of the armed services, retired or active duty, and their dependents,” Fields said. “We’ve helped folks from the National Guard, the Army, the Coast Guard and retirees from all of those services as well.”

In 2011, the 17th District legal office experienced a billet gap, where they were down to only three attorneys instead of the usual four to represent the 3,000 service members across the state. However despite this understaffing, the office handled 535 legal assistance matters in addition to meeting the day-to-day demands of the District.

“The volume of legal assistance that we provided in 2011 was one of the highest throughout the Coast Guard, but we had the fewest attorneys that were actually here,” Fields said. “We were still trying to provide support to individual members while at the same time trying to keep up the operational, military justice and personnel type support.”

Even with a full staff, the legal office still faces many challenges that are unique to Alaska. The sheer size of the state and distance between the staff and their clients is something the office must constantly work to overcome.

“Our units are spread out all over the place,” Fields said. “It limits our interaction, so I think sometimes our members might not really know a lot about or feel like they have access to the legal assistance.”

Because of this, the legal office must conduct outreach and sends civilian attorney Rich Harris from Kodiak to various places across the District to help members with legal matters. In addition, the staff is working to make more information available online and developed an electronic will questionnaire to expedite the estate planning process.

Even with such challenges, the legal office hopes to continue to their effort to provide assistance to service members.

“We like to be able to help our members out,” Fields said. “We want them to know that they have these rights, and they can seek legal assistance from our office.”

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