Frank Stevenson 2016-05-29 23:50:15
Not Length But Height On June 16, 1946, a small New England college gathered to dedicate a memorial to its sons lost to the two World Wars. Their families were there, along with fellow students and faculty. It is unlikely anyone present did not grieve for at least one name carved in the Chelmsford granite disk centered in a flagstone belvedere—a lovely but unsparing reminder of so much young life and prospect gone. It fell to John McCloy, a trustee of the college and recent assistant secretary of war, to redeem such an achingly tragic occasion. McCloy—himself a veteran—acknowledged that the fallen had sacrificed their opportunity to “strive for gain and personal contentment” as most people do. But he cautioned: We do not measure man’s life by its length but by its height. It’s a challenging observation—that our lives might ultimately be measured in this alternative way. Not just how long we lived—or even how we lived—but what we lived for. A distinction that author and New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks describes as existing between our exterior “résumé virtues” of career and our internal “eulogy virtues” of character. Having just observed Memorial Day, I wonder if any community within our society better embodies this principle than our veterans—the women and men who, in our time, hazarded life’s length for height by answering their nation’s call as selflessly as the ones McCloy honored exactly 70 years ago. At a free legal clinic organized by the Austin Bar Association, two dozen veterans are lined up even before the doors open. Clutching packets of paperwork, they wait for help from Texas lawyers. Doug Lawrence, managing attorney for the Austin Bar Foundation’s Veterans Legal Assistance Program, notes the unrelenting need for more and more attorneys to give up their time to aid our veterans. Still, not one veteran is turned away. The Houston Bar Association has offered weekly veterans legal clinics since 2008 and is a leader in training volunteer attorneys in veteran-specific legal needs. Our colleagues there even give packages to homeless veterans at Christmas— another palpable expression of their concern and gratitude. Building on the Houston model, the State Bar of Texas and then-President Terry Tottenham started Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans in July 2010. Tottenham—whose manner forever proves “former Marine” the crowning oxymoron of our native tongue—approached TLTV with characteristic ooh-rah ardor. Since TLTV began, more than 6,800 volunteer attorneys, paralegals, and law students have served more than 22,000 veterans through local bar and legal aid organization clinics throughout Texas. More than 30 bars and legal aid providers currently participate statewide, supported by committed volunteer attorneys who have dedicated thousands of hours of pro bono service—hours taken from life’s horizontal axis and applied to its vertical one. As in many aspects of our profession, Texas leads the nation in promoting access to justice for veterans. Legal organizations in 24 states and the District of Columbia have requested our TLTV Clinic in a Box containing everything needed to host a veterans legal clinic. At a recent national conference of state bar officers, a speaker was asked how to address the justice gap afflicting our veterans; “look to Texas,” she responded. At first it seems really hard. As lawyers, so much of our careers must be lived along life’s horizontal axis—the years to complete our education, make partner or promotion, advance in the size of deals closed or verdicts won, billing by the hour. Who has time? But while a disproportionate number of issues addressed by TLTV pertain to will preparation, family law, and securing military benefits, the legal needs of veterans are as diverse as anyone else’s. Thus any Texas lawyer has something to offer a Texas veteran. And while the fear of a long-term commitment keeps many attorneys away, TLTV doesn’t require that. Consider how 15 minutes of your advice might free a veteran of some profound burden—and thus how such a small withdrawal from one of life’s axes might generate such a huge dividend for the other. When John Harryman returned from service in the Marines, he felt like a “shadow on a wall.” Reflecting on his TLTV experience, our fellow Texas lawyers seem to have addressed needs well beyond strictly legal ones. “It just means so much that anyone would volunteer their time,” Harryman said. “What you do may not be a big deal, but the fact that you offered is tremendous.” Dispensing our time might do as much good as dispensing our advice. Less than a month before his tragic death, President John F. Kennedy spoke at that New England college, at the behest of his friend and adviser, John McCloy. He referenced “those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion” conferred upon those privileged by education—essentially you and me— but that unless we’re “willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.” Perhaps our TLTV colleagues are returning those qualities to our nation, as Kennedy urged. Or perhaps they are responding to high virtues placed years ago in their hearts. Or maybe they seek more of a life measured in the same distinctive way as the veterans they serve. Not length but height. FRANK STEVENSON President, State Bar of Texas For more information, go texasbar.com/veteransvolunteer.
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