COLUMBIA — While deployed to Iraq, Army Ranger Phillips McWilliams led patrols searching for roadside explosives and huddled with local leaders to help keep the peace.
Now back home in South Carolina and enrolled in law school, the 29-year-old is searching for other military veterans who are practicing attorneys or law students and willing to help their brothers and sisters in arms.
“There’s definitely a need. An unprecedented number of veterans are filing claims with the VA, and they probably need help with it,” McWilliams said.
The Columbia native has become president of a group called Service Members and Veterans in Law at the University of South Carolina. He and several other veterans hope to build a network of colleagues willing to give their time.
They have found dozens in this state capital and university community, and hope to reach out to law firms across this military-friendly state.
South Carolina is host to eight major military installations. In all, there are nearly 133,000 uniformed military, civilian Department of Defense workers and military retirees who live here.
The group has several goals, McWilliams said. He wants law schools to look at and accept military veterans as students; he also wants to build a network of students and attorneys who can help veterans assimilate into the educational system.
“We also want to create a group of practicing attorneys, and encourage them to do pro bono work” on veterans’ or service members’ behalf, he said.
McWilliams recently organized a get-together for several dozen members.
“I’m reaching out to attorneys and several have expressed an interest in helping,” McWilliams said.
As an example of the work he hopes the group can do, McWilliams decided to recognize the work of a local attorney who has devoted hours to helping military men and women in the community.
West Columbia lawyer William Edwards, of the firm of Moore, Taylor and Thomas was given a plaque.
The 34-year-old Edwards conducted about 225 hours of legal work on behalf of local soldiers and their families over the past 18 months, primarily dealing with landlord-tenant or other real estate issues.
Edwards said service members can find themselves in a dispute with a landlord if they are called upon to suddenly deploy, or if they can’t get a deposit back when they have to change duty stations. Or they may be a landlord themselves, and have problems with a tenant while they are deployed overseas.
“Usually a phone call, or a letter, that takes care of it,” Edwards said. “I’m pleased to be helping in some small way.’”
While having never served himself, Edwards said members of his family have, and so have members of his law firm.
“It’s particularly hard to deal with some issues if you are deployed and your family is left behind,” he said. “I just want to be able to give the service member some peace of mind.”
Cindy Coker, the public services director at the South Carolina Bar Association, recommended Edwards for the award.
“Will’s become our go-to guy,” Coker said. “He never tells me, ‘no.’ He’s been extremely generous.”
Dorothy Edgerton, an attorney who is the chief of legal assistance in the military legal office at nearby Fort Jackson, said the military is very grateful for the assistance of local attorneys.
Military attorneys working in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, as it is called, aren’t licensed in the local courts and can’t represent soldiers or family members involved in certain legal matters.
“We are very lucky to have the support from the legal community that we do have,” Edgerton said. “It shows you how pro-military our state, and the bar association, is,” she said.
McWilliams said there are many reasons for military veterans to get together, and he hopes they can build a nexus of attorneys to draw on. He said the group hopes to work on a golf tournament, with benefits going to the Hidden Wounds nonprofit organization that helps veterans deal with the lingering psychological trauma of combat.
“We just want to be able to get out, get together and enjoy a special bond,” McWilliams said.