Michael Pasquale has never served in the military, but his father and both of his grandfathers were Marines. Still, it was not their service that led Pasquale to begin working with injured war veterans.
It was a 46-year old civil engineer and “weekend warrior” – those U.S. reservists who are normally called to duty to deal with natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes – who returned from an unexpected deployment to Iraq in 2006 a changed man. A father of two, the man had been deployed to Iraq two years earlier, when troop levels were low, and reserve units were being used to fill in the gaps. Shortly before his return home from his second deployment to the country, the soldier was blown unconscious by a mortar, causing a traumatic brain industry, destroying the hearing in both his ears, and tearing every major joint in his body. He is no longer able to draft the blueprints he once did for a living, and he gets lost in his own hometown.
The army, Pasquale said, kicked him out because he was too disabled to serve anymore, and gave him a mere ten percent of his disability pay.
An associate with McCarter & English at the time, Pasquale represented the veteran in a military hearing, working pro bono. “We had a hearing at Walter Reed and got him 75 percent of his military pay, pension for life, and healthcare for him and his family for life.”
Since then, Pasquale has been working – entirely pro bono – to help bring hundreds of war veterans the pay and benefits they deserve. In June, he left McCarter & English and started a Montclair-based non-profit legal aid group, Officer of the Courts, so that he can devote all of his efforts to providing free legal help to injured veterans facing discharge or a loss of benefits.
When disabled veterans return home, they are subject to a bureaucratic morass of paperwork, and arcane laws and legal issues that require dealing with several different governmental agencies, including the Department of Defense, Veteran Affairs and Social Security. It’s a process that can be stressful for anyone, let alone for someone who has just returned from combat with a traumatic physical or psychological injury.
“Over the last 14 years, over a million people in the service have been injured,” Pasquale says. “There are over 250,000 with traumatic brain injuries and over 150,000 with PTSD. These numbers are not going to go away for generations.”
Right now, says Pasquale, there are 10,000 service people in army alone waiting to hear if they’re going to be discharged because of an injury. Currently Pasquale is helping 20 of them and many more have reached out.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done as an attorney,” said Pasquale, a 1988 graduate of Montclair High School who now lives in Sussex County. “Once you represent one warrior, word spreads quickly. I never advertised and the phone has not stopped ringing in last ten years. People know the poor can’t afford attorneys. The middle class can’t afford them either. Attorneys are officers of the courts. They have the duty to promote justice.”
Officer of the Courts, which has its office on Church Street, and another satellite office in Washington, D.C., has a board that includes several well-known Montclairians, including Peter Zorich, who grew up with Pasquale, and philanthropist Rose Cali.
“Whether you’re for or against war, the wounded veterans coming home are having a difficult time navigating the system,” said Zorich. “A lot have to fight just to get health benefits and pensions. When Mike asked me if I was interested in getting involved, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a worthy cause and it’s the least we can do to try to help wounded veterans get the benefits they deserve.”
On Sunday, Pasquale will be honored in the City of Philadelphia’s first Veterans Day Parade. Because Pasquale has represented many service members there, the City issued an official proclamation recognizing and honoring him for “his dedication to helping members of the Armed Forces and veterans with service-connected disability claims” and expressing its “sincere admiration and respect.”
Pasquale has also been recognized by the New Jersey State Bar Association, which awarded him its Annual Distinguished Legislative Services Award in 2010. He was also the recipient of the 2013 Super Lawyers Pro Bono Award, the 2013 New Jersey State Bar Association’s Military Support Award and the 2014 New Jersey State Bar Association’s Pro Bono Award.
But for Pasquale, it’s not about the awards.
“How many people have taken a bullet for you or jumped on a bomb for you?” he says. “If that happened in real life, how would you treat that person afterwards? You’d hold them in high esteem; you’d treat them with respect. But that’s not happening when you deal with a government agency.”