Q&A with Stephen Paul, CARPLS Staff Attorney for the Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network (IL-AFLAN)

July 3, 2024

The Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network (IL-AFLAN) hotline was launched in 2016 and founded by the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF). 

IL-AFLAN helps service members, veterans, and their families with their legal issues. For the most part the top civil legal needs fall into the broad categories of housing, family, and consumer law issues. In addition, veterans often need assistance with VA benefits and appeals and discharge upgrades. Call 855-452-3526 or visit https://ilaflan.org/ if you need help from IL-AFLAN.

We have a dedicated staff of attorneys and paralegals ready to help. One of those attorneys is Stephen Paul. Stephen is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. We recently sat down with Stephen, who told us about his time in the Army and his work at CARPLS. Read about his experience below.

Tell me about your time in the military. How long were you there?
My total service was from 1988 through 2021. I retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. I was in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), the legal corps for the Army, for most of that time beginning in 1995..

So you already had a law degree when you joined the military?
No, I actually enlisted in the Army in 1988 while in the middle of college. After basic training, I entered ROTC as a non-scholarship recipient. When I graduated from college, I was commissioned as an officer, and then went to law school for three years. After I graduated from law school, the Army took me to active duty for initial officer training, from 1993 to 1994, immediately after having been sworn into the bar.  I started practicing law in 1994, first as an Assistant State’s Attorney. I joined JAG while I was a state prosecutor and was in the JAG reserve thereafter.

How did you come to work at CARPLS? And how long have you been working here?
I’ve been here since 2021. I was looking for a job to do after retirement from the military. I’d been working in private practice for a number of years but knew that since I had mostly moved onto different areas of work and interest in service work, that I didn’t want to return to private practice long-term. I applied for a New Leaf position with CARPLS but ended up being hired for the IL-AFLAN hotline. I spend about 80 to 90% of my week on the Armed Forces Legal Aid project, and the rest is on the general CARPLS hotline.

And then what do you like most about working on the IL-AFLAN hotline? And what would you say is the most challenging part of working with those clients?
The most rewarding thing I get from my work is the numerous opportunities to help veterans who are within a legal struggle.  I like that as a statewide program that I feel very connected to the statewide veteran community. It’s nice to be able to help people wherever they’re at and connect them with whatever resources that IL-AFLAN has available. CARPLS/IL-AFLAN leadership encourages making sure things are done right, with a high level of focus on ensuring that veterans are connected to all the services that will assist them, even if there is a need to expend the extra time to accomplish that. 

The biggest challenge is meeting the military veteran community’s higher-level expectations because their life experiences are so different from the non-veteran experiences. Their expectations are much higher than the average person’s in some respects, but also because they’re so much higher, they’re harder to meet. The military veteran has a high level of expectation of how things will get done, the expected results, and when those expectations are not met because the non-military world does not meet their concept of military correctness, the veteran will experience a lot of anxiety over the process.

How does your military experience affect your interactions with the clients?
While I carry around all those same things, I have my own sets of anxieties, angst, and expectations. Having been a relatively senior officer in the military, I’m used to being listened to, which at times is fine, but other times it does take some active thinking to say, I’ve got to listen to this person, explain to me what it is they need to in the fashion that they can, so that I can get the information that I need. That’s one of the things that the military did teach me is to focus on the problems that they’re having that you can solve, solve those, and get those addressed. Then, if you can, thereafter help them with their other problems. 

For example, I had a veteran calling worried about their car, but during the conversation, they indicated that the issue with the car would also affect their housing. After we completed the conversation with respect to the vehicle, I was able to pivot the conversation to the veteran’s housing anxiety, and was able to connect them with some resources to help them with their housing issues. The IL-AFLAN service encourages recognizing issues beyond the legal, and after addressing the legal problem, try to ensure that the veteran is connected to other services that might be able to assist them in ways that are beyond the legal.

What would you say is the single most important piece of advice that you would impart to a service member who is transitioning to civilian life?
There are two things that they need to pay attention to: One, the civilian world is trying its best. There’s no animosity there, they are not trying to make the veteran’s life difficult or not give them credit for their service. There may be a lot of misunderstanding because they don’t know what you’ve been through or what you’ve experienced, but the civilian population is genuinely trying to help. 

Second, the military member needs to understand that while the military has a very clear set of rules for almost everything, the civilian world doesn’t have that clearly delineated by rank hierarchy and regulations. As a veteran, you have to accept that, and cope with there is a framework there but is less clearly defined and oftentimes for a veteran more challenging to work with. I would tell a transitioning veteran they will feel most fulfilled if they endeavor to continue to benefit society by being in the service to society, and a leader that people want to work with.  For most veterans, they identify greatly with their service, and want appropriate recognition for that service.  Most veterans recognize that they do receive that, but the most fulfilled veterans are those that continue their service beyond their finite military career, and continue to contribute and serve their communities.

Are there any specific client stories that you would say have left an impression on you?
There’s probably a handful of successes almost every week or month. I try to remember those successes, for what they are, and sometimes it is the veteran’s successful guidance and resolution that is the focus.  Success may be just being a good sounding board for the client to recognize what they need to do and focus on a path forward.  Sometimes, success is more immediate, like connecting the veteran with homeless veteran resources.  Other times, it involves helping the veteran understand their best options for establishing or maintaining a presence in their children’s or family’s lives, or how to best address criminal or quasi-criminal issues.  Every week IL-AFLAN will help veterans fix their military records, discharge characterizations, connect them with the correct resources to establish VA disability claims, or appeal the denial of any of these claims.

As an IL-AFLAN/CARPLS attorney the accolades don’t show up on a daily basis, at times callers will express disappointment. I knew when I started with CARPLS that would be the case, so I am not disappointed. I am happy knowing that I helped somebody at the end of almost every phone call. Very rarely do I feel like I didn’t help the person at the end of the phone call.

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