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Legal Assistance Office earns ‘Silver Star’ of ABA awards

For the first time since a devastating fire 20 months ago, the post’s Office of the Staff Judge Advocate is back under one roof.

The considerable efforts it took to reach that point were acknowledged this summer when the American Bar Association presented the Fort Benning Legal Assistance Office with the 2009 Legal Assistance for Military Personnel Distinguished Service Award. It’s handed out annually for exceptional contributions to the armed forces legal assistance effort.

The award citation recognizes the post legal team’s “extraordinary resilience and capacity to adapt to adversity while keeping pace with a high operational tempo” in the aftermath of the February 2009 blaze that destroyed computer systems, files, trial records, equipment and personal items. The fire caused nearly $10 million in damage to the OSJA headquarters, which had been the second-oldest building on Fort Benning.

Shawana Topekia Pierce, a former Fort Benning civilian employee who had worked at the OSJA office, was sentenced to seven years in prison last October after pleading guilty to arson.

“Many of the civilian employees had worked in Building 5 for over 20 years and lost everything that was inside,” said LTC Meg Foreman, the staff judge advocate. “(The award) recognizes the tremendous efforts of the OSJA team in reorganizing and reconstituting with virtually no impact on the client services mission.”

Neither she nor LTC Jeffery Lippert, the deputy staff judge advocate, was here at the time of the fire. But they lauded the personnel who managed to crank up operations again — almost at full capacity — about three days later.

“It took near superhuman effort on the part of the entire office,” he said. “They were digging through rubble, getting temporary furniture and physically moving it themselves, re-creating critical files from burned computers. It was a Herculean effort.

“I think the entire post was stunned that people could walk into the temporary office three days later and get a power of attorney or will, and talk to an attorney.”

The LAMP Award ceremony took place July 29. On Friday, the OSJA celebrated reunification at its new headquarters in Building 2839, an old Basic Officer Leader Course II barracks on Way Road. LTC Foreman said it was the third move in 18 months for many staff members, who had also occupied Buildings 4 and 35 since the fire.

The national award is ABA’s equivalent of the “Silver Star,” LTC Lippert said.

“It’s more about perseverance and determination to provide legal services to the Soldier,” he said. “The ABA chose to single out our office this time because we maintained that high level of service despite the destruction and trauma of having all our stuff burned up.

“It’s very nice recognition for people who work in legal assistance and the rest of the office for sacrifices they made — the time they put in, working weekends and overnight trying to get stuff back together, and still maintaining their good spirits and positive attitude in regards to service.”