For the second year in a row, Fort Leonard Wood’s legal assistance team was named a winner of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff Award for Excellence in Legal Assistance.
The announcement was made Aug. 6 and highlighted the team’s hard work throughout fiscal year 2019 in going above and beyond to assist eligible clients throughout the Fort Leonard Wood community with their personal legal affairs in a timely and professional manner.
According to Gary Chura, chief of client services, the award evaluators consider the quality of services, innovations to provide better service, professional development of staff and the quality of the office’s preventive law program. He said teamwork has been key to the program’s excellence.
“I just think we all contribute,” said Gary Chura, chief of client services. “It’s a team atmosphere and our clients know we’re all working together for them. This award is gratifying because it shows we’re doing things right.”
Chura said one of the highlights of the fiscal year was the formal in-court representation for five clients in cases of domestic violence in the Pulaski County Circuit Court, including hearings on full orders of protection and one case involving credible allegations of child and adult abuse.
“The chances of success for a victim of domestic violence in state court in a full order of protection proceeding are significantly increased by attorney in-court representation,” he said. “It’s a big help for those victims because attorney representation levels the playing field dramatically.”
Chura said the attorneys and support staff were also able to participate in many professional development and training opportunities throughout the fiscal year to strengthen their abilities to assist clients, including a daylong continuing legal education program at the St. Louis County Family and Domestic Violence Court.
“This better prepared our team to screen for domestic violence issues, understand the issues surrounding the overall societal problem of domestic violence, and represent victims in and out of court,” he said.
On another occasion, legal assistance staff traveled to the Office of the Missouri Attorney General in Jefferson City, Missouri, to meet Brandon Phillips, a consumer fraud prosecutor and director of the office’s Military Legal Assistance Team.
“The group had an in-depth discussion about the private and governmental remedies available and legal elements of consumer protection actions under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act,” Chura said.
Legal assistance referred six cases to the MLAT in FY19, enabling free in-court legal representation for Fort Leonard Wood clients.
Chura has been a Missouri attorney for 27 years and is also an Army Reserve judge advocate. He’s led legal assistance since February 2018 and is a source of continuity for the office. He sees himself as “a mentor and encourager” for the young judge advocate officers on the team – most of whom move on to other roles and responsibilities within the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.
“A lot of times legal assistance is a judge advocate’s first assignment and some of them are a little nervous about this whole client thing and advising people,” he said. “Some are pretty new to the practice of law. So, a lot of times what I’m saying is, ‘you know more than you think you know – you are an attorney, so be confident in your advice.’”
Capt. Mandi Ford, who has spent eight months working in legal assistance, called Chura’s leadership of the team “the gold standard.”
“He goes above and beyond for his clients, and it motivates the rest of us to put in that extra effort,” she said. “We take care of each other and we all like each other. We all enjoy spending time together. It’s good from every angle.”
Ford said the varied experiences gained in legal assistance are invaluable to new judge advocates.
“Legal assistance is hard,” she said. “You are dealing with not only a whole spectrum of civilian areas of law – family law, consumer protection, landlord-tenant law – you’re also learning military specific law and procedures.”
Chura’s promotion of a team atmosphere has been a big help to 1st Lt. Alvand Ghandhari, who joined the Army in January and arrived at Fort Leonard Wood just a few months ago.
“What makes the team function really well is we have an open-door policy,” Ghandhari said. “If I’m with a client, any questions I may have, I don’t hesitate to go and ask Mr. Chura or Capt. Ford to see what they have to say or think about the issue. I call it spit-balling, other people call it collaboration. It’s a great feeling knowing you can reach out to someone to work out the solutions.”
Sgts. Marvelin Shaw and Derrick Brumfield, both paralegals in the legal assistance office, agree with Ghandhari.
“Everybody here is very good at working together,” Shaw said. “Everyone has good communication skills.”
Brumfield added that even through COVID-19, the team is helping the community with legal needs every way they safely can.
“We get to help so many different people with so many different issues,” he said. “We just do our best to take precautions and help out.”
Chura said he’s very impressed with everyone on the team.
“They just want to do so well; they’re so motivated,” he said.