By SPC Ben HuttoFebruary 17, 2009
"It was like watching a piece of their life burning away," said Aletha Friedel after watching firefighters attempt to extinguish the fire that had enveloped much of Fort Benning's Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, Building 5, on Vibbert Avenue Friday. "It was painful."
The blaze, which started around 8:30 p.m., burned well into the night - devouring thousands of pages of legal documents, computers and office equipment.
As firefighters tried to control the blaze, the OSJA staff called one another. Friedel, the chief of claims, drove from her home to see the fire and comfort her fellow workers.
"A lot of us were crying," she said. "We stayed there until after midnight just watching it together. Many of our people had worked there over 20 years."
Anne Norfolk, an administrative and civil law attorney, started working in the building in 1982 as a JAG officer.
"I was so horrified and grief stricken when I arrived Saturday morning," she said. "For many of us, that building had become our home away from home. To see it like that was so hard."
Most of the casework, equipment and office supplies will be replaced in the near future. It is the loss of the personal memorabilia and pictures that causes the most distress.
"A simple claim adjustment form will clear up most of the cost," Friedel said. "For most of us, it is the sentimental loss that hurts us the most. It can't be compensated for financially. The diplomas, the personal pictures, the Army plaques and awards that we had on our walls and desks are gone. How can anyone say what those are worth'"
Nora Weems, an information specialist who had worked at the office more than 20 years, said the toughest part is wondering where to go from here.
"There is so much we have to get back," she said.
Even as the building was still in flames, the SJA leadership was on the phone planning a way forward.
"The Fort Benning community really came together to offer their support to us almost immediately after the fire," said Lt. Col. Karen Carlisle, the deputy staff judge advocate. Phone lines were forwarded, the Directorate of Information Management established a bank of computers, the hospital offered office space and within 13 hours of the fire temporary office space in Infantry Hall and Building 359, was arranged.
"The way the post has supported us through this has been phenomenal."
Col. Tracy Barnes, the post staff judge advocate, invited all of his subordinates and their families to his home to discuss what was happening and how his office would deal with it.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us, but with each other's support and the support of our families we will get through this," he said.
On Monday morning, the legal assistance and claims divisions of the JAG office set up their new offices in Building 359. The criminal law and administrative and civil law sections moved into Infantry Hall.
Legal services for Soldiers and families resumed in their temporary locations Tuesday.
The OSJA has a hotline to allow customers to get an update on their cases and how the fire may have affected them. Friedel said Soldiers may be asked to resubmit documents or bring their personal copies of their legal papers to help reconstruct their case.
"Our mission is to re-establish quality service for our clients," Barnes said. "Keep in mind that it is our ethical obligation to keep giving correct and accurate legal advice, no matter what has occurred. We need to keep our clients informed, so there is no worry. Make it a point to get in touch and assure them we are doing all we can."