FORT HAMILTON, N.Y. – The Fort Hamilton Installation Legal Office’s ability to assist eligible clients with managing their personal legal affairs in a timely and professional manner, thereby promoting readiness, high morale, discipline, and a quality force, has earned them Army-level recognition.
The U.S. Army Staff Judge Advocate General’s Corps announced in May that the Fort Hamilton ILO was the recipient of an Army Chief of Staff Award for Excellence in Legal Assistance (Active Army – Small Offices category).
The small legal team of four people provide legal advice on issues ranging from family and domestic law, wills and real estate planning, income tax, military administrative actions, consumer law, ethics, criminal justice, legal policies, memorandums of understanding, and labor law.
“This team serves as the face of the Installation Legal Office to not only the Fort Hamilton community but to the entire military community in the tri-state region, said Rod O’Connor, Fort Hamilton supervisory attorney. “This award honors those commands who have committed their legal resources to help service members and their families with their personal legal issues. Being recognized for what we do is directly attributable to the outstanding efforts of the entire team. This is kind of a big deal in our world.”
During fiscal year 2021, the Legal Assistance Office didn’t have a legal assistant for the first four months, but the staff still supported 1,218 appointments and provided 3,390 client services – a total estimate of more than $87.8K worth of legal services.
To meet the challenges associated with supporting the diverse needs of the community, the legal office employs members possessing a wide variety of skills and experiences, their strength lying in their dexterity.
Alma Whitelaw, who has 30 years of experience in the legal career field, is dual-hatted as Fort Hamilton’s legal assistance and claims attorney.
“Unlike most places who have a dedicated legal assistance attorney, Alma’s job is both legal assistance and claims,” said O’Connor. “This requires Alma to master two distinct aspects of the law. Going on to win the award for Legal Assistance for a part time Legal Assistance attorney illustrates Alma's keen legal acumen."
In addition to working additional hours to ensure her clients received all the necessary services, Whitelaw constantly educates herself on updates in the law while simultaneously taking advantage of all American Bar Association’s continuing education. Whitelaw’s days range from assisting military personnel with their legal matters, providing support and guidance to other local attorneys, and training Army Reserve judge advocates. If she didn’t seem busy enough, Whitelaw also was enrolled in an advanced education course and served on jury duty for four months.
Patty Ingao, Fort Hamilton claims legal assistant, went beyond her duties, took the New York notary exam, and became a state-certified notary to help fill the gap.
“The former legal assistant resigned, leaving duties like notaries and scheduling to fall completely on Alma,” said O’Connor. “Although Patty serves as a claims examiner, unbeknownst to the rest of the ILO team, she studied for and passed the NY state notary exam. This enabled Patty to support the legal assistance mission by providing notaries to the Fort Hamilton community, freeing up Alma to focus on legal assistance.”
According to O’Connor, Patty's decision to voluntarily assist with notary duties served as a force multiplier for the ILO legal assistance mission and was crucial to winning the award.
In addition, the staff continued to provide quality legal services even when the COVID-19 pandemic presented new set of challenges throughout the year.
“Our office continued to provide full-service to our Soldiers and family members by continuing enhanced disinfecting regimens, creating greater time between appointments to ensure little to no crowding of waiting areas, and implementing overall COVID-19 protection measures,” said O’Connor. “COVID-19 taught us that communication with our retirees is critical. Many of our retirees do not use social media and have technology challenges. We are continuing to work ways to get updates, messages, and events to our retirees.”
Lastly, but not least, the staff worked hard to continue the Fort Hamilton Tax Center, which provided free tax preparation services for their clients and alleviated the stress that comes with tax season. Fort Hamilton is one of the few installations that continue to provide a tax assistance program. Also, unlike other military tax centers that borrow military manpower to train as tax preparers, Fort Hamilton’s volunteers were veterans, military spouses, and local college graduates wanting to help the military community.
“Recruitment and retention of great volunteers has become the key vein of continued existence for offering this very valuable service,” said O’Connor.
Last year, the Tax Center volunteers prepared 203 Federal returns and 191 State Returns for eligible clients who saved $161K in tax preparer fees and received $714K in federal and state tax refunds.
Criteria evaluated for the award included office staffing and training plan; an assessment of the quality of legal assistance provided to clients, and efforts to better assist clients’ needs.
The Fort Hamilton Legal Assistance Office is located in Building 117 on John Warren Avenue. Persons eligible to receive legal assistance include all active component members of all branches of service and their family members, retirees and their family members, and certain other persons under federal law.