A Scottsbluff attorney who served in Afghanistan has become an advocate for veterans in the community and in veterans affairs.
Brendan Rice, an attorney at the Scottsbluff law firm of Chaloupka Holyoke Snyder Chaloupka Longoria, is accredited with the Department of Veterans Affairs, to be able to help area veterans with benefits and other matters.
Prior to being an attorney, Rice served a nearly six-month deployment to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps Reserve. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 2011, after graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan. Rice decided to enlist in the Marine Corps after joining a friend for a trip to the recruiting office. The friend had enlisted, and though Rice didn’t at that time, he said, it was then that he decided he wanted to enlist.
“I had always wanted to be in the military,” he said. “I was always interested in going in. My grandfather served in World War II and I have generally had someone from about every generation of my family, going back to the Revolutionary War serving in the military.”
Oftentimes, in places such as Afghanistan or Iraq, reservists will be among the soldiers stationed there. The reservists, called augmentees, fill the ranks of a unit if there are not enough active soldiers to fill all the needed spots. After he had completed boot camp in Ft. Lee, Virginia, Rice said he was asked if he would be interested in deploying. About eight months later, he was mobilized to deploy.
In Afghanistan, Rice served at a small base in the Helmand Province, with 100 to 175 other Marines and infantry men from the Republic of Georgia. His MOS, or military occupational specialty, has been in a unit that specialized in refrigeration, heating and cooling. The base had a maintenance attachment, an artillery unit and a tank unit. His unit’s task was to keep everything running, from equipment that had been damaged to trucks that had been destroyed by bomb blasts.
“With everything, we were doing maintenance-wise, it was necessary to support all of the other operations in the immediate area, whether it was an infantry unit that was working on a smaller base and needed heaters and generators to keep things working there or repairing trucks so they could get out in the field,” he said.
Rice’s was in Afghanistan during the winter, which he said always surprises people.
“Everyone always thinks Afghanistan is always hot,” he said. “We certainly had some hot days while I was there, but there were plenty of times, it was a lot closer to zero. We had snow.”
One of the most noteable things about Afghanistan for Rice was the difference in cultures, he said.
There were a lot of cultural differences that make it hard to adjust to Afghanistan. It has a somewhat unique history in the course of major events. Just about every power has invaded them and just about every power has lost. They have never truly been conquered.”
Villages can be remote, with some villages made up of 10-15 families who never interact with people from other villages during their entire lifetimes. The roads aren’t built up. There are not well-established schools. Some places do not have running water. In fact, conveniences that we take for granted in the U.S., such as a cell phone, are not available. In fact, Rice said, troops are warned that if a person has a cell phone, to regard them as dangerous, because a cell phone is a potential indicator of someone waiting to trigger a bomb.
Rice served in Afghanistan from October 2012 to February 2013. However, while en route to Afghanistan, he began the steps for his next chapter in life - applying for law school.
“While I was sitting in Kyrgyzstan, I was waiting for the online application portals (to law school at Creighton University) to open,” he said, explaining he had taken the LSAT (law school admission test). He had taken some time between graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan and applying to law school. “I was able to hit the submit button the day before we flew into Afghanistan. While I was there (in Afghanistan), I found out I got into law school.”
On reflection, he said he hadn’t fully committed to attend law school until he hit that submit button, and then paid a seat reservation deposit for Creighton.
“Part of what drew me to the practice of law is being able to be there and help people who might not have the best things going for them at that point in time. Or maybe they do and they just need some help in advancing other things,” he said.
Today, he works in estate planning, probate work, real estate and corporate transactions.
“It is pretty fulfilling to be the person that people come to for help and guidance, whether it is a tax matter or a family matter,” he said.
He is the only attorney in the area accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs (DAV). Often times, there are pockets of accredited attorneys around VA hospitals and military facilities, but they aren’t common in rural areas, limiting access for veterans.
Because of his accreditation with the VA, he is able to assist veterans in benefit matters with the DAV. He compares his role to that of a workmen’s comp attorney, helping veterans to obtain benefits that they deserve after being injured while in service.
“Most of it comes down to helping people navigate the red tape,” he said.
His work can entail helping the local veteran service officer to reviewing files of a veteran. Getting benefits can be a slow and complicated process. It can be complicated by a culture in the military that some buy into of not reporting an injury or struggle for fear of not being able to deploy or ending their military careers.
Having an accredited VA attorney in the western Nebraska is rare, but needed, he said. Veterans would have to go long distances or have an attorney from another state represent them in matters. Despite a culture of military service in rural areas, there aren’t a lot of attorneys that specialize in military matters.
“You can drive around Scottsbluff and see all the Marine Corps flags flying,” he said. “There is still a strong veteran presence. I loved my time in service and the people I served with. It’s about trying to help those people get what benefits they have earned. If they were discharged dealing with issues, those issues are going to affect their life in the long run and they need to get the support they need to help them deal with it.”
Rice came to Scottsbluff through the Rural Practice Initiative. The attorney was raised in Louisiana and Missouri as a child, but his parents both grew up in Nebraska. It led to him attending college in the state and he met his wife, who was raised in the Omaha area. As he was attending law school, he participated in the Rural Practice Initiative, an effort by the by the Nebraska Bar Association to get attorneys to move to parts of the state that have underrepresentation and lack of attorneys. Through the initiative, a bus trip where students could interview for jobs in western Nebraska, is scheduled annually.
He compared the trip to “speed dating interviews. It was something like interviews at 11 practices in two days. I landed here,” he said.
The Rural Practice Initiative has now spun off into the Rural Lawyers Opportunity Program, which guarantees pre-law students admission into the University of Nebraska law school if they commit to practicing in a rural area.
Advocating for veterans had started for Rice in law school. During law school, he regularly advised inmates in the Douglas County Corrections, where a wing is set aside for veterans. He said he worked with them, advising them of the benefits they should apply for. Douglas County also has a veterans court, which Rice said he has referred veterans to so that they can have alternative arrangements available to them when dealing with criminal matters that derive from untreated PTSD or other issues. There are available options to give veterans a second chance, he said.
Rice’s advocacy for veterans also leads him outside of the practice. He serves as the Junior Vice Commander of VFW Post #1681 and believes strongly in elevating the visible presence of veterans in the community.
The VFW is one of the largest lobbying organizations for veteran’s and has done a lot of work nationally, Rice said, pushing for the GI Bill and other causes for those serving in the military and veterans.
However, it’s also an organization with an aging membership. Rice said that if he and another young man who serves in the local organization, added up their ages, there would still be many members of the local VFW who surpass them in age.
Though the older veterans’ experiences differ Rice or other younger members, he said, “There are still a lot of similiarities. It is a close brotherhood. It is an organization that does a lot of good.”
Ever since post-Vietnam, he said, the organization has struggled to get younger people to join. There may be a multitude of reasons, he said. He said he doesn’t think that some veterans understand the value of the VFW until they are older, applying for benefits, and interested in the resources available.
A culture shift may also be at play. Many civic organizations report a decline in membership. People may have shifted from a more civic minded culture to a more inward culture. Young people report being busy with children’s activities, work and their own activities. They may not be aware of the benefits that the organization offers, or even what they can offer the organization, Rice said.
It continues that camarderie that many who have served in the military miss after concluding their service, he said. Fellow veterans can lend a hand, from helping to repair a vehicle to being someone to talk to, through the brotherhood that continues in the VFW.
“I think everyone who is eligible to join should look at joining to preserve the organization and help keep it going for what they do for veterans nationally and locally,” he said.
The same grandfather who inspired him to enlist in the military also encouraged Rice to get involved in the military community after service. After he returned from Afghanistan, he said, his grandfather had him fill out a form and the next day, he told Rice he was now a member of the American Legion. At the time, he said, he didn’t attend any of the meetings, but after moving to Scottsbluff, he said, he became involved in the VFW and sees its value. He is working to raise awareness of the VFW and its importance in the community.
“I don’t think people think about the benefit until its gone,” he said. “It’s part of the struggle.”
For more information on the VFW Post #1681, contact the post at 308-635-1711. For more information on the VFW, visit its national website, vfw.org.