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Student, donor, inspiration: Jenna Grassbaugh’s on a mission to help fellow veterans

August 3, 2013 | Students

Thousands of Ohio veterans and military service members need legal services each year. They return home from tours of duty only to face seemingly insurmountable challenges – foreclosures, mushrooming problems with debt, issues with litigious landlords, and more.

With inadequate resources to hire attorneys themselves and limited aid available through public interest law programs, those working closely with the veteran and military communities say a great need is going unmet.

One student at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law hopes to change that.

Jenna C. Grassbaugh is a law student, a veteran, and a Gold Star wife whose amazing story of service and generosity is inspiring others across the country to donate to an initiative personal to her on many levels: the Capt. Jonathan D. Grassbaugh Veterans Project.

The project, which begins operations this fall, will pair veterans with law students who can assist in sorting through landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures, Rule 60 default judgment, and debt crises. Practicing attorneys will volunteer their time to supervise the students’ work.

Grassbaugh, a member of the Class of 2014, donated $250,000 in seed money to start the project, using insurance funds she received following the death of her husband, Capt. Jonathan D. Grassbaugh, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Zaganiyah, Iraq on April 7, 2007.

She hopes others will match her gift, so 2,000 hours of free legal services can be provided annually.

“I wanted to find a project that would have some sort of long-lasting legacy – something that Jon would truly approve of and worthy of that money,” Grassbaugh said. “It didn’t seem right to buy something with it. I wanted to do something worthwhile.”

Grassbaugh shared her story of love and loss in her law school admissions essay, which was featured in All Rise in fall 2011. She was a 1L at The College of William & Mary when her husband was killed in action. They had married only 10 months before.

After his funeral, Grassbaugh decided to withdraw from law school and become a military police officer. “Foolhardy or not, I wanted to do my part in contributing to the war effort overseas, and I wanted to see for myself the place that my husband had spent his final days alive,” she wrote in her essay. She deployed to Mahmudiyah, Iraq in September 2008, where she was a platoon leader in charge of 40 soldiers.

“Being a veteran myself, I wanted to be more involved in helping other vets,” she said. “This project will serve a continuing need.”

One of the greatest handicaps facing those trying to help veterans and active duty military personnel is that no government agency has produced a survey showing just how great the need for legal services is, explained Stephen Thomas Lynch, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel in Cleveland.

As the legal assistance attorney for the Ninth Coast Guard District, he is one of only two full-time attorneys assigned to provide legal assistance to active military personnel in Ohio. He also provides assistance to the Coast Guard and other military clients throughout the Great Lakes region. For the last 12 years, he also has helped other groups of clients with connections to the military, including military retirees, veterans, and their dependents, with everything from finding pro bono representation in criminal matters to assisting with writing wills and custody agreements prior to a soldier’s deployment.

Lynch handles 850 cases a year on average – a number that does not include the many people he advises with a quick phone call or email. It also does not account for those he refers to the American Bar Association’s pro bono referral service or a network of Ohio National Guard Judge Advocate Generals who offer to help outside of their normal private practices.

“We have had some wonderful volunteers, and they do a great job,” Lynch said, “but our volunteers by no means can cover the need – not by a long shot.”

In 2011, the latest year for which data was available, there were approximately 10,000 active duty military personnel and 40,000 guard and reserve members in Ohio. They reported having 94,000 dependents – bringing the grand total population of military and military families to 144,000 Ohioans. Add to that a veteran population of nearly 900,000 in Ohio at last count, and it’s little wonder that Lynch and others affirm that many legal needs are going unmet. Lynch estimates there are thousands of Ohioans who need legal services like the ones the Grassbaugh Veterans Project will provide.

“Jenna Grassbaugh is a saint,” Lynch said. “We need more people like her.”

Defying definitions, helping all veterans

During the fall of 2012, Grassbaugh attended an Ohio Veterans WrapAround Project summit hosted by then-Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton ’79. It was there that Grassbaugh realized what she could do with the insurance money she received following her husband’s death.

“ ‘Veteran’ is one of those terms that I don’t think is always understood. It isn’t always someone who’s stayed in for 20 years and has all of the benefits of retirement,” Grassbaugh said. “Often, and especially so the last 10 years, it is someone who served three or four tours and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. My family can’t sustain this anymore.’ They retain some services but not all. There’s a gap that’s missing in the veterans’ support process.”

She worked with Dean Alan C. Michaels and development officers at the Moritz College of Law to see what could be done to provide legal services for veterans and practical experience for law students. Michaels, who also happened to be one of Grassbaugh’s professors this spring, said her actions have been nothing short of inspirational to those around her.

“Jenna has wisdom and maturity beyond her years, and she is creating something at the College which will make life better for so many veterans that she will never meet,” he said. “To say it’s been a privilege working with one of my students in this unique and personal way is an understatement. She’s a truly impressive individual.”

It is the first time in the school’s history that one of its current students has made such a meaningful and generous gift. Michaels noted that Grassbaugh certainly is the youngest major gift donor the law school – and possibly Ohio State – has ever had.

“Yes, people say that it’s like cutting away my safety net, but I don’t look at it that way,” the 28-year-old said of her gift. “Jon would have wanted me to do this. His motto was non sibi – ‘not for oneself.’ He would have done this for me.”

Grassbaugh continues to remain on active duty while studying at Moritz. She is part of the Army’s highly prestigious and competitive Funded Legal Education Program and is spending the summer interning in the military’s legal affairs offices in Afghanistan. She will practice in the JAG program after graduation.

In addition to wanting to see others join her in supporting the Grassbaugh Veterans Project, she hopes to see the project grow to include other kinds of legal services, with students assisting with disability benefits claims, domestic issues, and more.

“They’re long-term goals, but who knows? I honestly didn’t think this project would exist until after I graduated. To see it up and running by this fall is incredible to me,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be able to observe this project as it takes off and to see veterans get the help they need quickly.”

Learn more about Jenna and Jon Grassbaugh in a special video at moritzlaw.osu.edu/grassbaugh.