Phoenix Veteran Keeps Giving Back

Phoenix veteran keeps giving back

Henry Molski, The Republic | 8:12 a.m. MST August 6, 2014

Jack Moore needed a will.

"I'm 75 years old with a bad heart, I don't have a pension," Moore says. "How am I supposed to pay for an attorney?"

But in January, he and his wife, Nancy, sat across the table from an estate lawyer in the Phoenix VA Medical Center and walked away with a will.

For free.

Droves of other lawyers lined up that day to donate their time to veterans like Moore in one of a series of free legal clinics run by the State Bar of Arizona.

The clinics — four were held in the past year across the state — are largely the creation of retired Phoenix lawyer Roger Ferland. In hospitals, gyms and hotel conference centers, lawyers volunteered their time and experience to veterans, who left the clinics with wills, divorce papers, custody documents and basic legal advice.

Those clinics are half of the reason that the Disabled American Veterans will present Ferland this week with its highest accolade: 2014 Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year.

Ferland is matter-of-fact about his motivation.

"God's saved you for a purpose," he said. "I've got a responsibility now."

Indeed, Ferland once was saved. And that's the other half of the reason he'll be named Outstanding Disabled Veteran: Ferland doesn't just serve disabled vets.

He is one.

He still remembers lying flat on his back in a Vietnam forest, both legs lost, his right arm mangled.

To this day, he wonders what kind of weapon got the best of him. But the memory of the injury doesn't slow him down.

Letters of love

Platoon Sgt. Roger Ferland was leading a squad in late March 1970 when it happened.

Before he knew it, Ferland was lying in a hospital in Japan — two legs gone and a right arm badly damaged.

Ferland still isn't sure what happened that day.

"Probably a grenade," he said. "People just look for something official to attach to it —– a booby trap works, too."

The rehab could have been more painful, but Ferland had someone to write, or chat, with.

Ferland met Sandy Green the day before he shipped out in 1969. The meeting lasted only three minutes, but it sparked something special.

They wrote letters back and forth between Phoenix and Vietnam daily before the injury. Ferland recorded his messages on tape from Japan after the accident.

Decades later, Sandy told a newspaper reporter that she "fell in love with Roger through those letters."

Despite the challenges of rehabilitation and learning to use a wheelchair when Ferland returned to the United States, the two were engaged by November 1970. Before long, the couple were married and Ferland was on prosthetic legs.

"He has such an amazing sense of humor about his disability," said Molly Ferland, one of Roger's three daughters. "He was never afraid to show off his old wooden legs or let me bring them in for show and tell. He has this sense of humor about life, but could be just as serious if he needed to be."

The Ferlands had a normal suburban life. They lived in a two-story home, and the girls never felt the least bit different.

"His big thing was that whatever we wanted to do, he would support us," Molly said. "While he didn't necessarily want us to be attorneys, I was always told to do what I loved."

The family lost Sandy in 2012.

"He's so strong," Amanda Ferland said of her father. "After she passed, he's kept himself really busy — not an unhealthy kind of busy, but in very positive ways. He is really, really good at coping with setbacks."

His latest setback came from a less dire incident. In recent years, he picked up a passion for sports.

Again, Ferland doesn't dwell on his injury, but a fall in a recent tennis match forced him off his prosthetics for a while.

The injury put the double amputee back in a wheelchair. But Ferland has already begun planning when he'll be back on two feet — perhaps in time to receive his award.

Environmental law

Ferland's legal career began in 1975 in Phoenix. He practiced in the public and private sectors. In time, he picked up the label "Arizona's first environmental lawyer."

"I have always been passionate about nature," Ferland said. "We represent nature, and we need to have a mechanism to protect it."

Ferland received such acclaim as being recognized by the international Who's Who of Environmental Lawyers and named the Best Lawyers' environmental lawyer of the year.

Some environmentalists disputed Ferland being considered an environmental lawyer because much of his work involved representing businesses in pollution cases and lobbying for industries facing increased regulation.

Some saw his work as helping limit regulation or liabilities for polluters. When he was named to an environmental committee under Gov. Fife Symington, editorial headlines called him "no tree hugger."

Ferland brushes off the critics with a smile.

"I have learned that people treat (the environment) as a moral issue," Ferland said. "Then, it becomes impossible to find a solution. You really have to compromise. I ask to be judged by what I do, not by what you think I should do."

Even after beginning his "retiring process" more than a year ago, Ferland asked himself a question about his duty to serve.

"What can I do for my fellow veterans?"

It began with "your basic documents," as Ferland would say.

He found that basic legal needs plagued veterans home from war — child support, divorce papers and custody battles.

"Who can speak for that vet in a hospice bed?" Ferland said. "That's a real problem that I found. These kind of problems are widespread."

Free legal clinics became the answer. Working with the Disabled American Veterans and the Arizona Disabled Veterans Foundation, the clinics completed a simple task: connecting disabled veterans with lawyers.

"The response is incredibly gratifying," Ferland said. "We were basically at capacity every clinic we held this past year. We've already helped over 300 veterans, and that doesn't include their spouses."

From Glendale to Tucson, the clinics have connected attorneys with veterans in need.

"We didn't have the money to pay an attorney, and we were so excited with the result. It was a blessing," Jack Moore said. "I think there are thousands more military people out there that don't have money at all. This clinic is meant for them."

Before they came to the clinic, Moore and his wife lived for years with the fear of dying without a will. "I know my brother was relieved," Moore said. "He's the executor of the will now, something we wanted."

Norman Fulton, legal director for the clinic, has worked alongside Ferland throughout the organization of the legal clinics.

"Matching a veteran to these lawyers used to be impossible," Fulton said. "Most of the Bar associations in the past could only get you a phone number, but these legal clinics now are getting veterans and lawyers together at a specific location."

At the clinics, he also observed Ferland's work ethic.

"First, he has a life-altering disability, followed by an amazing legal career, and now, he goes on to make an even bigger difference in the lives of other veterans," Fulton said. "He just doesn't pack up and go to the beach like others."

Big day Saturday

Each year, the DAV seeks to find an individual who "empowers veterans to live high quality lives."

"There are nominations for veterans that come in from almost every state," said Jim Marszaleck, national service director for the DAV. "What makes Roger unique is the combination of the level of his disabilities and his extraordinary effort to give back to other disabled veterans."

On Saturday, Marc Burgess, national adjunct for the DAV, will stand before hundreds of fellow veterans in the Bally's Las Vegas Hotel and Casino and address Ferland.

"DAV is honored to recognize your extraordinary commitment to veterans, your local community and the nation," Burgess will read. "Your humble spirit and positive attitude are a living testament to DAV's mission."

The day Ferland learned of the award, he was less certain.

He was enjoying a trip to Sedona when he got the phone call. He knew what was happening but was perplexed.

"My first thought was 'Why me?'" he said. "There are far too many other disabled vets I know and have worked with that are far more deserving."

When his daughter first heard the news , she was "jumping for joy."

"I immediately posted the news on Facebook," Amanda said. "In fact, I did it so fast that I think I stole a bit of my dad's thunder. But after spending the past year so close to him in Phoenix and seeing everything that he is doing, I knew this was important."

While Ferland may not be healed in time to walk across the Las Vegas stage, it won't matter to him.

For Ferland, there are always be bigger issues to combat than his own.