Tampa Bay is home to one of the largest concentrations of veterans in the United States and the number is growing. Aside from vets, a lot of active duty personnel call the bay area "home."
Those facts could hardly be ignored for any period of time. With an influx of young soldiers returning from the battlefield, the lack of legal options was brought to the forefront by U.S. Marine Javier Centonzio.
Javier Centonzio, also a 2012 Stetson Graduate and Past Project Director for the Veterans Advocacy Initiative, brought his concerns to Charles H. Rose III, Director for the Center for Excellence in Advocacy four years ago.
Centonzio was in disbelief at the number of unfair hands being dealt to America's heroes. He suggested a service that would provide a fair, legal opportunity for active duty, veterans and their families. Rose made a promise to Centonzio that together, they could "make it happen."
Rose remembers the day he made the promise and said, "I had absolutely no idea how I would do that, but I knew that we could do it."
The two hit the ground running and four years later Stetson's Veterans Law Institute became a reality.
It was not an easy journey, according to Centonzio. "It's been a lot of hard work and there's been a lot of determination," said Centonzio. "There's been a lot of pieces coming together to make this happen."
Centonzio said that it took the "passion to serve others" along with help from Stetson University to bring the idea to life.
Now, the Veterans Law Institute will bring to the table what many vets have only dreamed about: pro bono legal representation as well as professional advising on seeking government benefits.
"Our commitment to the nation's veterans stretches from coast to coast in the state of Florida," said Wendy B. Libby, President of Stetson University.
The facility's ribbon cutting ceremony took place on Thursday and included appearances from Boca Ciega High School's Army JROTC, Hon. Bruce E. Kasold (Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims) and Michael P. Allen (Professor of Law and Directory of the Veterans Law Institute).
Faculty, veterans and alumni gathered to cheer on the ceremony. Tours of the new facility were then given to the public.
Although the road was bumpy, Centonzio said he would not have had it any other way. "It's really overwhelming, but I'm really proud to be a part of it," said Centonzio.
Learn more about the Veterans Law Institute on their website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.