When Robert Garza returned from the Vietnam War to the Rio Grande Valley, times were tough and help was scarce for the Army veteran.
"There really wasn't any kind of assistance," Garza said.
"It's about time something like this is done for the veterans. I think it is a great service," Garza said.
The "Wills for Heroes" program is a joint effort of the Hidalgo County Bar Foundation, the Hidalgo County Bar Association (HCBA) Estate Planning and Probate Law Section, The University of Texas-Pan American Foundation, VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, First National Bank Trust Department and the Legacy events center in Edinburg.
C.J. Sanchez, HCBA's executive director, said by helping the former military service members and their spouses plan now, they help ensure the veterans' legal affairs are in order before a tragedy hits. He said it is also something small that the legal community can offer as a free service.
"They leave the 'Wills for Heroes' clinic with their copy of their free will. It is our way of giving back to our veterans. It is a $1,500 value that they are getting for free. We want them to know we appreciate them," Sanchez said.
Along with the preparation of their will, the veterans received other vital life and estate planning documentation, including financial and medical powers of attorney and a directive to physicians (sometimes called a "living will"). The clinic was open to all Hidalgo County veterans and their spouses with small to moderate-sized estates.
Garza's wife Yolanda said the assistance is much needed.
"This is wonderful for the veterans and their families especially because during the Vietnam era it was very hard. Veterans didn't get the services they needed, especially the medical attention. We have been married since 1970 and during that time it was like pulling teeth to get help. Any help we receive now is really appreciated," she said.
Over a three-week period prior to Veterans Day, volunteer HCBA attorneys met with nearly 50 former military members and their spouses to discuss the estate planning packets distributed by the McAllen Veterans Administration (VA) Outpatient Clinic. On Nov. 9, volunteers from First National Bank Trust Department, UT Pan American Development Office, and the participating attorneys' law firms served as witnesses and notaries for the program's participants when they came to the Legacy events center to formally review, sign and take home their prepared legal documents.
Cecilia Johnson, director of planned giving for the UT Pan American Development Office, said University leaders were eager to help organize the "Wills for Heroes" clinic.
"We believe in community outreach and service and we feel this is a very good cause. Our local veterans and their spouses probably wouldn't have these kinds of legal documents prepared if it weren't for the attorneys who volunteered to provide them for free," Johnson said. "It also shows them that we admire them and we thank them for what they have done for us and the country."
UT Pan American volunteers also manned special booths during the clinic offering the veterans and their spouses information from the Library's Special Collections on how they can participate in the Library's veterans oral histories and memorabilia project; the UTPA Alumni Relations Office on reconnecting with the University for those veterans and their wives who are also Bronc alumni; and the UTPA Veterans Services Center on additional financial aid available to them and their families to attend college.
Amber Rodriguez, the attorney who prepared Robert and Yolanda Garza's legal documents, said she was honored to help out.
"I feel a great need to give back to my community and my legal community. My grandfather was in the Navy and he served to the best of his ability. I have the utmost respect for veterans and I want to do all that I can to help them," Rodriguez said. "These documents are everything they need for their estate planning purposes."
Johnson said in order for veterans to plan for their future, the paperwork is crucial.
"These documents are very important, for example, if they become ill and can't take care of their own affairs. For each of us, if we pass away without certain legal documents in place, the probate court in Hidalgo County decides how our assets are going to be given out," she said.
Yolanda Garza said she will encourage other veterans to submit their estate planning packets and attend next year's "Wills for Heroes" clinic.
"I read it in the paper and we went and got the application and filled it out. It was easy and it is just wonderful that the University and these legal associations got together to help us," Garza said. "The more people who are exposed to this and keep up with the veterans' services, the better it is. It is just great."