LAKELAND – When Jim Headley’s secretary gave him a message asking him to return a call from the Florida Bar, the attorney wondered if he was facing any discipline.
“So I go, ‘What? I didn’t do anything wrong, ”Headley recalled.
Far from delivering any negative news, the call revealed that Headley had been named one of 20 winners of the Florida Bar’s Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award. Lakeland’s attorney is the recipient of Judicial Circuit 10, which includes the Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties.
For approximately 16 years, Headley has devoted untold hours to assisting other veterans with tasks such as obtaining military records, reviewing service-related disabilities, and applying for benefits from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Headley, 49, said he had never heard of the Tobias Simon Award. He and attorneys from the state’s 19 other judicial communities were honored in a virtual ceremony on January 28.
Headley’s dedication to veterans stems from his brief stint in the US Army in the late 1990s after earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of South Florida. He said he had an adverse reaction to a required vaccination that caused his pancreas to fail, making him an insulin-dependent diabetic.
He received a medical retirement and then worked for Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit that provides a variety of services to former military personnel. He became a national duty officer based in St. Petersburg, where he spent much of his childhood.
Headley entered Stetson University College of Law and graduated in 2003. At the same time, he received a Master of Business Administration from Stetson. He spent approximately a year as assistant attorney general for Hillsborough County, where he represented the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Headley opened a sole proprietorship in Bartow in 2009 and soon relocated the practice to Lakeland when his brother Scott Headley joined in 2011. The firm deals with family law, criminal defense, social security disability, personal injury and estate planning.
Jim Headley’s wife, Lana Tatom, is the director of the Dundee Elementary Academy.
Headley said he began helping other veterans while working for the DAV and continued to do so as a lawyer. He estimated that he volunteered an average of 100 to 150 hours a year, and increased that number to 200 hours last year.
“My brother is very, very understanding because I take the time to do it, but it’s the right thing,” said Headley. “I really believe that a lot of veterans just cut the cord and send them out into the world and not tell them how to get the benefits they need.”
Headley said he was motivated not only by empathy for other veterans, but also by feeling disappointed that he was unable to fulfill his own term in office.
“For the first few years I felt broken because I couldn’t even do what I was supposed to do,” he said. “But that has been therapeutic for me all these years because I feel like I am still serving.”
Headley said he helped many Vietnam-era veterans who had not previously received the benefits and compensations they deserved.
“Some of them didn’t have a lot of faith in the country and the government,” he said. “I’ve seen them break down and cry when they get their 100% (disability) award. Or they have waited until they are really, really in dire financial straits and have to go through the whole process where if they had started 20 years ago they would be done. “
Headley said that many veterans delay seeking benefits because they do not find their needs as great as other veterans.
“I tell them, ‘You’re not asking for a handout,'” he said. “You raise your hand and say you need the benefits.”
Largo’s Ray Raulerson became friends with Headley when they both worked for the DAV. Now retired, Raulerson remains accredited as a private agent and sometimes advises Headley on benefit cases.
“When Jim comes across something that he likes to say is above his pay grade, he just wants to confirm that he’s on the right track,” said Raulerson. “He knows what he’s doing, but like all of us, we want to get a second opinion so we know we’re right. But to be honest, I often only have the feeling: “What am I doing? Jim, you have this. ‘”
Raulerson said Headley’s pro bono work is a vital alternative to law firms that charge high fees for providing the same services to veterans. He also contrasted his friend’s sincere concern for fellow veterans with the dismissive attitude former military personnel often receive from civil society.
“In all honesty, there are very few people who are as real as him when it comes to helping someone,” said Raulerson.
When asked how long he expected to continue providing free assistance to veterans, Headley responded without hesitation.
“Forever he said,” I’ll keep doing it until I die. “
Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @ garywhite13.