Steve Wenger
Double Duty
By: Chris Bishop, Burlington County Times

When he's not bagging bad guys, Stephen Wenger takes part in another, gentler - but still crucial - aspect of the law. Wenger, a police officer, is also an attorney. The 49-year-old detective with the Burlington Township Police Department said his first love is police work. "Knowing the people who were in law enforcement, it sounded like a lot of fun," the township resident said. "There was a lot of camaraderie." But he was also drawn to the study of law. His practice, run out of his home, consumes about 10 to 20 hours a week. He focuses on veterans' affairs. Wenger, who joined the police force in 1988, attended Widener University School of Law and graduated in 2003. It was while attending Widener that Wenger, who was a member of the Navy Reserve, began helping veterans in the school's Veterans Assistance Program. The program offers aid to veterans who are unable to get an attorney to help with a claim. "You argue your cases in front of a judge," Wenger said. "Being in law school was a lot more than just reading books." He is putting his training into practice.

Neither the New Jersey State Bar Association nor the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts had any statistics on how many law enforcement officers are also lawyers. Whether the double role is unusual doesn't matter to Wenger's clients. "I'd give him two thumbs up," said Joyce Roth, the widow of a Navy veteran who died in 2003. "He is a very caring person." Roth, 67, had filed a claim for federal Dependency and Indemnity Compensation. The benefit program provides a monthly payment to a surviving spouse, child or parents of a veteran because of a service-connected death. Roth's husband, Myron, served in the Navy in the late 1950s. He suffered a severe injury when a jet plane on an aircraft carrier ran over and crushed his left foot, according to Roth, a Willingboro resident. Her husband had trouble walking for the rest of his life until his condition worsened and he couldn't work. Roth said she believes the injury contributed to his death at age 63. As a result, she filed for the federal compensation. She also filed an appeal, but it was deemed too late.

"A staffer sent the appeal three days too late," Wenger said. "The court has refused to hear her case." Roth, who has lupus, said she would continue to seek compensation. Wenger said because of Roth and another case he is handling, he supports legislation sponsored by Congressman John Adler, D-3rd of Cherry Hill, known as the Fair Access to Veterans' Benefits Act. The bill was drafted in response to news reports that detailed how 200 veterans were denied a chance to appeal for their benefits after missing a deadline with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Essentially, Adler's bill would make the appeals process more flexible.

Adler has said the veterans' claims process is hard to navigate, "especially when doing so without the aid of an attorney or while suffering from a disability." Wenger said he felt veterans should not be penalized because an aide files paperwork too late or because of other oversights. He said he will keep fighting for veterans' causes. "Being a veteran myself, it's been a nice fit," Wenger said. "I've always stayed busy. Sometimes it gets a little crazy."