Jillian Gentile ’24 Pursuing Degree to Help Others and Honor Late Husband
Jillian Gentile ’24
Jillian Gentile ’24 and her husband, Joseph Gentile III had a plan: go to law school, work together, and help people navigate the law.
Sadly, Joe, a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army, in the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment (Rakkasans), a regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, passed away September 6, 2020. Just a few weeks into his 1L year at Albany Law School.
Jillian is now pursuing her J.D. in honor of Joe and on the way to making their dream a reality.
She originally took an interest in law before meeting Joe. She taught emotionally disturbed and mentally ill children. She really enjoyed the research and finding the best ways to help people based on their needs.
When she met Joe, he had just gotten in the Vocational Rehabilitation Program through the Office of Veteran’s Affairs. The program allowed him to get funding for school and assist in finding a job that he could do with his combat injuries, specifically a traumatic brain injury. The job needed to be nonphysical and he always was interested in law, so he got started.
Jillian helped him study throughout his undergraduate years at Marist College, where he earned a Bachelor’s in Political Science and a paralegal certificate.
Talking through the material with another person was beneficial for him to retain the information. She also helped him study for the LSAT, and with a good score and a scholarship, he was on his way to New Scotland Ave.
“When he got the score, I had never seen him smile so big. He was like a kid on Christmas. He was so happy and he always said, it was half mine because I helped him so much,” she said. “That is the kind of person he was.”
Those study sessions inspired the couple to start thinking about their future. One day working in law, together, and helping people sounded perfect. Both of them in law school would be tough on their family though, so they decided Jillian would start after Joe finished his 1L year.
Joe got sick just two weeks into his 1L year. He had severe scaring and tissue damage from burn pit exposure during his time in Iraq. That was difficult enough, but surviving stage four lymphoma on top of that caused him to have a very weak immune system. The Friday before Labor Day 2020, he was exceptionally tired and struggling to stay awake through his Zoom class, she said.
He was stubborn sometimes, Jillian said, and he finally agreed to see a doctor. His organs were infected, doctors said, and the infection quickly became septic.
“I really had to advocate for him and his health during that time,” she said. “He also insisted I reach out to his professors. The night he was admitted he wanted me to bring his computer and textbooks for Property. He really was that dedicated.”
The next few days were a series of updates from doctors, most of them not good. She remained by his side. Eventually, he went into cardiac arrest and the damage to both his body and mind were too severe to come back from.
“He fought as hard as he could,” she said.
Jillian said she and her son Frank were among the only people who knew how much pain Joe was in day-to-day.
”He was so loved and now, he’s completely free of all that pain,” she said.
Life without Joe has been one of the hardest things to navigate, she said, but she was not going to let it get in the way of their dream.
“I kept hearing his voice say ‘take the LSAT’ so I thought, let’s just go for it.”
She took the exam virtually from her son’s desk.
“I ended up getting the same score Joe did,” she said.
That was the exact sign she needed to enroll at Albany Law School. At first, the transition was difficult, especially having the opportunity to do many things Joe won’t have the chance to, she said.
“I see it as carrying a heavy suitcase. At first you can barely lift it. It feels impossible. Then you get stronger and it still weighs the same, but it is easier to carry,” she said. “Once I got involved and became a part of everything, it got easier. You see certain things about law school being so competitive in movies or on TV, but the reality here is that everyone wants you to succeed and they want to support you in doing that.”
The community drew Joe to Albany Law and it is also supporting Jillian. During Joe’s time in the hospital, classmates and faculty were always checking in. The Veterans' Pro Bono Project is now presented in memory of Joe.
“He was so kind and patient from the moment I met him. The things he said were just so thoughtful,” she said. “He was such a genuine person. He did have a ‘matter-of-fact’ type way, probably from his military training. But even in his time as a deputy sheriff right after the army, he was the guy that would be stopping to change people’s tires. He really believed in community interaction with law enforcement.”
Joe’s dream was to help people who might not be able to speak for themselves and be an advocate for other veterans as they navigate through VA care and assistance.
Jillian hopes to do some form of advocacy. She is really enjoying her internship in the criminal litigation department at the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office. Navigating spousal benefits and processes following Joe’s death also inspired her to possibly help other people through the process.
“In class, I am seeing the pedagogical aspects of the law. At my internship, I can see those things in practice. It is a completely well-rounded experience,” she said. “It is a challenge to explain things to people who don’t know the law, but its such an important skill to have.”
“Joe would want me to challenge myself and push myself,” she said. “He saw when I was comfortable doing something and encouraged me to strive for more.”