Dogs, Coded Notes, Christmas Trees: Attys' Military Memories

(November 9, 2020, 7:44 PM EST) -- They've participated in the security operations for President Barack Obama's first inauguration. They've befriended a Labrador mix named Miley who went on foot patrols and missions in Afghanistan. They've decoded "Happy New Year" wishes in Russian. And they've carried these memories from the military with them into their law careers.

Ahead of Veterans Day, Law360 received about 170 submissions from attorneys who have served in the military. In their responses, they included poignant and funny memories.

One veteran from the U.S. Air Force went through multiple surgeries after being severely wounded in a blast in Baghdad, and returned to active duty after less than a year of rehabilitation. Another was the only Black person in his training platoon in 1963. Another veteran set up a "Charlie Brown Christmas tree," used printer paper to wrap presents and ate boxes of candy sent from strangers while deployed overseas during the holiday season.

The following 12 stories and incidents shared by attorneys in their own words are a reminder to the legal community to "embrace the suck," value teamwork and treat people fairly.

We thank all veterans for their service.

Mir Y. Ali

Mir Y. Ali
Partner, Schiff Hardin LLP
Branch: U.S. Army, Army Special Forces
Years of Service: 2000 to 2007

In 2005, our Special Forces team was driving through a remote area of Afghanistan when our Humvee's tire ripped on a sharp rock. When we dismounted to replace the tire, we spotted two Afghan men running towards us carrying a pickax and shovel.

Through our interpreter, the men explained that vehicles didn't take the path because the terrain was too dangerous, and they had come to help us move the vehicle. When we asked if they knew who we were, they inquired, "Are you Russians? We've heard of the Russians but have never seen them." We laughed and explained that we were Americans. They looked puzzled and said they had never heard of America.

We were shocked that they had never heard of America or seen the Russians, who had occupied Afghanistan for a decade. Afghanistan has experienced armed conflict since 1979, yet these men lived in a village so remote that they had remained isolated from everything going on in the rest of their country. Without knowing who we were, the men happily assisted us.

I experienced this hospitality from total strangers countless times in Afghanistan, and it is part of the Afghan people's code of life.

Marc J. Armas

Marc J. Armas
Associate, Walden Macht & Haran LLP
Branch: U.S. Coast Guard
Years of Service: 2005 to 2010 (Active); 2013 to 2016 (Reserve)

In January 2009, I participated in the National Capital Region's maritime security operations for President Barack Obama's first inauguration. Most Washington, D.C., streets were closed early in the day to allow for millions of people to safely attend and move within the area. And our team was required to travel to our security locations in a police-led convoy.

People were cheering as the convoy drove down D.C. streets; it was awesome. The crowds and the cheers grew as we drove along. They grew to be so large and loud that they fully surrounded our Suburbans, bringing us to a standstill. I then realized that the crowds were not cheering for us. Rather, they believed we were members of the incoming administration, or even possibly the president-elect himself.

The applause soon turned into "Obama-Obama-Obama" chants. A teammate suggested that we lower the tinted windows to let those surrounding us know that we were not who they thought we were. Initially laughing at the suggestion, we eventually decided to lower the windows. As soon as the crowd realized that we were part of a security team, a collective groan of disappointment and laughter was heard by all. The crowds cleared and allowed us to continue.

While this anecdote is funny, it serves as a daily reminder, both in serving in the military and as an attorney, that you are not that important. What you do is. Protect, serve and advance justice for all.

Robert Barton
Associate, Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell PA
Branch: U.S. Marine Corps
Years of Service: 2007 to 2012

During my time in Afghanistan, a local Labrador mix named Miley won the hearts of many members of our platoon.

We were assigned a bomb-sniffing service dog, but Miley was different because we were able to pet and play with her. Serving in a combat zone overseas, love, affection and happiness are emotions that are hard to come by, if not nonexistent. The days are very long and can be taxing on your body and mind. Miley made every day just a bit more bearable by bringing us all a sense of joy and happiness at different times throughout our day.

She joined us on every foot patrol and on every mission. She stayed by our side during firefights with the enemy, and she slept with us in our tents at the end of the day. Even better, she was a great guard dog! She would bark and growl at every Afghani soldier or citizen that approached our tents at night. This was significant because the local Taliban leaders at the time were recruiting Afghani soldiers, whom we shared an operating base with, to kill Americans and their allies while they slept.

With Miley by our side, we slept a bit more peacefully knowing we were well guarded. By the end of our tour, Miley was not only a member of our platoon, but also a friend, a family member and a hardened combat veteran with more combat experience than all of us combined.

Laura M. Brank

Laura M. Brank
Managing Partner, Moscow Office, Dechert LLP
Branch: U.S. Army
Years of Service: 1981 to 1986

While stationed in Germany in 1985, I had the misfortune of working the overnight shift on New Year's Eve.

It was a quiet night, and the skeleton crew of linguists in our "scribe shop" were reminiscing about past NYE celebrations when our musings were interrupted by anxious operators from the signals units. They relayed to us that at exactly the same time the Soviet command sent out a message to all military divisions in Eastern Germany and other Eastern Bloc countries using rarely used channels. As the message was in Russian, they urgently wanted us to "decode" it. The concern, of course, was that a command had gone out to initiate a major attack against the West.

Tensions were very high and there was little information available about what was happening in the Soviet Union. I quickly translated the "coded" message (trying not to smile) that the Soviet command was wishing everyone a Happy New Year ("S Novym Godom").

The incident made us all laugh in the scribe shop, but it also put things in better perspective for me. We tend to dehumanize our "enemies" and it helps to remind ourselves, even in the bleakest of moments, of our common humanity.

Wendy Buckingham

Wendy Buckingham
Associate, Littler Mendelson PC
Branch: U.S. Air Force
Years of Service: 2008 to 2012 (Active); 2012 to Present (Reserves)

In June 2009 I deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, where I tried detainees in Iraq's Central Criminal Court. In August 2009, I was wounded in an IED blast while transiting through the red zone. Everyone in my vehicle made it out alive, but an Army major and I were severely wounded. I was medically evacuated and had multiple surgeries.

After eight months of rehabilitation, I returned to active duty and I have continued to serve despite the injuries that I sustained.

Albert S. Dandridge III

Albert S. Dandridge III
Partner, chief diversity officer, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP
Branch: U.S. Marine Corps
Years of Service: 1963 to 1970

In 1963, I attended Marine boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, my first time in the Deep South. I was the only African-American in our training platoon. I had never before had the N-word directed at me by someone who was white. This changed.

For example, in boot camp I had extensive dental work. The dentist was a lieutenant commander in his 60s. When I was in the chair, with his instruments in my mouth, as part of conversation with the other dentists — we were lined up as if in barber chairs — he would constantly use the N-word, talking about how he loved working on "N-word teeth." Being alone, 17 and a buck private, there wasn't too much I could do. However, to this day, dentists tell me this was the finest work they have ever seen.

There is a moral to this story somewhere. My drill instructors were hard on me, but they were hard on everyone and they wanted me to succeed. Once I became a Marine, I was part of the club — case closed. The Marines taught me that most people have biases that can be overcome. If you treat people fairly, they will generally reciprocate.

Jeremy Dunnaback

Jeremy Dunnaback
Associate, BakerHostetler
Branch: Army
Years of Service: 2007 to 2011

One of my favorite stories from service occurred during a makeshift chapel service in Ranger School.

The service was being held on a cold, wet day on the side of a mountain the class had hiked up. During the service, one student asked the Ranger School chaplain to pray for good weather for the rest of the course so that the training would be a little easier.

Much to everyone's surprise, the chaplain shot back: "I will not do that!" Rather, the chaplain shouted, he would pray for terrible weather so that our class would be as miserable as possible for the rest of the course.

After everyone stopped laughing, the chaplain explained the real value of Ranger School was in finding out how far we could push ourselves so that, when the time came, we would be ready to lead our soldiers under the worst possible conditions.

Unbeknownst to the student, the chaplain was a well-known Ranger who had fought in Mogadishu during the Black Hawk Down incident (and is portrayed in the film).

Gabrielle Morlock

Gabrielle Morlock
Associate, Snell & Wilmer LLP
Branch: U.S. Air Force
Years of Service: 2006 to 2016

With holidays around the corner and all that's going on in the world, I'm reminded that sometimes what you have is all that you really need.

A few years ago, I was deployed to Afghanistan. I was there during the holidays, away from my husband (also active duty military) and three beautiful boys. The base we were stationed at was not the nicest. The roads were dirt, the air smelled of tar, and food was, well, it was edible. But that year I was reminded of how much I was grateful for. I had my health, a loving family safe at home, my country.

We put up our Charlie Brown Christmas tree we ordered online, used printer paper to wrap presents we made for our fellow brothers and sisters in arms and ate boxes of candy that came in shipments from wonderful strangers back in the states. As we sat at our station, it began to snow, a blanket of pure beauty covering the rebar, the trash, the dirt. It was beautiful and just what I needed, a reminder of all that is beautiful in the world.

So this year, when you feel that 2020 holidays are not as bright as the last, "embrace the suck" and remember that there is still beauty in the world, and everything you have at this moment, is all you need.

Luis F. Mendoza

Luis F. Mendoza
Associate, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP
Branch: U.S. Army
Years of Service: 2007 to 2016 (Active); 2016 to 2018 (Reserve)

During my deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, our unit went to have dinner at a local Afghan leader's home. When we arrived, we took off our combat vests and helmets to socialize with other local Afghans who were also in attendance.

Prior to that, we never removed any gear, so locals did not really get to see any of us without a helmet and dark glasses. After I removed my gear, many of the locals started to stare at me and talk to one another. I asked the interpreter what they were talking about. It turns out I looked like a well known Bollywood actor, I'm not sure which one. The locals thought I was enough of a resemblance that they formed a line and started taking pictures with me.

Needless to say I was given special treatment during the remainder of the visit.

Lee C. Schmeer

Lee C. Schmeer
Associate, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP
Branch: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force Reserve
Years of Service: 2005 to present

I have flown on five continents, including many missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have flown high-priority cargo and numerous high-ranking government officials and other VIPs into combat zones.

The most rewarding — and most solemn — flying I have done, however, is transporting critically wounded service members and civilian aid workers out of combat and to safety in hospitals in friendly nations, and repatriating the bodies of service members killed in action overseas.

Often the families of the fallen service members met the aircraft upon our landing in the U.S., and we saw the raw pain they were feeling right before our eyes as their loved one was ceremonially carried off the aircraft. I cannot imagine a more searing visualization of the true cost of conflict, and I will never forget those experiences.

Jihan Walker

Jihan Walker
Partner, Jones Day
Branch: U.S. Army
Years of Service: 2008 to 2016

As a prerequisite to becoming an Army officer, I attended a six-week intensive training program for cadets designed to simulate combat conditions and assess each cadet's ability to lead under pressure. I was the only female in my squad.

During an artillery exercise, a sergeant told my squadmates (outside of my presence) that he doubted my ability to load ammunition into a cannon due to my size and gender. My squadmates were immediately outraged on my behalf and demanded he give me the opportunity to load the ammunition.

To load it, you have to ram a solid, thick metal pole into the cannon. The pole was extremely heavy and certainly taller than me. Honestly, I had no desire to load it but my squadmates had already defended me to the sergeant. When I think back to this incident, I do not focus on the fact that I successfully loaded the cannon on my first attempt; rather, I remember and am still heartened by my squadmates' faith in me.

From that incident and the entire training program, I learned how to forge a strong team by building relationships with my teammates and supporting each other.

Theodore A. Wood

Theodore A. Wood
Managing Partner, Wood IP LLC
Branch: U.S. Air Force
Years of Service: 
1981 to 1995 (Active); 1995 to 2004 (IMA Reserves); Retired, 2004

From October 1998 to October 2004, I was an Air Force reserve lieutenant colonel assigned to the Pentagon's HQ Air Force Test & Evaluation Office. I was also an associate at Sterne Kessler beginning in April 2001. I typically traveled from my D.C. law office to the Pentagon one or two mornings a week to fulfill my military reserve duty, returning to Sterne Kessler in the afternoon.

On Sept. 10, 2001, I worked most of the day at the Pentagon, then traveled to the Department of Justice to collect material to review the next day at the Pentagon. But after experiencing brake trouble, I dropped off my car for service. No loaner car was available so I had to pick up a rental the next morning from BWI airport. As a result, I would have to arrive late to the Pentagon.

That next morning was Sept. 11, 2001. While I drove to the Pentagon in my rental car, AA Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. I would soon hear that our nation was under attack. My colleagues, who sat in a different part of the Pentagon, escaped the initial impact. But the back wall of my office had collapsed, allowing the explosion inside. Everything in my office was incinerated.

The failure of my brakes on Sept. 10 likely saved my life that Sept. 11. About half of the people in the other offices for Army and Defense Intelligence Agency personnel perished. I was essentially called back to active duty that day, for the next year. My law firm was extremely supportive in assisting in the aftermath.

--Editing by Brian Baresch and Michael Watanabe.

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