New Dawn Journal: Reporting for a New Mission
by Capt. Jeffrey Sherman
Editor’s Note: This is an occasional column by Jeffrey Sherman, who will share his experiences as a deployed Reserve Officer as part of Operation New Dawn in Iraq. His first column delves into his decision to join the U.S. Army Reserve JAG Corps.
I donned my body armor, Kevlar helmet, and assault pack. I picked up my three duffel bags and headed out to the flight line. My heart pounded as I approached the waiting Blackhawk helicopter. I had only recently arrived at Joint Base Balad, Iraq—following some 70 hours of sleepless travel from my pre-deployment training at Fort Benning, Ga. I had never been on a helicopter before, I had never been this hot or tired before, and I found myself wondering how in the world I ended up here.
I began my career in 1994 as an associate at Thacher Proffitt & Wood, located in the middle floors of Two World Trade Center. I had many friends there, and we kept in close touch even after I moved on to new opportunities in Colorado.
Like most Americans, I spent the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, glued to the television. I remember standing with my law partner, Bill Callison, watching the fiery impact of the second plane, seeing smoke pouring from the windows of offices just like mine, and finally, watching the shocking, seemingly slow-motion collapse of the massive tower. I reeled from the overwhelming image. The television news contained only confusion. Was this a coordinated attack? Were there more than four planes? Was there a car bomb at the State Department? I felt powerless in the face of this threat to my country, my friends, and my family.
In the emotionally fraught weeks after 9/11, I remembered that my legal administrative assistant, Heidi Thigpen, previously had mentioned her military service to me. She served as a Paralegal Non-Commissioned Officer in the U.S. Army Reserve JAG Corps. She talked about how much she enjoyed her work and encouraged me to consider it. When she mentioned it, I did not give it serious consideration. I was a newly minted partner at Faegre & Benson, working hard on the steady stream of dot-com and telecommunication deals that were flooding the market. I had a wife and a new son, and during the few hours I wasn’t at the office, I wanted to spend time with my family. There was no room in my life for military service
After the attacks, though, something changed. My wife, sensing my feelings of sadness, anxiety, and helplessness, asked me if I would like to reconsider the Army Reserve. It was an opportunity to give back to the country that had given me so much. I could be empowered, knowing that I was contributing in some small way to our country’s defense. On the other hand, I had no previous military experience. I didn’t grow up in a military family, participate in ROTC, or attend a military college. I worried that I wouldn’t be physically or mentally tough enough, and I had no idea whether my personality was compatible with military culture. Fortunately for me, several other Denver-area lawyers serve as officers in the JAG Corps. Andy Efaw, Bret Heidemann, and Dan McAuliffe all offered me the benefit of their experience, giving me great advice and encouragement.
Once I made this difficult decision, I still wanted to broach the idea with my firm. I was unsure what the reaction would be, but John Shively, our management committee representative, could not have been more supportive. My partners stepped up to assist my clients during my training and gave me tremendous encouragement. I was so pleased by my firm’s commitment to community service and so proud to be a part of such a group that valued my small contribution.
Then, the fun began. During the summer of 2003, I attended the JAG Officer Basic Course, where I learned to march, salute, fire a weapon, and other basic skills required of all soldiers. I learned to navigate through the swamps of Virginia with only a map and compass (to the vast amusement of my wife, who had long ago given me up as a die-hard non-camper). I led a squad of soldiers through a leadership reaction course that tested our creativity, strength, and courage. We had to climb walls, jump on ropes, and walk on wooden planks while carrying ammunition boxes high above water obstacles to get to safety. I came out of my basic course very excited to be a new Army officer.
Like most civilian lawyers, I had no idea how military law worked or that such a thing even existed. I was surprised to learn that the Army runs its own law school—The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Va. The Legal Center sits right next to the University of Virginia School of Law. Through their programs, I was trained in the core military law disciplines: military justice, fiscal law, administrative law, international law, operational law, claims, and legal assistance.
Since receiving my commission in 2002, I have continued to learn and grow as a military lawyer. I have been sent all over the continental United States, Europe, and Hawaii in support of JAG Corps missions. The Army gave me the opportunity to provide legal assistance to thousands of soldiers prior to their deployments overseas. It was incredibly gratifying to be able to assist those men and women who were risking their lives. I participated in the courts-martial and separations of soldiers who committed wrongdoing, which gave me the opportunity to practice law in an area that was far outside my normal comfort zone as a transactional corporate lawyer. I trained deploying JAGs at large-scale mission readiness exercises, where we simulate missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, including using actors who play local civilians and combatants. In addition, I advised commanders on a wide variety of legal issues that ranged from constitutional issues to labor law to federal appropriations law.
Amazing as they were, none of those experiences fully prepared me to deploy for a year into a war zone. I knew that I was well-trained and well-equipped. I knew that my clients back home were being served by my partners at Faegre. Now, I was standing on a hot, dusty tarmac, realizing that theory was over, and the mission had begun. Now, it was up to me.
Generously, the crew chief grabbed one of my bags and helped me strap into the helicopter. The pounding began to ease as we lifted straight up into the dusty blue Iraqi sky. My spirits soared as the Blackhawk took off. With a gunner at each door and me right behind them, we sped off, shadowed by our wing man. In 10 minutes, I would be at FOB Warhorse, my workplace for the next year, and the home of the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
Jeff Sherman practices corporate and securities law at Faegre & Benson LLP in Denver. He is serving as a Judge Advocate with the 2nd Stryker Advise and Assist Brigade, 25th Infantry Division at FOB Warhorse, Iraq.