With the nation marking the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, The Am Law Daily contacted lawyers with personal connections to a conflict that claimed the lives of roughly 4,500 Americans and untold Iraqis for their thoughts after the invasion.
The American Lawyer‘s Ben Hallman reported in 2007 on the experience of several attorneys in the war zone, and traveled to Iraq a year later for a feature story about rule of law reforms in the country. Hallman has moved on, but we reached out to some of those to whom he spoke, as well as other lawyers whom we’ve interviewed in recent years, about time they’ve spent in war-torn lands.
Here, in our first installment and in his own words, Adam Tiffen, a major in the Maryland Army National Guard and former Porter Wright Morris & Arthur associate who served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, reflects on how war affected him.
Six years ago I was interviewed for a piece in The American Lawyer entitled “Lawyers at War.” At the time, I had recently returned from an 18-month deployment to Iraq as an Infantry Rifle Platoon Leader with Bravo Company, 1-115th Infantry, Maryland Army National Guard. The Iraq war was four years old, the insurgency was at its height, and the surge had not yet happened.
It was a confusing time for me. During our deployment, the soldiers of Bravo Company had seen the worst the insurgency could throw at us. From routine rocket and mortar attacks and direct fire engagements to IEDs and a suicide car bomb. We lost one soldier during a training accident prior to the deployment and another soldier to a car accident right after we returned home.
The worst were the Iraqi casualties. The civilians caught in the crossfire, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Innocent Iraqis that were executed for speaking with us—like the kindly old imam who was shot dead by masked insurgents after we provided him with chicken wire to keep the rabbits out of his garden. Then there were those we never understood; the hogtied and tortured bodies we would occasionally find on the side of the road; or the nameless enemy who had blown himself into pieces while setting up a roadside bomb. For a year I was under constant stress, and I lived on a constant high.
I had returned from the deployment and soon found myself back behind my desk as a litigation associate in Porter Wright Morris & Arthur’s Washington, D.C., office. It was difficult settling back into the role of an attorney. At times, the concentration and focus required to be a successful litigator seemed to elude me. Almost overnight I had gone from a year of making decisions that had life-or-death consequences, to trying to focus on tedious document reviews or writing legal research memorandums.
The culture shock was overwhelming. I found myself struggling to understand what I had seen and experienced. What did my experiences mean? Did I make a difference? Did my deployment change me? If so, how did it change me? If not, why not? As Friedrich Nietzsche so aptly put it, “when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” I, like so many of my fellow soldiers, had looked into the abyss, and now I was trying to understand what my experiences meant and how they fit into my life.
Eight months after returning from Iraq and just six months after settling back into [Porter Wright], I found out that I was redeploying back to Baghdad. When I broke the news to my then girlfriend (now wife), and to the partners at the firm, the reaction I got was general disbelief. It was then that I realized my legal career would probably not emerge unscathed from my military career. I could excel at being a lawyer, or at being a soldier, but how could I excel at both?
The existential questions were temporarily put aside, along with my legal career. For 12 months I deployed as part of the Maryland Army National Guard’s 58th Brigade Combat Team, where I served as the personnel officer for the Iraqi Correctional Officer Training Academy at Camp Cropper. Arriving in Iraq, a year after I left, was a surreal experience. I could hardly believe I was there.
By this time, since graduating from George Washington University Law School in 2003, I had spent more time in combat boots and Army combat uniforms than I had in dress shoes or a suit and tie. Gradually it dawned on me—I had found a new “normal.” The concertina wire, checkpoints, and Army chow seemed more of my everyday life than client meetings, depositions, or drafting legal motions.
After returning home in 2008, I found the adjustment to life as a lawyer to be even more difficult. I had accumulated about two years of legal experience under my belt, and yet I was five years out of law school. My legal experience had been interrupted by prolonged periods of time where I was not practicing law. In many respects, practicing law is a perishable skill, and each time I returned home I found that there was a relearning curve that added to the complexity of practicing.
I was also dealing with the culture shock of being a civilian again. Whether it was training for deployment, deploying, redeploying home, or readjusting to life as a civilian, the war in Iraq had taken over my life for almost four years. In addition, the existential questions remained and were compounded by the time I spent during the second deployment. What did it all mean? Had my experiences changed me? How could I be a lawyer again, sitting behind a desk after what I had experienced? Was I a lawyer, or was I a soldier?
The attorneys and management at my firm were extremely supportive of this experience. I was given the time that I needed to readjust and settle into my legal practice. My progression as an attorney, however, had been interrupted. The regimented nature of working at a firm and the fact that I had been outside the mold for so long, meant that like so much of civilian life, I sometimes felt like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. I continued to practice at the firm until my final deployment.
On September 11, 2011, I deployed to Afghanistan for a year as the aide-de-camp to the Commanding General of the 29th Infantry Division. As a staff officer on the NATO ISAF-International Joint Command staff, I worked as part of a team from the 29th Infantry Division responsible for Afghan National Security Forces growth and development. The first time I rolled outside the wire in Kabul, in an armored vehicle, wearing body armor and carrying a loaded rifle, I asked myself, “Is this really happening again?” Practicing law had never seemed so far away.
In 2011, I left big law for the last time. Along with two partners, including a fellow veteran who served with me in Iraq on my first tour, I cofounded the company Tri-Star Collaborative LLC. Tri-Star focuses on sustainable development in postconflict environments and has offices in Washington, D.C., and Monrovia, Liberia.
Cofounding Tri-Star has enabled me to combine the best of my experiences in the military with the best of my experiences in the law. I have been able to apply the lessons I learned in Iraq and Afghanistan in postconflict stability and reconstruction to help rebuild Liberia, a country that has been devastated by civil war. I have also been able to utilize my legal experience in international trade, business, contracts, and my familiarity with issues such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Today, the company is slowly growing and expanding operations in Liberia, and we are starting to look at other postconflict environments, such as Libya and South Sudan. My comfort level in operating in austere, postconflict environments as a soldier has allowed me the freedom to approach opportunities and take calculated risks that others, without those experiences, might not pursue.
The war in Iraq has led me down some unexpected paths, both in my personal and professional life. In many ways, my legal career has mirrored my struggle with some of the more existential questions I continue to face. I continue to work to find meaning in my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and try to understand how those experiences have impacted my life. Fortunately, l have been able to harness those lessons and experiences and serve as in-house counsel for a company I cofounded, which has helped me answer some of these questions and combine both aspects of my professional experience. Am I a soldier, or am I a lawyer?
Ultimately, I have discovered that I don’t have to choose between the two. I can be both.
Editor’s note: The above has been condensed and edited for grammar, style, and clarity.