With the U.S. marking the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, The Am Law Daily, a Daily Report affiliate, contacted lawyers with personal connections to a conflict that claimed the lives of roughly 4,500 Americans and untold Iraqis for their thoughts a decade after the invasion.
The American Lawyer first reported in 2007 on the experience of several attorneys in the war zone. Two of those lawyers were Army Reserve officer and former Williams & Connolly associate Joseph Fluet III and ex-Venable associate Alice "Tally" Parham, one of the first American women to fly a fighter jet in combat.
Parham, now a partner at South Carolina firm Wyche in Columbia, spent 16 years in the South Carolina Air National Guard, where she flew sorties over Baghdad in her F-16. Parham’s final flight was in January 2012, and she’s now dedicated herself to her law practice and her family, including her two children Wyatt and Mia.
Fluet, a veteran of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (where he handpicked a group of Afghan pilots to form the country’s first counternarcotics squad), is now a founding and managing partner of Lake Ridge, Va.-based Fluet, Huber & Hoang, a firm he started with fellow combat veterans, several of whom have special operations expertise.
One of them, former Williams & Connolly associate Francis Hoang, was evacuated from Saigon at the age of 2 before going on to graduate in the top 1 percent of his class at West Point. Hoang, now a name partner at Fluet Huber, agreed to share publicly an excerpt from a private blog he wrote while on deployment in Afghanistan about his transition from White House counsel to soldier.
Lastly, we caught up with L. Okey Onyejekwe Jr., a former IP litigation associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges whom we last spoke with in 2008 after he had returned to the firm after serving as a flight surgeon in Iraq when his Air Force Reserve unit was called up. Onyejekwe, who was working the morning shift at a Manhattan hospital on 9/11, is now at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman in Silicon Valley, where he was happy to report he had just made partner at the firm.
Below, Parham, Fluet, Hoang, and Onyejekwe reflect on their service overseas and how their lives have changed over the past few years.
The passages above have been condensed and edited for grammar, style and clarity.
A young fighter pilot
As a young fighter pilot chosen to participate in the initial wave of attack in the first major combat experience of my "career," I was thrilled at the opportunity to rise to the challenge: to put years of training to the test, to fight from the tip of the spear, to overcome fear and the unknown, to unleash chaos on identified targets. I had spent years learning how to destroy things and kill people, replacing emotion and deliberation with efficiency and effectiveness.
Ten years later, it’s hard not to get sick to my stomach when I think about it.
As a delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I was asked by a reporter for my opinion on the conflict in Iraq. Obviously, given the nature of our task, I had left my own personal views at home while I was deployed, and it took a long time to mentally return to a place from which I could comfortably engage in the discourse about the conflict. In July 2004, my answer to the reporter’s question was that no one wants to come back from combat and think that it wasn’t justified, and that I would hate to think that my parents were misled into sending their daughter to war. I was harshly criticized by fellow pilots for this remark.
Since I was last interviewed by The American Lawyer, I have given birth to a son and daughter of my own. As all children, they are small but ruthless seekers of truth, which fills me with equal parts pride, enlightenment, and dread. I flew my final sortie in the F-16 last year, and my son explains cheerfully that I stopped flying so that I can watch him grow up. Little does he know, he is watching me grow up too.
Profound effect of combat
Fluet: My time in combat had a profound effect on how I approach everything in life, including the practice of law. I learned that staying true to my core values is paramount. My response was to found my own firm and seek out other attorneys who share those values of service, integrity, and commitment to excellence. I found such attorneys in my fellow combat veterans, and they form the core of a firm I founded shortly after returning from Afghanistan.
We have grown quickly and now have 18 lawyers in two offices near Washington, D.C. We are full service, but with an emphasis on national security and what we call "expeditionary law," meaning legal services in remote areas. Although we are small, last year we had lawyers in 27 different countries. Just last month we helped lead a trade delegation to meet with senior officials in Libya.
Three of my partners are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and two of our of counsel visited those countries as senior government officials. We have another partner who is veteran of the conflict in Somalia. It occurs to me that we probably have as many or more combat veterans as any Am Law 50 firm.
Hoang: What is it that motivates a soldier? Why would any man exchange a life of comfort and pleasure for one of hardship and potential harm? Every soldier has their reasons and no two soldiers’ reasons are the same. Almost all soldiers are motivated by a desire to serve, a sense of honor, and a love of their country. But surely part of the answer must also be that in war, the world is vivid, the world is real, the world is reduced to its most basic struggle: life or death.
In war, the unimportant, the trivial, and the petty fades away in the harsh light of the daily struggle to complete the mission, take care of the man next to you, and to do one’s duty. What remains is pure living, life distilled into its essence, where simply being alive is joyful. That appreciation of life, and the beauty of living, can be carried by the soldier long after he has left the battlefield. And having such an appreciation—especially one so hard earned—allows an old soldier, wherever his path through life takes him, to take point.
Far from Big Law
Onyejekwe: When Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003, I had not finished my medical training, not taken a single law school class, and not yet been commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. I was not married, and had no responsibilities to anyone other than myself. By the time I arrived in 2008 at Balad Air Base in Iraq — at the tail end of the "surge" — my world had changed dramatically.
Literally days earlier, I was drafting legal briefs, and then suddenly, on my first night in Balad, I was manning triage for my first of several "mass casualty" situations. Days later, I was in the back of a Blackhawk helicopter running a medical transport mission from Balad to Baghdad and back again. And before it was all said and done, places I’d only read about, like Tikrit and Mosul, were regular destinations.
From my vantage point as a young captain, there was nowhere farther from the world of "big law" than where I was now—nowhere farther from everything I had become used to since the start of the war five years earlier. Now, I was looking for downtime to Skype with my wife and praying that I would still have a job once the dust had settled from the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008. But there was very little time for such reflection during such once-in-a-lifetime events. It was only afterward, during events like these commemorating 10 years since the start of the war, that one has the opportunity to reflect on just what a decade of conflict really means.
If one word could summarize my feelings on the years since my deployment, it would be guilt. I am among the fortunate few who had a smooth landing. Today, when I look into the faces of my two young boys, I recall how such innocence was forever robbed from the countless Iraqi children I saw and treated. Some of these children are now teenagers, still with limited prospects for a peaceful and prosperous life. Others never made it that far.
I look at my own children here in the U.S. and reflect on the many parents who will never again share the moments that I’m so blessed to share because their sons or daughters made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Many more families are still struggling to put the pieces back together from a permanent physical or mental disability, or from the financial hardship that followed when loved ones came home to a scarcity of job opportunities. For these reasons, I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to look at Operation Iraqi Freedom as a "success," personally or even from a macro level, any more than it was an experience that helps to remind us domestically of our relative good fortune, much the way such traumatic events tend to do.
Brian Baxter writes for The Am Law Daily, a Daily Report affiliate.