Editor’s Note: In recognition of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Texas Bar Blog is republishing this article from the May 2005 issue of the Texas Bar Journal about Texas lawyers called to active-duty military service.
By Morgan Morrison
More than 300,000 members of the U.S. Reserve and National Guard have been called to active duty military service since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and many others served in the preceding decade on missions throughout the world. These men and women left their civilian lives for assignments such as training soldiers for the new Afghan and Iraqi armies, rebuilding infrastructure, and providing and maintaining security and stability. Among these reservists are several Texas attorneys, who answered their country’s call and gained experiences of a lifetime.
A Father’s Duty
Craig H. Russell, an assistant attorney general with the Texas Office of the Attorney General, arrived in the Middle East in January 2005 for a yearlong tour. Leaving his home in Cedar Park for Tallil Air Base, near Nasiriyah, Iraq, was especially difficult because it meant saying goodbye to his wife, Carleen, and their infant son Ryan. “I feel like I am missing all of these precious moments,” Russell said.
Russell, who joined the Texas Army National Guard in September 2003, expected to be called to active duty.
“We knew for several months that the Guard was going to send a brigade to Iraq. It was really just a question of which lawyers from division headquarters were going to be sent with the soldiers,” he said.
Russell, who attended college on a Naval ROTC scholarship, had been deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1992 and 1993 on the U.S.S. Jarrett, a guided missile frigate.
“I have two jobs in Iraq,” Russell said. “I am the operational law attorney for my brigade, the 56th Brigade Combast Team, and I also serve as trial counsel for the 194th Engineering Bridge.” His responsibilities include training and advising soldiers on the rules of engagement and acting as the prosecutor for a group of 3,000 soldiers.
“Most of the criminal issues are minor and are handled administratively,” he said. “However, if a soldier turns down an administrative punishment or the commanders believe that the offense is serious enough, I prosecute the offending soldier in a court martial like a county prosecutor or district attorney would do.”
Handling criminal cases is new for Russell. Since graduating from the University of San Diego School of Law in 1998, Russell has practiced construction-defect and employment litigation on the defense side and worked with his father, Douglas D. Russell, at Taylor Russell & Russell, P.C., an intellectual property firm in Austin. At the AG’s office, he represents state agencies, universities, and employees in civil rights and employment discrimination lawsuits.
“I am a civil litigator in the civilian world,” Russell said. “I come into the picture after events have occurred and a lawsuit has been filed. I argue about what has already happened.
“In the military, I have the opportunity to train and help the soldiers understand the laws and rules under which they operate so they are prepared to act in circumstances where they need to make quick decisions. I have the chance to help someone before the legal system comes into play.”
Russell enjoys his support role in Iraq.
“The real heroes are the junior enlisted soldiers and non-commissioned officers,” he explained. “To be able to work with these soldiers and be a small part of what they do is the best and most rewarding part of my job.”
Come as You Are
“I was in quasi-retirement,” said Judge Wayne A. Christian, who left San Antonio in January 2003 for an active duty assignment with the U.S. Army, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne). Christian had served on the bench of Bexar County Court at Law No. 9 since 1996, but lost his reelection bid in November 2002. Within a few weeks of leaving office, he headed to Fort Bragg, N.C., for training and then to Kabul, Afghanistan.
Christian had close to 25 years of military experience. After earning his J.D. from St. Mary’s University School of Law, he served three years of active duty as a Judge Advocate General with the 82nd Airborne Division. Since 1986, he has taken various Special Forces assignments with the U.S. Army Reserve. After 9/11, Christian’s unit was put on active alert, and he volunteered to go to Afghanistan.
In Kabul, Green Berets with the 3rd Special Forces Group were charged with training the first recruits for the new Afghan National Army and capturing members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Christian again served as a JAG, providing 24-hour legal support. He briefed teams on international law and the rules of engagement before they left for missions and responded to their questions from the field.
“Lives were on the line. One of the most challenging aspects was having to make decisions within a few minutes that could end up in the headlines on CNN the next day,” Christian said. He describes the responsibility as similar to his role as a judge, but with more critical time pressures. “This was a ‘come-as-you-are’ war. All of my training, education, and experience was put to the test,” he explained.
Another challenge was the country’s lack of legal and economic structure. “Afghanistan was like the Wild West. There were no police, laws, or banks and often no written contracts. Everything was done in cash,” Christian said. Even the mission’s $473 million budget was all in cash.
“The most rewarding part of this experience has been serving with the Green Berets, the finest soldiers in the world,” Christian said. “They have to be intelligent enough to understand the international impact of their actions and courageous enough to jump out of airplanes.”
Christian left Afghanistan in July 2003 as a lieutenant colonel, but has since been promoted to colonel. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his efforts in Afghanistan.
He left active duty in October 2003. He has returned to private practice, handling primarily criminal defense and family law matters, and hopes one day to serve as a judge again. Of his recent military service, Christian said, “The timing was right and the cause was just.”
A Sacrifice and a Privilege
A. Bentley Nettles, an attorney with West, Webb, Albritton and Gentry, P.C. in College Station, is a veteran of three active duty tours since 2000. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
“When I was at Texas A&M, we studied the folks who fought in WWII and Korea,” he explained. “I always wondered how they did it. But now I find myself in the same position. I do it because my country keeps asking.”
Nettles spent 10 months in Bosnia, where he served as an operational law officer, advising soldiers on the rules of engagement and the legalities of capturing and holding war criminals. He served six-month tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq as an information officer. Nettles’ responsibilities included information management—protecting the command’s information systems and attacking the enemy’s.
Althought he tours were only a few months apart, Nettles describes his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq as completely different. “The Afghan operation was about one-tenth of the size of the Iraqi operation, and it was more permissible to move around the country,” Nettles said. “We experienced rocket attacks about three times a month in Afghanistan. In Iraq, it was about three times a week.”
On Oct. 24, Nettles was injured in a rocket attack while waiting to take a shower. He suffered hearing loss and minor injuries from shrapnel. A person standing at a sink behind him was killed. “How do you explain that?” Nettles asked. “Some might say luck. I say divine intervention. God has a plan for me to do something else.”
Nettles worked the entire day following the attack. “I thought it was important to set an example for my subordinates that what we were doing was important and we were not going to allow the enemy to deter us,” he explained. Nettles earned a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for his service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I am constantly amazed at how far I have come and how many things I have had the opportunity to do,” said Nettles. One of the highlights was helping to reopen an Iraqi television and radio station near the Iranian border. He believes his law training helped him in his military service.
“I am able to think analytically and see probabilities,” he said. “I can also deal with planning issues and come up with different courses of action.”
With 20 years of Texas Army National Guard service, Nettles left active duty at the end of March and returned to work at West, Webb, Albritton and Gentry. “The firm has been nothing but supportive of my involvement,” he said.
Under current military policy, Nettles is not eligible for active duty for another three years. But if asked again, Nettles will go. “The practice of law is challenging, but doing something for your country has its own rewards,” he said. “Doing your best job for your country is a sacrifice that is a privilege and an honor to make.”
Pack Your Bags, Soldier
Practically the first words Milton Henderson, an assistant city attorney and community prosecutor for the City of Dallas, heard after joining the Texas Army National Guard in 1999 were, “Pack your bags, soldier.”
“At my commission hearing, a major came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to Bosnia,’” Henderson said. “I thought he was joking, but he never took it back.” While surprised by the quick deployment, Henderson welcomed the opportunity. “I have always wanted to travel internationally, and this was a chance to learn firsthand what the military was all about.”
Before calling up soldiers, the Guard typically asks first for volunteers. In Henderson’s case, he could have declined the Bosnia assignment. At the time, he had been out of law school for about two years and was in private practice in Houston, handling a variety of cases. “Whatever came in the door,” Henderson said.
However, he decided the deployment was too great an experience to turn down. “I realized the longer I stayed in practice, the more difficult it would be to leave,” he said. “This opportunity was worth more to me than my beginning law practice.”
Prior to joining the Guard, Henderson had no military experience. He graduated from Jackson State University with a finance degree and attended the University of Arkansas School of Law. He only considered the military after meeting a major in the JAG Corps in court. “My friends and family members told me, ‘Do it, don’t let it pass,’” Henderson said. “After doing my own research, I applied and was commissioned as a first lieutenant.”
Henderson arrived at Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina for his nine-month tour with the 49th Armored Division (now the 36th Infantry Division) in February 2000. This peacekeeping mission was charged with separating the warring Bosnian factions. “It was the most rewarding and most intense experience,” Henderson said. “I was a 34-year-old lawyer, who felt lost at times.”
Henderson first served as a legal assistance officer at the Eagle Base headquarters. He helped soldiers with many of the same issues he handled in his private practice—family matters, criminal issues, contracts, real estate, adoption, immigration—plus military discipline and military property issues. “My civilian law experience was invaluable in allowing me to help these men and women,” he said.
Later, Henderson served as the only lawyer at the Camp McGovern base camp in northern Bosnia. One of his duties was to act as a claims officer, helping to investigate and settle damage disputes between the local population and the military. In this role, Henderson learned “what the people in the area really valued.” For instance, a fire at a shooting range spread to private property. “The owners were concerned about the burned trees that they would need for firewood in the winter,” Henderson explained.
After gaining this “clearer, broader perspective” on the world, Henderson needed time to readjust to life in the United States. “I saw extreme poverty in Bosnia,” he said. “I felt cynical hearing some of the complaints back home.”
From this trial by fire, Henderson has found a good fit in the military. He has since been promoted to captain and is the company of the 71st Troop Command, headquartered in Austin. “I consider joining the Texas Guard as one of the better decisions I’ve made,” Henderson said. “I have met many good, genuine people and plan on serving 20 years.”