Celebrating our Veterans

By Steve Krupa.  

Greetings my friends! With Veterans Day behind us, I started thinking about how my military service as a Judge Advocate (JA) Officer both benefited and defined me as a civilian attorney. There are quite a few Pierce County lawyers who were JAs including US District Court Judge Settle and Pierce County Superior Court Judges Nevin, Costello and soon to be Judge Quinlan.

The nexus between being a JA and success as a civilian lawyer would seem pretty obvious so I decided to write about some members of our local Bar who served their country in a non-legal capacity. I wanted to know why they joined the military, what job they had, and how their military service either affected their decision to become an attorney or helped them in their legal careers. I also asked them to include a story about an interesting event that occurred during their service, and to include a picture.

I got enthusiastic responses from folks who served in every branch of the military. The following accounts are in each veteran’s own words with slight editing. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

Captain Amanda Searle, Army  – Plaintiffs Attorney, Connelly Law Offices

Then 1LT Searle somewhere in Iraq

Growing up, I had always been interested in working for the government. Service to my country, self-discipline, and being a part of something larger than myself ultimately made me want to explore an opportunity in the military. My sophomore year at Lafayette College, I took a Military Science class in Land Navigation and loved it! The summer between my sophomore and junior years of College, I went to Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I did well and was offered a scholarship for my last two years of school, so I jumped at the opportunity! After my college graduation, on May 19, 2001, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the U.S. Army. I was assigned to the Signal Corps, which sets up secure and non-secure communications (phones and internet) in tactical and garrison settings. After attending the Officer Basic Course at Fort Gordon, I was stationed in Germany for four years.

When we arrived in Kuwait in March of 2003, I learned my platoon had been assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force as one of the two major U.S. land forces to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Our mission was to set up communications along the supply route heading to Baghdad from the Kuwait border.  The land invasion was preceded by an airstrike on the Presidential Palace in Baghdad on March 20.

I recall lying on the hood of my truck at dusk about five miles from the Iraq border, looking up at the sky as the missiles flew overhead and waiting for the booms that followed as they struck the earth. The following day (three days before my 24thbirthday) my platoon was part of the first coalition forces to cross the Kuwait-Iraq border. As platoon leader, I was the convoy commander—meaning that I was the lead vehicle responsible for safely getting us to our objective. What struck me as odd was the absolute chaos of those first few days. For some reason, I thought war would be more organized. But it wasn’t. The supply points and refueling stations had not been set up yet and the supply route was not secured, so we had no idea what lay ahead as we drove further into Iraq and closed in on Baghdad.

My driver and I didn’t sleep for days as we tried to navigate our way across the expansive desert to the small winding streets that led us through towns where local nationals swarmed the streets.  We had no idea whether they were friendly or whether they were going to attack. Unfortunately, it went both ways. What was fascinating to learn about myself was how focused I could be, no matter how exhausted, when fueled with sheer adrenaline and fear of the unknown.

My service in the military has opened so many doors for me as an attorney. I think having done military service shows a certain sense of self-discipline and accountability, along with an ability to work hard under pressure and to be a good team member. I think this has been beneficial in my previous job searches. Trials for me are akin to being at war. You depend on your co-counsel to have your back and you prepare as if you are going to battle for your client. Just like those I went to war with, there is a certain unspoken trust and bond between colleagues who try cases together. It is so gratifying to work with a firm full of professionals who are like-minded.

Captain Mark Arend, Air Force – Family Law Attorney, McKinley Irvin

Captain Mark Arend, inverted and supersonic

I joined for many reasons, a couple of which stand out: it was an opportunity to serve, I really liked that.  I could make it through pilot training (many didn’t). Serving represented an opportunity to learn a lot, including flying all over the world.

I served in the US Air Force as a Fighter Pilot. (editor’s note: Mark flew the F 15 Eagle). I was selected for a NATO fighter pilot training program at the start of my service and that changed everything. I came from small towns (Yakima, Westport). I didn’t know much. I learned incredible things from the service members of many countries and cultures on the other side of the world. I made lifetime friends that live just about everywhere. That has changed my perspective forever.

During my service, it was obvious that teamwork was number 1. In my command, only a few people out of thousands became pilots. It took a massive effort from a lot of people to make sure one  jet was ready for takeoff. We were all in it together. Frankly, I had the easiest job with the best view.  Recognizing and appreciating everyone’s contribution to our mission turned out to be the most rewarding and memorable part of my service, by far. It’s the same in the law.

Sergeant Mike Schwartz, Army – Judge, Pierce County Superior Court

Sergeant Schwartz on a Jeep, Hawaii

I was a junior in college at the time, attending James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. A buddy of mine, a football teammate, began talking to me about joining, so we went down to the recruiter to see what our options were. “Oh the places you’ll go”, he said. I wasn’t too happy at school by that time, and felt I needed a change of scenery. After I took the ASVAB, the recruiter told me I could have my pick of jobs. At the time, you could also pick your duty station (you can’t do that any longer). I thought, “I’ve never been to Hawaii,” and before you know it, I signed up. Looking back on it, I probably should have waited to graduate, and then become an officer, but it was a good decision for me at the time and I’ve never regretted it.

I joined the Army and was a 95B, Military Police. I had an interest in a law enforcement career, so it seemed a good fit. Little did I know that, for the most part, you manned a gate, mostly at god-awful hours, or spent time training in the field. We got to travel quite a lot, though, with deployments and training exercises, so I got to see a bit of the world.

I once deployed to Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific with a small security team. At the time, it was the site of an Army base with a missile launch site. When they asked for volunteers, one of my warrant officers, who was tasked with putting together the team, pointed at me and said, “Schwartz, you’re going.” It turned out to be a great trip, as I got to explore the island the Marines and Army took from the Japanese in 1944, during World War II. There were still bunkers and wrecks of landing craft, but also areas that were a no-go because of unexploded ordnance. The water around the atoll was the bluest I had ever seen, and the reefs were visible from shore.

As I said, I have never regretted joining the Army, and my experience has literally formed my life’s endeavors since then. I was able to surpass what I thought were my limits, both mentally and physically. My service boosted my self-confidence, as well as my self-reliance. Importantly, my service taught me to never be afraid to try new things, and that discipline and commitment to a goal were key in my future endeavors. It also taught me the principles of leadership, (both good and bad) which has helped me enormously in my professional career.

Marine Science Technician 3 Alicia McCormick, Coast Guard – Staff Attorney, Northwest Justice Project

MST3 McCormick on “Ice Liberty” in Antartica

I joined the military right out of high school for pretty practical reasons. I wasn’t quite ready to commit to college and I really didn’t have the financial means to attend. I received a brochure for the Coast Guard in the mail when I was a senior in high school and decided then to join the military.  I was a military kid growing up and we settled in Washington because of Ft. Lewis (now JBLM), so it was a natural option for me to consider military service right out of high school.

I served four years in the U.S. Coast Guard as an enlisted person. Right out of basic training (boot camp), I was stationed onboard the icebreaker Polar Star as an engineer’s apprentice (Fireman). A few years in, I attended “A” school for training as a marine science technician (MST) and was stationed in the San Francisco Bay area doing pollution investigation work.

My Coast Guard service gave me a lot of unique experiences, but I would probably say time spent on the icebreaker Polar Star was by far the most interesting life experience to me. Shipboard life can get quite challenging, but our superiors knew how to make some moments pretty fun. Like swim call at the equator (with the small boats out doing shark patrol) and giving the crew “ice liberty” in Antarctica to ring in the New Year.

Looking back on my time in the Coast Guard, it was very empowering. Military service truly gave me the confidence to become a lawyer. And, with my GI Bill benefits, I was able to pay for undergrad and law school. Also, a few life lessons from basic training have stuck with me and served me well during my legal career, like the value of teamwork, attention to details, and respect for the rules.

Petty Officer 3 Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Rob Freeby, Navy – Criminal Defense Attorney, Law Offices of Robert Freeby

Then SN3 Rob Freeby as a blue jacket

I joined the military because I wanted to see the world and experience some adventure!  Vietnam had just ended when I joined the service in 1976. After being raised on a hog farm in the south-central area of Michigan, I was hungry for the opportunity to serve my country but I also wanted a job in the service that would be challenging and rewarding.

I joined the United States Navy. My job was as an “operator” in the Underwater Demolition/SEAL teams. While I was on active duty, my platoon was not activated for any combat missions. However, we did train daily. My job involved understanding and becoming proficient in hand to hand combat and the use of various weapons, parachuting, scuba diving, small unit tactics, and using various explosives, cross training with other branches of the military. And we trained with foreign special operations personnel as well.

While completing a joint exercise with the Marine Corps on the island of Sardinia, I had the chance of saving a young marine when he fell from his landing vehicle as it was attempting to load onto an amphibious ship. The young marine was weighted down with his combat gear to include a heavy flak jacket, and every time he was able to push himself above water, he had enough time to spit out the water he had ingested and to tell me that he didn’t need any help. I remember thinking that while he was displaying a good deal of confidence, he also appeared to be tiring from his desperation to stay above water, which did not look like he was overcoming. Eventually I was able to get that young marine into a lifeboat, back onto his amphibious craft and aboard the ship. It actually was a very humorous moment for a second or two.

Near the end of my initial enlistment, I decided that given the number of near-death experiences I encountered during my service and the number of fellow teammates that had died as a result of dangerous exercises we engaged in, that I needed to look for a new career that might not be as dangerous. Shortly after making that decision, I met a new frogman that had just checked into our team who was a recent graduate from law school. After many hours of chatting about law school and a career in Law, I decided I would be college and law school bound! No one in my family had ever been to college, let alone a professional school like law. Notwithstanding my lack of formal education (graduating from high school with a 1.9 gpa), I knew from making it through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training that I could achieve anything once I put my mind to it. My graduating class of ’96 initially started out with 119 guys who wanted to be Navy frogman/Seals. However, only 19 of us actually graduated six and half months later from that training. I still chat with many of my classmates often because of the bonds we made during those months of sacrifice during training.

Now forty-four years later, I find myself still telling clients, young and old, that they can achieve anything in this world; they simply need to believe in themselves and never give up until that goal has been accomplished. When a person believes they can accomplish a feat, they often do accomplish that feat, whatever it maybe. Well that’s my story and I’m sticking with it!

Sergeant Steven Avila, Army – Veterans Court Defense Attorney, Pierce County Department of Assigned Counsel

A very young Sergeant Avila in Iraq

I joined for a couple of reasons. It was the first opportunity I had to exercise some agency. I did not give it a lot of thought, in all honesty. I did not want to go to college, because I did not know what I wanted to pursue. Joining the military gave me a chance to get out of my comfort zone, challenge myself, while also giving me some life options (college, career military, green to gold then career). My family was shocked. I had never expressed an interest before in enlisting, but they were very supportive.

I enlisted in the Army, active duty. My MOS, or Military Skill Identifier, was Chemical Operations Specialist, or was commonly known as NBC (nuclear, bio, chem) now as CBRN (chem, bio, radiological, nuclear). I did my training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. I was assigned to a chemical reconnaissance company, basically in the event there had been a suspected use of chemical weapons we would go in. I deployed with this company to Kuwait. When I returned, I was reassigned to the sister company that did biological reconnaissance and deployed with that company to Iraq but there we did convoy security. On my first deployment, I had a chance to work with the Kuwaiti military and train them in a lot of our procedures; that was a very cool experience.

Overall, joining the military wasn’t the difficult choice, it was how I used the time that mattered. While deployed, my NCO told me that he was going to submit my name for the sergeant’s promotion. I had no desire to get promoted as I was planning on separating and had already been stop/lossed for this deployment. I was reading a book, a military fiction novel, and the dedication was to sergeants everywhere, something to the effect of “to all the sergeants who have tried to make men from boys”, (I probably botched that, but it’s close). That made me think of all the great sergeants I had who positively impacted my enlistment and professional development, but had also helped me grow up. I ended my career getting promoted to sergeant and was really glad I did. That attitude is something I drew upon when choosing to pursue my present career.

Captain Ben Nelson, Marine Corps – Deputy Prosecutor, Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office

Then Sergeant Nelson and Lieutenant General Patraeus, Iraq

I was a junior in high school during 9/11. The terrorist attacks on our country made me realize that the world was not as safe and peaceful as I had assumed. Like many of us, that tragedy left me with a strong desire to take action — to do something about it. I joined up out of high school and went on to serve 12 years of combined active duty and reserve time.

I was in the Marine Corps, first as an enlisted Marine and then as an officer. As an enlisted Marine, I was in landing support, which is basically general logistics (a lot of convoys and airfield operations). As an officer, I was a combat engineer, which includes everything from building bases to blowing things up.

Some interesting experiences I had: helping transport and provide security for poll workers during the 2005 Iraqi national election, meeting General David Petraeus in 2008 in Ramadi, Iraq; wading through the Helmand River in Afghanistan during a rainstorm.

Living in Iraq and Afghanistan gave me a deep appreciation for the rule of law and the many civil institutions we have (elections, jury trials, the post office, etc.). As a lawyer, I get to help uphold the rule of law and improve some of our vital institutions. My training and experience overseas prepared me for trial work. Like combat, trial work requires a good plan, as well as the flexibility and humility to change that plan once things go sideways; it requires significant mental and physical endurance; and, it requires embracing the unknown and getting comfortable being uncomfortable. Whenever I am feeling stressed out at work, there is a little voice in the back of my head saying, “you could be back in Iraq or Afghanistan – hot, tired, miserable.”


Steve Krupa is a staff attorney at Northwest Justice Center where he is working on Veterans Law issues. Prior to that, he was a partner at Krupa & Clark for almost 25 years.  Steve has over 23 years of military service as a Judge Advocate. He can be reached at steve.krupa@nwjustice.org