From Combat to Classroom: Veterans at UW Law School

Read the profiles of four student veterans, who shared how their military experiences have enhanced and guided their legal studies at UW Law School.

Their stories originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of the Gargoyle, the Law School's alumni magazine.

    Marine Dan RockDan Rock

    As a student coordinator for the Veterans Law Center, third-year law student and Marine Dan Rock works hard to help area veterans get the legal assistance they need—all while balancing school, work and family.

    Why did you choose to attend UW Law School?

    I had a rather unique decision process about which law school to attend, because it was not up to me but to the Marine Corps. Before I started law school, I was in the Marine Corps for over five years. I was commissioned in 2006 and served as an intelligence officer for most of that time. Right before law school, I was stationed in Quantico, Va.

    Wisconsin was definitely my first choice because I could get a great legal education. Plus I’m from Wisconsin and could be closer to my family for three years. The Marine Corps ultimately agreed to send me here because I could get in-state tuition, making it a very affordable option for them.

    Why did you become involved in the Pro Bono Program?

    I got involved to help set up and operate the Veterans Law Center through the Pro Bono Program. When I heard about VLC, I thought it was really a win-win proposition, since the student volunteers get the opportunity for practical, hands-on experience dealing with clients and attorneys, and the veterans get free legal advice that they may not be able to get elsewhere.

    What does the Veterans Law Clinic offer that veterans can’t get elsewhere?

    While there are a lot of legal resources available for veterans, it can be confusing: often when veterans have legal problems, they have no idea how to fix them. The volunteer attorneys and students at VLC help them determine what their next step should be and point them in the right direction.

    How have you applied your experience in the Marines to your work at VLC?

    The Marine Corps instills a certain work ethic in an individual, and that has been important in getting VLC up and running. Probably even more important is that I am also a veteran and have an understanding of what it means to serve in the military — I can relate to other veterans.

    How do you balance school, work and family?

    Time management is very important. I treat school and VLC like regular jobs and get as much done during the day as I can. When I get home, I focus on my family. I also try to keep my weekends free. I normally spend some time Sunday preparing for school and VLC work, but I keep the rest of the weekend open to spend time with my family.

    Will you continue to work on veterans’ legal issues after law school?

    After law school, I’ll continue to serve in the Marine Corps as a judge advocate. I find out where my next duty station will be this spring. The Marine Corps will certainly keep me busy, but when I have time, I will definitely continue to work on veterans’ legal issues.


    Learn more about the Veterans Law Center, a free walk-in clinic that serves low-income veterans and their families.

    Leigh Neville-Neil

    Leigh Neville-NeilThe path that led Leigh Neville-Neil to military service and ultimately UW Law School started with the criminal justice class she took as a freshman at Viterbo University in La Crosse. "I became interested in federal law enforcement. And at that time, military experience was preferred. As a sophomore, I joined the Reserves, took a semester off for basic training and military police school, and came back to college."

    After Neville-Neil completed the Wisconsin Police Academy training and while completing her final year at Viterbo, she began working full time for the Juneau County Sheriff’s Office. Her rigorous balancing act of full-time school and full-time work was cut short just days into her final semester, when she was called up to active military duty. "We got two days’ notice to report," she says. "I dropped my classes, put my belongings in storage, packed my gear and found a temporary home for my two Springer Spaniels."

    Neville-Neil flew to Kuwait and was placed on the military police team asked to do route reconnaissance, traveling ahead of the rest of the company to scout out routes into Iraq. On her next mission, she helped provide security to convoys for projects throughout Iraq. The team protected doctors and interpreters who were taken into villages to provide medical care. They guarded engineers building bridges, sewer lines and water sources for schools.

    In addition to convoy security, her company, which had only five women, guarded the "deck of cards," which included the most wanted Iraqi detainees, including Saddam Hussein when he was captured.

    Riding in the turret as a military gunner was very stressful, Neville-Neil says. "Every day I had to clean, maintain and mount a heavy, 75-pound, Mk 19 grenade launcher. We had Humvees from the first Gulf War, and they weren’t armored. Driving through the streets of Baghdad with thousands of people surrounding you while you are responsible for everyone's safety makes you hypervigilant."

    Neville-Neil also learned as much as she could about the country in which she was serving. "I got to know an Iraqi interpreter, Alla. He taught me a lot about the history and culture of Iraq and the Arabic language. Alla took many risks working for us. I wish I knew how he was doing today."

    When she learned her 365-day tour was being extended, Neville-Neil asked permission from her professors to complete her final four classes by correspondence. "We were busy, driving all the time," says Neville-Neil. "I studied when I could, reading with my flashlight in my tent, and I emailed my assignments when I had access to the Internet."

    Neville-Neil will graduate with concentrations in criminal law and family law from the UW Law School. She says that her class in sentencing and corrections last year made a profound impression on her. "As a cop I saw many people sentenced to time in jail and prison. That class helped me understand the importance of alternatives to incarceration and looking at each individual to determine what is appropriate."

    "Some criminal cases can be quite upsetting," she says. "But I think my military experience has toughened me to be able to consider those disturbing cases. I'm a more disciplined person now, and I've been exposed to things that make me better able to handle stress. And I know I can put in long hours to achieve a goal."

    Joshua Cornell

    falseInspired by his father's service in the Army during the Vietnam War, Joshua Cornell enlisted in the Marines while still in high school and left for basic training the summer he graduated. He trained for the military police, but was recruited by HMX-1, the presidential helicopter squadron.

    After receiving top-secret clearance, he was stationed at the Executive Alert Facility in Washington, D.C., providing security for local presidential helicopter trips, ferrying the president to Andrews Air Force Base or Camp David, and always at the ready to evacuate the president in case of emergency. "The helicopters go everywhere the president goes," says Cornell. His assignments took him around the United States, and to Brazil, England, South Africa, New Zealand and India. When his four-year tour ended in 2000, Cornell joined the Marine Corps Reserve and worked toward degrees in chemistry and criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. In 2004, he was mobilized to Iraq for one year as a member of Company G, 2/24, where he served as a squad leader responsible for infantry patrolling and checkpoints along the main supply route that runs from Kuwait to Baghdad. "We suffered some hard losses," he says. "But I know my unit performed well, and overall, our mission was successful."

    Returning to Wisconsin midway through the spring semester in 2005, Cornell attended the police academy and then worked at the Richland County Sheriff's Department while completing his final semester in the fall. After a year and a half with the Verona Police Department, he was called to active duty in 2007. As a platoon sergeant in Iraq, he supervised 40 infantry Marines.

    "It was definitely a different country than in 2004," he says, noting that Iraqi forces were given primary roles in many of the operations and much of the violent resistance was directed at Iraqis rather than at the U.S. Forces themselves. The unit’s efforts focused on patrolling and security, providing community security training, and connecting civilians to other services.

    Cornell returned to the Verona Police Department, where his law enforcement experience led him to consider law school. "Reading cases involving the things I was experiencing, such as evidence handling and searches and seizures, really sparked my interest. I enjoyed reading law and wanted to learn more."

    The same wish to serve his community that drew Cornell to the military also drew him to law school. "I see my law education as one more potential way of being helpful," he says.

    His main interest is criminal law. "I have always liked working in law enforcement, and I want to stay in a related field," he says.

    Kathleen Marschman

    Kathleen MarschmanKathleen Marschman joined the Army Reserve with a group of friends while attending UW-Oshkosh in 1986 during the height of the Cold War. The idea of combat was so remote then, it was an almost casual decision, but it has had a huge impact on her life and professional goals. After 11 years of a one-weekend-a-month/two-weeks-in-the-summer commitment, she attended Officer Candidate School, became a commissioned officer, and transferred to the National Guard.

    Following a national scandal in 2003 over the treatment that wounded Reserve and National Guard soldiers were receiving, Marschman went on active duty to create a new kind of medical hold unit for Reservists and National Guard soldiers who had been wounded or become ill while deployed. "We didn’t really know how it was all going to work out," she says.

    "I didn’t have any credentials aside from prior company command. I didn’t have any medical experience, but from 2004 until I retired in 2010, I got a global perspective of the military disability program, VA benefits, and the health-care arena," says Marschman. "I saw the full range of human response to injury, and the effects of war on the men and women who come back suffering physical and psychological wounds from war, and this is the experience that I hope to translate into advocacy once I become a lawyer."

    Each of the military branches of service is required to make a disability determination for those individuals who can no longer meet the physical requirements to serve. Marschman has seen how a disability determination by the army can mean the difference between leaving the army with a severance check for a few thousand dollars or receiving lifetime benefits for the soldier and his or her family.

    "The cards are stacked against the soldier," she says. "Because each of the services is its own bureaucracy, and the VA is another, they don't move quickly." It's the soldiers and their families who fall through the cracks, she says, adding that attorneys are in short supply, and the system is overwhelmed. "They deserve everything we can provide for them," she says. "It prompted me to think. 'I have the kind of experience that can add value for soldiers in the system.'"

    The timing worked out for Marschman to come off active duty in Virginia Beach and start law school at nearby Regent University the next day. She transferred to Madison for her second year. "It's wonderful to be at the UW Law School as these programs are being set up for veterans," she says. "The Law in Action aspect of my education is already giving me opportunities to serve veterans. Whatever class I am sitting in, I have a context that takes it beyond the conceptual, and I'm doing directed research that looks at local veterans' specific legal needs." 

    Marschman is especially excited about the Pro Bono Veterans Legal Clinic, launched in November 2012. "The program provides referrals to veterans for their civil matters like landlord/tenant issues. As part of my directed research, I am hoping to make contact with veteran advocates in the area to explore the specific needs of veterans in appealing their disability findings and upgrading their discharges so they can get their VA benefits. I hope to get something started to help veterans in that arena before I leave school."

    Nicholas Hahn

    Nicholas HahnWorking as an aide in Hawaii's state legislature piqued Nicholas Hahn's interest in the legal system, but before considering law school, Hahn opted to pay off his school loans and gain some life experience. The Iraq War had just started, and a dual sense of adventure and patriotism spurred him to enlist in the Navy. Hahn spent 65 weeks at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., learning Korean. "We had class for eight hours a day, then four hours of homework, and this as well as our military training," he says. He added extra study on his own, attending Korean church and spending two weeks of his free time in Korea. "I wanted to improve my language skills and get to know the country."

    After training, Hahn was stationed at the National Security Agency in Hawaii and was soon supervising a team of six analysts producing intelligence reports for policymakers at many ranks, including some at the national level. "That was good preparation for law practice," he says. Next he spent a month on the Navy Command Ship U.S.S. Blue Ridge  for a joint  exercise by the United States and the Republic of Korea that simulated war conditions. "I analyzed intelligence and acted as an interpreter between the American officers and enlisted people and the Korean officers
    aboard ship. It taught me to think on my feet, manage time well, and be prepared for anything."

    Being deployed to Iraq heightened those skills. "That wasn't a simulated experience," Hahn says. "It was a hot war, and we had to produce for different consumers and tailor intelligence about possible enemies to their needs and access allowances. Again, I saw strong parallels with the practice of law. To be effective, you must fit your legal advice to the specific needs and levels of individual understanding."

    Hahn’s attention was also turned toward law by a book he read on his way to Iraq, The Dirty Dozen:
    How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom
    . "It was a fascinating account of constitutional law and how lawyers can advocate for people and really make a difference in people's lives," he says. "That book brought it home for me and made me want to study law more than ever."

    Hahn says that his military experience as a Korean linguist and providing intelligence in Iraq "gave me a sense of how government can influence everyday life, and the important role the lawyer can play."

    The study skills and work ethic that Hahn developed in the Navy were a boon to his preparedness for law school. "The Defense Language Institute had a stringent schedule of training," he says. "From the minute you arrive, you are in the pipeline. It was like drinking from a fire hose. That's what the first year of law school was, too, and I was ready."

    Hahn is enjoying law school, particularly the clinical programs like the Family Law Project at the Remington Center, where he is learning practical skills. "We focus on civil issues of incarcerated individuals. I like what I'm doing there--helping people get through divorces or getting to see their kids. It's rewarding and important for society."

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