After years in the military, Jackson attorney weighs options

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

If Jackson attorney David Van Hoof could relive his teenage years, he'd stay away from alcohol.

As it is, his drinking landed him in trouble more than once, and the resulting police record has been, as he puts it, a scarlet letter around his neck ever since.

Still, every morning he thanks God that the mistakes he made hurt only himself.

"It's a small burden to bear," said Van Hoof, 47. "It could have been worse." The Jackson native graduated from Lumen Christi High School in 1983 and then went on to the University of Michigan, where he earned bachelor's degrees in history and political science.

His father, who worked for 25 years at Consumers Energy in Jackson and passed away in March, was a retired naval officer. Like his father, Van Hoof had wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and become a commissioned naval officer.

"But because of my history, none of the services would touch me as an officer," he said. "My dad continued to challenge me. He came and said, 'You can't get a commission. But you have a natural talent to read and argue. Go to law school. They always need JAG officers."

And Van Hoof always loved a challenge. So he earned his J.D. from Detroit College of Law, and was admitted to the bar in 1992.

Rather than seek a career in law, he decided his next challenge was to become a Marine. So he enlisted and was stationed in Japan for the next four years, his law degree taking a back seat to the regimen of military life.

Once he'd been enlisted for three years, he proved himself, and was commissioned as an officer.

When he got out in 1998, Van Hoof came home to Jackson and worked with the Morello Law Group in Wyandotte for three years doing estate and tax planning, and probate law.

But he couldn't quite shake the military. When an opportunity came up to take a staff officer assignment with the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, he decided to try it for a year. He had only been there a week when Sept. 11, 2001 settled his nagging law vs. military debate.

"It wasn't an attack on a military target," he said. "It was an attack on civilians. This enemy wanted to kill Americans. And as an officer in the Marine Corps, I couldn't turn my back."

Fired up, he returned to full time active duty, and after completing the Army Engineer Captain Career Course, was given command of 130 Marines in an engineer battalion assigned to Kuwait in 2003.

He was in Baghdad the day after US troops rolled into the city and personally witnessed the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein.

"It was a combination of emotions," he said. "You're afraid, excited, happy for the people because they seemed happy. The Iraqis had high expectations, and thought things would happen quickly. It was a matter of giving them reality. They thought that money would come in quickly and we'd build things and answer and solve all their problems in a quick manner."

"Unfortunately, that didn't happen and it caused frustration and fractions."

After serving three months in Baghdad, he was promoted to major and ordered to Sierra Leone, Africa, for eight months as a liaison officer with the British Army restoring order in a failed state suffering from the smuggling and trade of "blood diamonds" which funded rebellions and enslaved children.

Then in 2007, he was sent to Afghanistan as a Security Assistance Officer charged with helping to establish, develop and train the Afghan Security Forces. After a year of that, he was tired.

He resigned his active duty commission and requested transfer to the reserves. In the Marine Corps Reserves, he accepted a position with the 4th Civil Affairs Group in Washington, and was surprised to become mobilized for missions in Bulgaria and Romania.

He also served on the Marine Corps staff at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, planning for Obama's surge in Afhganistan. Afterwards, he went back to Afghanistan and served for six months in Northern Helmand as part of ''the surge'' returning home last March.

Except for a brief humanitarian mission to Peru last month, he's been home ever since. And he's concerned about the number of soldiers returning home with stress-related issues and is heartened to see some counties starting special courts to deal with war veterans in trouble with the law after experiencing trouble upon their return.

Society needs to support them physically, legally and emotionally, he said.

"This population volunteered to make sacrifices to preserve our legal system; our whole way of life," he said. "We have an obligation to support them. This is a young generation. They're coming back, looking for jobs, trying to adjust. The majority are doing great. Others have problems. We need to look at why they're having problems, and get them the assistance and support they need."

Van Hoof is now considering his career options. He loves the idea of continuing public service, but is not sure what direction to take. He'd like to serve as an assistant county prosecutor, but his police record would hinder that. And he knows people will think, "This guys's done great for our country. But when's the last time he stepped inside a courtroom?"

Still an active member of the bar who's done pro bono work for friends and family, he's debating whether to officially retire from the reserves and focus on law.

He's considered opening his own practice.

"But I've had friends out of law school do it and it drained their pockets," he said.

Either direction won't be easy, he figures.

"I don't think there's a firm out there in need of my experiences," he said. "They're looking for legal experts. Look at any want ad seeking to hire an attorney, and they all require 3-5 years experience in a certain area. I'm a generalist. My peers are judges and partners. I'm just someone who stayed in public service. That's where my passion lies, trying to do my best in whatever way I can to uphold the system."

Joining the military made his life more interesting than if he'd stayed with a career path in private practice, he said.

"I've helped countries incorporate in their legal systems those values and ideals which make our country what it is, and our legal system the best world," he said. "It's not perfect, but it's the best one I've come across."

Van Hoof hopes his example will help younger service members reject out dated stereotypes of those who serve in the military, especially Marines, insisting: "You can still be a fine Marine and an outstanding individual without the womanizing, hard-drinking, hard-living, and hard-fighting."

He said he has few regrets concerning his life except for some lapses in judgment resulting from his addiction. And he's spent the past 30 years trying to make up for them.

"I do everything I can to be a better person," he said. "I challenge myself on a daily basis to find a way to improve upon who I was the day before. It may sound cliche, but it truly works. I find every day's an adventure. Since I've stopped drinking, life has become a completely enjoyable, personal experience."

Published: Thu, Jul 12, 2012

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