On Guard Officer welcomed back from year in war zone

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Mission accomplished.

For any soldier, sailor, Marine or Air Force individual who enters a battle theater, the goals are to successfully further the mission, and return home safely. And based on that criteria, Lt. Col. John Wojcik scored on both.

Wojcik, 40, general counsel for the Michigan National Guard and a 1996 graduate of Cooley Law School, recently returned to the school for a hero’s welcome, fresh off a year-long voluntary tour in Afghanistan.

“It was a very nice welcome home event,” Wojcik said of the short ceremony.

But it was a very fitting tribute for Wojcik, said those who know him best. A member of the Pennsylvania National Guard at 18, Wojcik decided to merge his love of the military with his passion for law and joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) while in college, moved to Michigan to attend Cooley, and later became general counsel for the Judge Advocate General in the Michigan National Guard.

Wojcik, who also teaches military law at Cooley as an adjunct professor since 2004, volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan and spent almost a year there as a task-force peacekeeper. He was responsible for, among others things, training Afghans to operate a prisoner housing unit so control could be transferred to the Afghan government.

Brigadier General Michael C. McDaniel, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for Homeland Defense, Strategy and Mission Assurance at the U.S. Department of Defense in Michigan, was on hand at the ceremony to thank and credit Wojcik for his work in Afghanistan.

“By honoring John, we are honoring all the members of the Michigan National Guard and the U.S. military,” McDaniel said.
Earlier in his career, McDaniel served as a mentor to Wojcik, and said, “You know that you have succeeded as a mentor when (that person) goes on to greater accomplishments than you have.”

Wojcik was born in Ebensburg, Pa., and attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1993 with a major in criminology. He was already in the National Guard there as an infantryman since age 18, following in the footsteps of other family members who were in the military, and said he “fell in love” with the discipline and camaraderie of the service.

As a sophomore, Wojcik took several legal classes and found that he could meld the law and military and decided to go to law school after graduation to put those careers together as a JAG officer after joining the ROTC. Wojcik started at Cooley two weeks after graduation. He selected Cooley because it was known as a law school that prepared students for the real world of law immediately after graduation. He graduated from Cooley in 1996.

He landed jobs with several law firms in the Lansing area, and for three years in private practice he worked in general practice, personal injury, criminal defense, bankruptcy litigation and other civil work, including insurance defense and medical malpractice. He litigated in 13 trials in that time.

“But I was a soldier before I was an attorney,” Wojcik said.

All that changed after September 11, 2001. Wojcik gave up his private practice to go back into the military and practice law for Uncle Sam.

“I wanted to spend time on something that was a little bit bigger and had more importance for me,” he said.

He enjoyed the thrills of being a trial lawyer, and said it was an intellectual challenge, but believed he could contribute more to society, and give something back, through military service.

He joined the Michigan National Guard and eventually became general counsel, where he now provides broad spectrum legal counsel for 12,000 personnel, three airbases, two Army posts, and 54 armories.

“What I do here, it’s not a job,” Wojcik said. “I come to work everyday and I just truly enjoy what I do. I have the best job in the state.”

Wojcik credits Cooley for making much his quick rise through the military possible.

“Cooley gave me the drive that I needed to be successful in civilian practice, as well as what I’m doing now,” he said.

He applied for a tour in Afghanistan fully knowing the risks but believed it was his duty to help train them and further the goals of America. He was assigned to the 46th Military Police Command and left in May 2010.

For the next year, Wojcik was assigned to one of the many camps in Afghanistan, and worked closely with officials from many high-ranking governments and organizations to help turn U.S. control over of Taliban and Al-Qaida detainees and detention sites to Afghan control.

“We made an immense amount of progress,” Wojcik said of his tour.

They trained hundreds of Afghanistans to take control of their own detention facility and Wojcik said corruption is still a part of the Afghan system, so breaking that will take time.

“We’re getting there,“ he said, “but we’re not there yet. But we got rave reviews from HQ on the amount of work we were able to get done, and how quickly we did it. So it was a very fruitful deployment for the Michigan National Guard.”

Wojcik credited his wife of 17 years, Sandie, for helping him achieve success in his career and holding down the fort with son Max, 7, in Grand Ledge while he was gone. Weekly telephone calls and Skype, and daily emails, helped him keep in touch. He also said Sandie was able to talk with other families who had a loved one deployed “to lean on each other.” And the Michigan National Guard conducts “a very robust family support network.”

Wojcik said soldiers who are deployed get into a “battle rhythm” to keep a sense of the insanity they are surrounded with. Even those soldiers who are not in the field everyday, kicking down doors and searching for insurgents, face daily dangers because this war has no traditional battle lines.

“The war is everywhere,” he said. “And we were surrounded by it on our air base.”

On September 11, 2010, Wojcik said his base was rocked by enemy rockets for five nights in a row.

“That can be quite disconcerting,” he said. “You tell yourself when you go to bed at night that nothing is going to happen, but you know that it could. It’s surreal what you could get your mind used to.”

Hearing gunfire at night, Wojcik would tell himself it was just someone on the marksmanship range, “but you know that’s not what it is, it’s a firefight out there.” Once, while in Kabul for a meeting with high-ranking officials, he and a few others found themselves surrounded quite suddenly by about 150 locals.

“They were just curious to see what we were doing, but it was a scary moment” when you can’t tell the enemy from friendlies, or the crowd’s intentions.

A long-time runner with an “exercise addiction,” Wojcik ran races there, such as the Boston Marathon, which is held the same time as the one in Boston, except this was in a war zone.

“We ran 5,500 feet of it in a combat zone, and it was exciting, but the zing you get from that, the adrenaline rush, you can’t put into words,” he said.

Wojcik said he was leaving the country when Osama bin Laden was killed, and although he could not talk about aspects of the mission – what if anything, he knew about it – he said news of it created “an amazing feeling of relief and excitement.”

In fact, Wojcik was likely privy to much top-secret information, obtained from captured detainees and government officials, but was not at liberty to speak of much of his knowledge while there, which is understandable. He returned to the States this past May, but said a part of him still remains in Afghanistan.

“I’m still going through the adjustment of being home,” he said. “I feel like I still have a foot back there. I miss the adrenaline, the danger, the excitement, and the importance of what we were doing,“ Wojcik said. “I don’t want to say it was life or death decisions everyday, but it was close to it.”

For now, Wojcik said he’s very happy to be home, and will continue to teach at Cooley and remain in the service and enjoy the little things in life that many of us take for granted.

“There’s nothing I missed more than sitting on my porch, drinking a cup of coffee on a Saturday, and watching Max run around the yard,” he said.

He took a 30-day leave upon returning just to get re-acclimated to normalcy.

“I missed doing things on my own time, and on my own schedule,” he said. Working 15-hour days, living with a bunch of people in a tent, with no privacy or solitude, wears on a person, he said.

For now, just doing his job and teaching at Cooley will suffice.

“I love teaching,” Wojcik said. “It’s about as close to trial practice as you can get.”

He said he misses the daily interaction with judges and lawyers he got while in private practice, and he doesn’t get to court as much as he used to because he directs other attorneys in cases.

“I’ve promoted myself out of trial practice, which is a bummer,” Wojcik said. “But it’s enabled me to develop my leadership and management skills.”

“But Cooley gave me the ability to interact with all those people, in private practice and the military, that I felt I was able to move the ball forward in the courtroom and on the battlefield.”

Wojcik was instrumental in starting the Service to Soldiers program at Cooley in 2007, which provides free legal assistance to eligible Michigan military personnel, and he presented a flag flown over his post in Afghanistan to the program upon his return.

He also presented a flag to Cooley’s Associate Dean John Nussbaumer.

Ever the returning hero, Wojcik remains modest, even after being awarded the Bronze Star for his work while deployed.

“You don’t develop as individuals all by ourselves, but by the people who surround us, and the community we work with,” he said.

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