Cooley Professor returns 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 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 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.

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.

Published: Mon, Aug 29, 2011

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