Iraq service interrupts career - Saline attorney says he's hopeful at the crossroads

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Russ Brown will occasionally hear someone complaining about a petty annoyance and realize he's giving his "thousand miles stare."

That's the look common to all veterans who've seen too much, says this Saline lawyer who served as a law professional during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We all think civilians just don't get it," he said. "When you sleep in the dirt for months on end, and you're lucky to have a shower and brush your teeth, and your meals are cold and come out of plastic bags for months on end ... People who are worried about whether they got cut off on the highway just don't get it."

As a child growing up in Troy, Brown was a Boy Scout who wanted to be a pilot or astronaut. After graduating from Michigan State University and the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Brown took an unusual career twist in 2000: He and two friends opened a law practice, and he reentered the Army reserves which he had joined as a teen.

Although they remained friends, money issues broke up the partnership. But the Army was happy to receive his services as a judge advocate, one of the specialized military lawyers who help the troops with their legal needs.

Brown served overseas briefly during Desert Storm-Desert Shield, and then went back to the Middle East in 2005 -2006 following the surge in Iraq.

He said he'll never forget the day an Iraqi woman refused to wash the purple ink off her hands after she had just voted (by fingerprint) for the first time ever.

"It was the first time she'd been introduced to the fundamental human right we take for granted," he said.

One of his areas of specialty was government contracts.

"I spent a lot of time going into the field and working with huge contractors to rebuild things that were broken in the war," he said. "It's not like I was an infantry walking with the squad. But you can't rebuild a building from a desk somewhere. You have to go out to the building. And that puts you in harm's way."

It took Brown some time to adjust to life after Iraq. Though his experiences there can't compare to those who were in direct combat, he said he did have to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, as well as back injuries.

It's taken him time to rebuild his business and clientele, but he's hopeful even as he faces a crossroads.

"The Washtenaw County bar is so collegial," said Brown, who works out of his Saline home. "People are so good and so kind. A lot of people in big firms have referred work to me that's too small for them. I've been trying to rebuild a practice that focuses on business work during the worst economy anyone's seen since who-knows-when in Michigan. And the economy hasn't completely rebuilt itself."

Brown and his wife, Michele, have been married 19 years and have two children, Abigail, 11, and Dayton, 7.

Though he's enjoyed having lots of time with his kids, he said he now wants to either work with a firm or find office space as he rebuilds his own practice.

While he knows attorneys who don't like their work, he said he still enjoys it.

"I work with entrepreneurs who are trying to start or grow their businesses, so generally speaking, my clients are first generation business owners," he said. "Someone has a widget they've designed, or someone wants to change careers. I help breathe life into their dreams, and I find that immensely satisfying."

Retired from the Army in 2009, he says he doesn't miss the bureaucracy.

"But I miss the people," he said. "Military people are very unique, and have deep-seated values, right or wrong, and have a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself. That's the reason why I do all my pro bono work for veterans and service members. Because I miss them."

Published: Mon, Apr 23, 2012

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