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Bar News - October 15, 2014

Practitioner Profile: The Death of Innocence: A Life Transformed by War


Tim McLaughlin, a platoon leader in the US Marine Corps and now a lawyer in Boston, leads troops into Baghdad.
Photo by Robert Nickelsberg

Capt. Tim McLaughlin on base at Quantico, Va.

McLaughlin gives a talk at an event sponsored by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Tim McLaughlin was 22 when he joined the US Marine Corps. Son of former New Hampshire Attorney General Philip McLaughlin, his path forward was laid out for him, in part, by a family tradition of public service and civic duty.

He wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.

“I was like any 22-year-old – your perspective is limited. I went to Quantico where all new lieutenants go. I was a nice kid from New Hampshire. I didn’t grasp what the Marine Corps was designed for, which was war,” says McLaughlin.

Now at 37 he’s still processing the life-altering events that have unfolded since, beginning with the day his youthful perspective was blown wide open.

It was Sept. 11, 2001, and McLaughlin had just left the Pentagon, where he was working through a training injury by serving on administrative desk duty. He’d just left the building for a therapeutic jog.

“Most days after work I’d normally go work out, or go to Georgetown to try and meet girls playing softball. As a 22-year-old, that was where I was at – I didn’t yet have the perspective of what it is to be in the Marine Corps. But on September 11, when the plane landed in our building, that was the first day I realized my responsibility as an officer. Someone asked me, ‘What do we do? Sir, what do we do?’ That’s the day that transitioned me, from kid to adult.”

It took McLaughlin only a second to respond. He collected himself, grabbed for equipment and led the way through an underground access tunnel into the firestorm where he and others would slog through the longest day of their young lives – helping firefighters and rescuers in the aftermath of what was to be his personal prelude to war.

It was sobering.

“I remember reaching down to help someone who was badly burned. You know how when you burn a marshmallow, what happens when you try to pull it from the stick? The same thing happens with a human arm. I remember wishing I’d paid more attention during first-aid training,” says McLaughlin.

Fast forward 15 months. McLaughlin had trained as a tank commander at Fort Knox, fully cognizant now of what his duty as Marine meant. He prepared himself to lead his platoon into battle for the US invasion of Iraq.

“People lose sight of what the role of the military is in times of war. Not withstanding the factual inaccuracies of government and media reports – and in retrospect, there was a lot inaccurate about that invasion – we were trained to kill. And so, we in the Marine Corps rely on leaders and the body politic to do our job. When you send the Marine Corps into places, people lose sight of what we do. We’re not a police force, or a global force for good,” says McLaughlin.

On day one his platoon had orders to go up the middle and draw fire so the Army could move in. As platoon leader, that meant McLaughlin’s tank was first in line in the long push from Kuwait to Baghdad.

It was a fast and furious mission that lasted only weeks. But in that time, McLaughlin chronicled the good, bad and ugly in a daily diary that would, a decade later, become the centerpiece of an exhibition titled “The War Diaries,” which opened in March of 2013 at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City. It was a powerful collaboration, with war reporter Peter Maass and photojournalist Gary Knight, of his experiences.

McLaughlin has been interviewed as the Marine who hoisted his personal flag to the iconic overturned metal statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. His gesture was captured on film and shared across the globe as a symbol of the April 9, 2003, invasion of Baghdad.

That was not his intention.

“I didn’t know the world’s media was filming. I had a flag with me like every other member of the Marine Corps does, and I wanted a picture of it somewhere. I spotted this beautiful statue that had been toppled, put my flag on it and took a picture of it from underneath, for me. But the world saw it as something different,” says McLaughlin. “As a Russian language and poetry major, I understand people’s sense that it symbolized an occupation. In reality, it was simply the act of a young Marine Corps officer who wanted to take a picture of his flag, but it became a defining moment for people at home, watching the war from their couches.”

For McLaughlin, who served in the Marines until 2006, it’s the internal repercussions that have guided his post-war journey – to Boston College of Law and eventually to a position at Holland and Knight in Boston, where he practices corporate law.

During his third year at Boston College, it occurred to McLaughlin that he had more work to do in processing his war experiences. He needed to decompress.

“I went to law school with the idea that I’d be fine, but I wasn’t. I had difficulty transitioning to a place with peers who had none of the experience I’d had. I got perfectly good grades, but was literally sitting in a civil procedure class trying to focus on diversity jurisdiction while reading a text message that my friend Andrew had been blown up – he had no legs and was probably going to die. Those were the kinds of competing thoughts I was having,” says McLaughlin.

He took an internship in Sarajevo, as part of a war crimes legal tribunal, which allowed him to explore, from the other side of war, how countries rebuilt themselves. He kept a diary there as well, in which McLaughlin was able to unpack some of the weight of his war experiences, which he still carried with him:

“While I was in court with the four defendants in Bozic, I wondered whether they were evil people or people who had done evil things,” he wrote. “Either way, if they did what they were accused of, they should be punished by society. At the same time, however, I could not help but think that at least one of them was led down the wrong path by those who were in charge, committed his crimes because he was told to, and lost his freedom for the rest of his life. I appreciate that many people would not make this distinction and simply find all war criminals repugnant, but wars are not that simple. Responsibility for war crimes runs in degrees, not in blacks and whites, with the most culpability understandably starting at the trigger-pullers and commanders but running all the way out to the people and societies who stand idly by and do nothing.”

Along the way he’s learned to manage the persistent and diagnosable nightmares and flashbacks of war’s trauma. To that end, the best medicine for McLaughlin continues to be his work as president of Shelter Legal Services, providing free legal services to low-income and homeless veterans of war.

He is married now, and on Aug. 24 welcomed his first child, Roland Philip McLaughlin, into the world.

Regrets go with the kind of territory he’s covered. But he’s proud of his military service and would do it all again without hesitation, he says. Because it has led him to a place in life – outside of the military and the messy politics of war – where he is uniquely and eloquently prepared to truly make a difference in people’s lives, which is all he ever wanted.

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