Bar News - October 7, 2005
Attorney William Whitten Returns from Iraq
By: Catherine Courtemarche
“Drive it like you stole it,” is strange advice to give an attorney—but that is exactly the advice Attorney William Whitten received on how to drive a humvee while in a convoy traversing the dangerous roads of Iraq. It is hard to imagine the 23-year-member of the New Hampshire Bar recklessly driving along the hot, dusty roads of Iraq. “The rules are different over there,” Whitten said.
Whitten, a long-time military member, enlisted in the Air Force in 1970 serving four years during the Vietnam War. Later on, after returning to civilian life, he joined the Army National Guard and in 1985 became a member of the Mountain Infantry unit in Lebanon, NH. A Bar member since 1982 and an attorney with the Decato Law firm, Whitten was mobilized in January 2004 for a tour of duty in Iraq. He returned in February 2005 and continues with his National Guard responsibilities. “I am back at troop command doing retention work,” he says.
In 1993 Whitten transferred from the Mountain Infantry unit to a headquarters’ position in Concord, working with Guard recruiters in an effort to retain troops already in the service; part of his work was to field legal questions. Whitten probably would not have been faced with deployment, but when he heard that his previous unit was being called to duty, he volunteered to serve alongside them. “If you wear the uniform for as long as I have, you have a sense of obligation to go anywhere your unit goes,” he said.
Receiving the official notice of his deployment on December 23, 2003, Whitten had only three weeks to pack up his life and his office and say goodbye to his family. As part of settling his affairs before leaving for Iraq, Whitten met with his co-workers and doled out the approximately 30-40 cases he was working on to the other attorneys in his office. “Obviously I took a cut in pay, but I had no expenses while in Iraq,” Whitten said, regarding the financial upheaval military members face when called to active duty.
As a civilian, Whitten has practiced family, real estate, criminal and bankruptcy law for over 20 years. His military position is not law-related. Infantry and strength management are the two fields he works in while performing his National Guard duties. While deployed, Whitten’s title was Battlefield Circulation NCO (non-commissioned officer), which meant he kept track of the convoys coming in and out of his base and provided assistance and security when needed.
Stationed at Balad Air Base—or Camp Anaconda as the Army referred to it— approximately 45 miles north of Baghdad, Whitten was in the thick of things right from the start. A base of 20,000 troops, Balad was a constant target for enemy attacks. With a reputation of being fired upon daily, another more accurate nickname was coined: “Mortar-ritaville.” Even with all that he witnessed, Whitten states humbly: “Compared to what most guys did, it was relatively calm for me.”
Whitten, used to a more structured schedule in civilian life (teaching business law classes at Franklin Pierce College and on-line), worked varied shifts in Iraq seven days a week. He managed to stay in touch with family and friends through e-mail, but did not have time to keep up with any legal cases he had handed over before leaving. An emailed image that captured Whitten posing in front of a tree that had taken mortar fire was a somber reminder to his co-workers of how real the danger was in Iraq, and how close Whitten was to that danger.
Whitten’s living quarters in Iraq were a step up from the tents so many endured: he lived in an old jail, one that had seen heavy bombing during Desert Storm. It had its pluses, but the concrete walls and bars on the windows were a constant reminder of where he was.
“No alone time, no escape from the military,” was something Whitten had to endure. Under constant threat of attack, “you needed your body armor just to walk to the bathroom,” Whitten said. To decompress, Whitten went to the gym, read and watched movies. Sending home care packages to his children also helped him relieve stress.
Coming home at the end of February, Whitten made a smooth transition back into civilian life. He attributes this to the strong support he received from his family and his co-workers. “Peter [Decato] is a retired Army Guard JAG and understands what I went through; he was very supportive,” Whitten said. Other than having to brush up on changes that had taken place in the laws while he was gone, Whitten stepped right back into the shoes he had left behind.
Indeed the Decato law firm was very supportive of Whitten as he prepared for deployment and while he was in Iraq. “When a law firm has a member go off to war, the focus is more on the member than it is on the work left behind. Although there were 25-35 files that needed to be addressed, I don’t think I ever heard anyone say it was a burden to add them to our load. We were more concerned for Bill and his welfare. That’s the way it should be,” said Peter Decato.
Another much-appreciated connection to home was Whitten’s secretary of 18 years, Kim. “She sent several e-mails a week along with cards and letters,” Whitten said. Empathetic to his situation, Kim had experienced the deployment of someone close before when her husband served as a Marine during Desert Storm.
“Coming back and getting into a day-to-day routine,” answered Whitten, when asked what he had been looking forward to most. Also, he wanted to escape the 140-degree desert temperatures and return to New England’s much cooler climate. He got his wish by experiencing the lion’s share of snow and ice that March 2005 provided!
Whitten returned home to a proud and thankful welcoming party, “All of the pride I had for Bill came to a head that day as he and the other members of his unit came off the buses. Bill, the citizen-soldier, had returned home,” said Peter Decato.
Catherine Courtemarche is a freelance writer from Bennington, NH. This is her second article for Bar News. Associate Editor Beverly Rorick also contributed to this article.
The Bar News will continue to report on the experiences of NH Bar members in the National Guard and Reserve who have been actively deployed. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have information or are interested in helping these Bar members upon their return.