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Veteran Law Student Forges His Own Path

Nov. 10, 2017 By Laurie Izutsu Earlier this week, on a November day striking in its darkness and its warmth, I caught up with Chris Whidden JD’18, president of the Veterans Law Student Association (VLSA) at Vermont Law School, and an Army veteran. I first met Chris back in August. He had come directly from a medical procedure at the VA, under the fog of anesthesia, so as not to miss our scheduled appointment. In June, Chris had completed an independent research project designed to gather empirical evidence to support a Veterans Treatment Court in Vermont. In a comprehensive report just shy of 70 pages, Chris laid out compelling reasons for a veterans-specific court, among them the presence of service-related conditions underlying many veterans’ criminal legal issues, the inability of the Department of Corrections to address the needs of incarcerated veterans, and the VA’s wealth of treatment programs and resources. As the staff attorney and project coordinator for the Vermont Veterans Legal Assistance Project at the South Royalton Legal Clinic (SRLC), I wholly supported Chris’s endeavor. Within weeks of our meeting, the Vermont Judiciary had greenlighted his proposal for a Veterans Treatment Court pilot project. Chris has since been working to identify a potential judge for the project, find a site for the court, and come up with funding. In the midst of these efforts, he stole a stray hour between classes to talk about the path that led him to VLS. “The whole reason I went into the military was because I didn’t have anyone to help me,” he explained. Chris grew up in Greenwich, N.Y., just outside of Saratoga Springs. His father passed away when he was 5, and his mother remarried, then divorced, then married again. Chris’s relationship with his mother was not an easy one. When he went to live with his grandparents at 16, things got better. “My grandparents listened to me. They were nurturing.” Yet no one ever gave Chris handouts. Everything he has ever owned is the result of his work. “I don’t rely on anybody. I think self-sufficiency is the key.” Knowing that only he could craft his own future, Chris joined the Army in his junior year of high school. (The Marines Corps wouldn’t have let him join until he turned 18.) It was 2003. 9/11 had just happened. His uncles and cousins had been in the Marines and the Navy. His second stepfather had been in Vietnam. The military was familiar. It was a way to fund college. “I didn’t have a plan, but I wanted to work on myself for a little bit.” His parents signed a waiver, and Chris took the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). He scored well and the recruiter offered him any job he wanted. Chris chose infantry. After he graduated from infantry school, Chris went on active duty in 2005. His first deployment was in Iraq doing combat logistics patrols and random security detail for LSA (Logistics Support Activity) Anaconda. Later, in 2008, he completed a second tour of duty in Afghanistan. He spoke of these tours matter-of-factly, as one would recount carrying out household chores or completing a loan application. Asked about his experiences during OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom), Chris replied that he is an “open book.” But, no one ever asks him about his time in the military. His conversations about this part of his background have been few. Based on the stories he shared of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is still much to be uncovered. During his 13-month tour in Iraq, Chris did missions just about every day, making sure that third-country nationals were able to get safely from one base to the next. He saw much of Iraq during this deployment, going as far north as Mosul, then further south near the Kuwaiti border to Camp Cedar II, an FOB (forward operating base) at Tallil Air Base. On longer convoys, there would be about five trucks and 15 troops. As a Humvee gunner, Chris rode in the command truck and also did radio work, relaying information to the other trucks. "A shit storm [was] about to go down. Sure enough, within five minutes, gunfire started." Chris Whidden JD’18 Memories of Iraq “blend together” for Chris. “You’re not totally cut off from the world, but you kind of are,” he said. In Iraq, “there wasn’t really a whole lot—roadside bombs, grenade attacks,” these were part of his day-to-day routine. One incident that occurred during the summer of 2007 stands out among the rest, what he referred to as a “firefight.” The squad had been escorting third-country nationals on Irish Route in Baghdad when a truck broke down. Something was wrong with a tire. “We were sitting there. I was in the turret and it looked really sketchy. It looked like a ghost town.” That’s when he knew, “a shit storm [was] about to go down. Sure enough, within five minutes, gunfire started.” Everyone was shooting, being shot at. When the firefight stopped a few minutes later, they knew their attackers had either left or were dead. Chris received a CIB (Combat Infantry Badge) for this active ground combat, just one of numerous state and military awards and medals he has received for his service. On his second deployment, Chris was part of 3-71 Cav (3rd Brigade, 71st Cavalry Division). At first he went back and forth to Kuwait handling shipping for the Brigade. Then, it was boots on the ground at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Chris wore many hats. He trained Afghani forces in hand-to-hand combat, detainee operations, and combat lifesaver skills. He started a post office. He trained soldiers in marksmanship. He began to pursue his education. At one point, Chris worked as a land navigation officer. He was responsible for coordinating movement of people and receiving casualties. When he came into work on the night of August 28, 2009, he learned that an ASV (Armored Security Vehicle) on combat patrol carrying soldiers from 3-71 Cav had hit an IED and rolled over. SPC (Specialist) Abraham Wheeler had been in the cage—where the gunner sits in an ASV. It popped out, rolled over, and killed him. Wheeler’s death hit Chris hard. He hadn’t been on that patrol. The squadron had been broken up into different companies. Some troops were in Logar, some in Baraki Barak. “These were my guys and I was stuck in Bagram. I should never have been there.” At the end of 13 months, Chris returned stateside to Fort Drum, N.Y., to help with training units. When his honorable discharge came two years later, he was ready. Since getting out of the military, Chris has wanted to be his own boss. In 2011, he enrolled at the University of West Florida to pursue a bachelor’s degree in legal studies, with the goal of setting up his own law firm. After graduating in 2014, he worked for Levin Papantonio in Pensacola as a litigation assistant on mass torts cases. Some of the clients were veterans. These clients previously hadn’t responded to the attorneys on the case. With Chris, they established a rapport after only a couple of minutes on the phone. “People were having a hard time getting records from the VA. It really clicked when I was talking to this Air Force guy. I was ribbing him and he realized I was an Army guy. We clicked like that.” As someone who has had his own frustrating bout with the VA, Chris empathizes with the veteran trying to access benefits. “I’m having a hard time navigating the VA system. What about this guy who got a dishonorable discharge who has a high school education?” Chris understands further that “there’s a whole slew of issues in the veteran community that need to be addressed and they’re not being addressed.” Although in Florida, Chris planned to set up shop somewhere near his family in New York, where he could have his own life. With Vermont’s small communities and easy access to state legislators, VLS was the obvious choice for him. “Academically, it’s challenging, but it’s a manageable challenge. The staff and faculty have been awesome and very supportive.” Like many combat veterans, Chris has been diagnosed with PTSD. While it may take different forms, for him, it tends to manifest as anxiety and social withdrawal. There are days when he struggles to attend class. “You’ve just got to take that step and pick up that bag and walk to class. Once you do, you realize everything’s ok. No one’s out to get to you. Other days, you just want to shut yourself up in the house.” Chris lives just across the green in South Royalton with a fraternity brother who moved to Vermont to practice law with him upon graduation. During his free time, which is limited, Chris travels with his girlfriend, hangs out with fellow 3Ls, and tends to his hydroponic garden, consisting mainly of things he cooks with: herbs, peppers, tomatoes, kale. He occasionally goes to a shooting range on his uncle’s property in New Hampshire. He is also an aquarist, maintaining several fish tanks, including two 100-gallon aquariums which he describes as “peaceful.” More recently, Chris has been researching cannabis and legalization, with an eye toward expanding access to medical marijuana treatment for veterans, particularly those with PTSD. All the while, he works steadily toward earning his JD, committed to becoming a veterans law practitioner. He tells me, “I’ve been in both theaters of war, including Kuwait. I realized, I could do this … I’ll find my own way. I’ll make my own path.” And I believe him.