A soldier's story: Witness to historic moment

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By Debra Talcott

Legal News

January 17, 2011 was a historic day in the progress of the war on terrorism, and former Cooley Law School professor Army Lt. Col. John Wojcik was on hand in Afghanistan to be a part of it.

Wojcik, who is the command judge advocate for Combined Joint Interagency Task Force 435 Task Force Peacekeeper, is proud to have witnessed the transfer of a new criminal prisoner housing unit from United States control to the Afghan government. The unit houses detainees who change status from Law of Armed Conflict Detainees (LOAC) to Afghan prisoners.

"It was a monumental day for all of us as it signaled the progress of transition of detention operations," said Wojcik.

The Afghan Housing Unit is an Afghan facility and guarded by Afghan corrections personnel. The opening of this new facility, operated under Afghan authority, is part of the broader conditions-based transition of detention operations. That transition process began a year ago when Afghan and U.S. government officials signed a memorandum of understanding designating the Ministry of Defense as the lead ministry responsible for the transition of detention operations.

Having the Afghan government take responsibility for these and other operations is part of General Petraeus' counter-insurgency strategy. Achieving this objective contributes to transitioning Afghanistan's security responsibilities from U.S. and coalition forces to the Afghans.

The Afghan correction officers who now staff, manage, and operate the prison facility received several months of training from Task Force Peacekeeper, a joint command consisting of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel. The goal is to transfer those detainees whose threat can be mitigated via criminal imprisonment from the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP) to the Afghan Housing Unit. Prisoners in the Afghan Housing Unit are subject to the Afghan judicial system, including criminal prosecution in evidence-based trials.

"The key to ending engagement in Afghanistan is transition," Wojcik explained. "To transition from kinetic combat operations to unfettered Afghan governance, we need to build and sustain the Afghan government, the military, and the courts and corrections systems."

When U.S. and coalition forces detain combatants in Afghanistan, the detainees are screened at field detention sites on the battlefield. It is there that the determination to transfer them to the DFIP, which remains under U.S. control, is made.

"I've trained U.S. personnel on the humane treatment standards and inspected the field detention sites for compliance with U.S. policy," said Wojcik. "I have literally stood three feet from Taliban operatives. Suffice to say, that was a very humbling experience."

Wojcik also has worked with Afghan Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, demonstrating the various investigatory tools, such as fingerprint, DNA, and explosives analyses, all of which can be completed near the detention facility.

"The Attorney General was very receptive to Western investigative techniques, which has helped with the Justice Center in Parwan (JCIP) criminal prosecutions," said Wojcik.

Wojcik describes another interesting experience--an impromptu interface with the chief clerk of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan. Wojcik was invited to meet the chief clerk and the chief lawyer for CJIATF- 435, the organization responsible for U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan, while attending a meeting at Camp Phoenix.

"We drove to the Supreme Court complex in downtown Kabul and had what we in the military call a 'key leader engagement.' Keep in mind that traffic rules in Kabul are something of a 'recommendation' as opposed to a requirement," said Wojcik, who vowed that when he returns to Michigan he'll never again complain about the split from I-696 to the Lodge.

Wojcik found himself part of a rather formal affair, exchanging pleasantries, drinking chai tea, sharing a small meal, then discussing the business at hand.

"That meeting will, undoubtedly, remain one of my most cherished moments," says Wojcik. "One day I was the general counsel of the Michigan National Guard, and another day, there I was, having a personal audience with the chief clerk of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan to discuss legal policy for the war."

As the command judge advocate, Wojcik fulfills a number of additional roles to include hosting the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan International Human Rights Commission. He said working with the human rights organizations has been a very rewarding part of his overseas experience.

It also is his responsibility to address the Brigade Judge Advocate mission, which determines administrative punishments and courts-martial actions for the entire task force. Additionally, Wojcik provides legal guidance to Army Brig. Gen. Mandi A. Murray, the commanding general of the detention facility.

"Brig. Gen. Murray serves as the convening authority for the detainee review boards (DRBs), which are held within 60 days of a detainee's arrival at the DFIP and then biannually," said Wojcik.

DRBs determine if the detainee remains a threat to the government and people of Afghanistan or the U.S. and its coalition partners; DRBs also determine how best to mitigate the threat--either through continued detention, transfer to the Afghan judicial system, or reintegration into Afghan society.

Each detainee is represented in the hearing by a military officer and has the right to present evidence, review evidence, and present witnesses. A three-member panel then reviews the available information and makes a recommendation for release, criminal prosecution, or continued detention. Wojcik's office reviews each file to ensure hearings are compliant with U.S. policy.

Wojcik has served in the Michigan National Guard since April 1999, where he was originally a traditional part-time soldier and judge advocate. However, the events of September 11, 2001 inspired him to leave private practice to serve full time as judge advocate during Operation Noble Eagle, the homeland security mission deploying military personnel to augment the work of U.S. Customs in Detroit and providing security along the northern border between the U.S. and Canada.

"During that mission, I helped create the framework for a separate Homeland Security directorate in the Michigan National Guard. I co-drafted the executive order that created the new department with Army Brig. Gen. Mike McDaniel, who is now teaching constitutional law at Cooley," said Wojcik.

In 2004, Wojcik himself began teaching military law as an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School, where he had earned his J.D. eight years earlier.

"Teaching is my passion," said Wojcik. "Fortunately, with over 20 years of military experience, I pretty much have an example of just about every legal nuance that I teach. For me, teaching is akin to trying a case: you review, you plan, you practice, and you present. If my students aren't 'getting it,' it's my job to make sure they get it."

Cooley students have been fortunate to learn military law under the direction of Wojcik and have enjoyed his dynamic teaching style and ability to tell a good story.

"When we look for adjunct professors to teach for us," said John Nussbaumer, dean of Cooley's Auburn Hills campus, "the two qualities we value most are a commitment to educating the next generation of America's lawyers and the legal experience to make the statutes and cases come alive for our students. Lt. Col. Wojcik's dedication to his students and his wealth of experience make him a perfect fit for our program."

Wojcik said his most challenging teaching moment occurred during a Continuing Legal Education class at an NAACP annual convention at Cobo Center in Detroit. He had been invited to be part of a round-table discussion and had arrived with no prepared script. Wojcik and his partner, Army Col. Ronnie Strong, just minutes before taking the stage, were presented with any speaker's worst nightmare--that they were to deliver an actual hour-long lecture.

"So there the two of us were, at a pretty large convention where lawyers had flown in from all over the country, and I had nothing. I ended up giving a 45-minute presentation to the group on the Servicemember's Relief Act--something I knew very well--and we followed with 15 minutes of Q and A. Surprisingly, we ended up getting some laughs and applause after the dust had settled. I'll call that one a near-miss," said Wojcik.

Wojcik, a native of Ebensburg, Pa. and a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, comes by his military passion quite naturally. His grandfather fought in World War II in the Air Force, and his father was in the Air Force Reserves during Vietnam.

"I joined the Army National Guard as an infantryman when I was I8, and I fell in love with the Army," said Wojcik. "Apparently I had an undisclosed Army gene that nobody had known about. I think it's somewhere between my heart and my brain," he quips.

Wojcik signed up with the Reserve Officers' Training Corps as an undergraduate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It was there that he worked on his degree in criminology, wanting, eventually, to be a Judge Advocate General.

"Military service as a JAG has been a great way for me to be able to use my skills as a lawyer and give something back to society. Being a military officer is an honor. It's who I am. I see myself as a soldier who happens to also be a lawyer," said Wojcik.

Lt. Col. Wojcik's self-discipline and commitment to doing his best are evident in areas of his life beyond his military and law careers. A competitive runner who completed the Chicago Marathon in 2000 and still runs two half-marathons every year, Wojcik tries to exercise a minimum of an hour-and-a-half every day.

"All the large military runs back home have 'shadow runs' in the combat zones pretty close to the days of the actual races," explained Wojcik. "I've run the Army 10-Miler and Air Force Half Marathon while I've been over here. As we reached the turn, one of the convoys was leaving the gate and was test-firing their .50-caliber machine gun 'thump-thump-thump-thump' as we ran toward the gunfire. If I had to pick a word to describe the feeling, I would say it was 'hooah.'"

Wojcik's commitment and dedication to his family also remain steadfast, even from such a long distance from his home in Grand Ledge, just west of Lansing. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Sandie, for 17 years, and together they have a 6-year-old son, Maxwell.

"We have carved out a nice little slice of Michigan along the Grand River," said Wojcik of their life together. "Sandie runs the Yellow Ribbon Program for the Michigan National Guard, which provides resiliency training for deployed service members and their families. I wouldn't be where I am today without her. She's my best friend and confidante."

Before leaving for Afghanistan, John hid cards and little presents for Sandie in various places around the house. Periodically, he will send her on what he calls a "treasure hunt" to find another token of his love and gratitude.

"John found some really pretty natural-looking wooden plaques with all different quotes on them," says Sandie. "My favorite so far has been the one that says, 'Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened' by Dr. Seuss."

Sandie found that particular present upon her return from Germany last October.

"John also recorded books for our son and wrapped them as presents," says Sandie. "He read the stories up in Max's room before leaving, and now Max and I read and listen to them together."

The Wojcik family stays in contact during John's deployment through daily e-mail messages and weekly phone calls and video Skypes. But even state-of-the-art communication cannot fill all the voids a soldier experiences.

"Back home, my most favorite thing in the world is to pick worms with Max and go fishing on the Grand River. There's nothing like seeing the excitement in a child's eyes when they pull a fish out of the water and it's flipping and flopping all around in the air. The one thing I miss the most is the sound of my son's laughter," confessed Wojcik, who looks forward to again spending time with Max when he returns in May.

Published: Thu, Feb 17, 2011

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