For John Fitzpatrick ’87, a Senior Clinical Instructor at the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), being at HLS this September has a special meaning. “It’s my first September since my return from Afghanistan,” said Fitzpatrick, a reserve Major in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps who deployed there for an active duty tour last year. “I’m glad to be here in Cambridge instead of back in Kabul,” he said.
Fitzpatrick and his colleagues, Clinical Instructor, Joel Thompson ’97 and Administrative Director, Sarah Morton, oversee students who work on a wide range of prisoners’ rights issues. In addition to representing prisoners in disciplinary hearings and different types of parole hearings, PLAP students also take calls five days a week on a phone bank, respond to written requests for help, and litigate for their clients in the Massachusetts Superior Court. “It’s a busy law office offering a variety of services, from trial advocacy-like representation in prison disciplinary and parole hearings, to administrative appeals, to court litigation. From their 1L year on, our students get a chance to experience the A to Z of practicing law while helping a marginalized and underrepresented group of clients,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick originally thought he was being sent to Afghanistan last year to provide legal assistance to other soldiers and handle claims from local Afghans for damage to their property by U.S. forces. “That would be the typical combat-deployed assignment for a reservist, to help out with tasks like legal assistance and claims that are seen in the Army as mundane and not exciting but are crucial to supporting our troops. I’m a reservist, so that’s what I was expecting. But I got a bit of a curve ball,” he said. On his arrival in the Kuwait staging area for deploying troops, Fitzpatrick was given some surprising news a couple of days before going forward to Afghanistan. “I was re-tasked with reporting to a headquarters element in a three star (general) command responsible for detainee operations. In other words, I was going from dealing with Massachusetts prisons at HLS to U.S. prisons in Afghanistan,” Fitzpatrick said. “At the start I guessed it would be interesting, and it was.”
Among his assignments were reviewing prison policies and procedures, evaluating whether there was a legal basis to detain newly captured Afghans and foreigners suspected of being insurgents, and training U.S. soldiers on the proper treatment of detainees.“It was fascinating and relevant work. Sometimes it would be the middle of the night and I would be on the phone with a higher ranking officer out in the field, arguing with him over detainee treatment, and when I was done, I would think for a moment that this was a pretty cool gig for a law school clinical instructor!”
Fitzpatrick was also taken aback by the many different roles he was expected to play. “My deployment as a JAG (uniformed Army lawyer) was different than the norm, mainly because of the way our task force functioned. We were highly mobile and at the center of the multi-national war effort that was being run from Kabul. I was arranging meetings with Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian officers. I was hanging out smoking pipes (a bad habit Fitzpatrick says he picked up during his tour) with the commanders of the French Army detachment, and smoked a hookah during a late-night sit down with one of the Jordanian commanders and a Canadian officer,“ he said. In addition to the unexpected amount of networking he had with so many different foreign officers, Fitzpatrick was also startled to find himself driving on convoy missions. “Being pressed into service as a driver was another curve ball. But I’m a Boston native and a Boston-trained driver. It quickly became clear that, aside from the constant threat of armed attack, driving around Kabul and Afghanistan would not be a particular challenge,” Fitzpatrick said.
Although he is glad to be back, he admits that in hindsight he was glad to have been ordered up for his tour of duty. “It was an amazing experience and an important mission” he said. “From what I saw, I came away convinced we are doing a lot more good than harm in Afghanistan. Admittedly, I also found some incompetence, especially with what seemed to be a rather bizarre lack of cultural awareness by a few in the more senior American leadership. But ,overwhelmingly, our service members are dedicated to the mission and are incredibly selfless for taking on the risks of such a combat deployment. I was humbled to serve with such dedicated and brave women and men.” “And,” Fitzpatrick pointed out, “I’m really, really happy to be safely home!”