January 09, 2016

The Road Less Traveled

Linda Strite Murnane

In 1965, my parents loaded their four children into our station wagon—hitched to a 24-foot travel trailer—and took us to the New York World’s Fair. During that trip, we toured the United Nations (U.N.) headquarters building where we learned about the organization’s work. I was about to enter the eighth grade.

From that day onward, it was my dream to one day work for the U.N. I was fascinated with the multicultural environment, and, in particular, I was amazed at the ability of simultaneous interpreters to communicate in other languages while listening to people speak. I remember thinking, “This is what I want to do when I grow up.”

Life, however, doesn’t always take us to our destination by the most direct path. My family circumstance was complicated at best, and a mess at worst. By the time I finished high school, I had moved out of my house more than once. While I was a very good student with great grades and an unbeatable portfolio of extracurricular activities (president of the Cincinnati Classics Club; member of the a capella choir; president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer of the student council; member of the Spanish Club), there was no money set aside for me to pursue a college degree when I graduated in 1970.

I left home at age 18, within weeks of graduation, and got my first job in the books and records department of a major department store. I applied for scholarships and was offered an attractive opportunity to return full time to school one year after graduating. Thus began a journey spanning four undergraduate schools, one graduate school, and two law schools, culminating with graduation from the University of Cincinnati College of Law. I completed the degree requirements for my J.D. in December 1980—by which time I also had given birth to two children.

To say my path was challenging is a dramatic understatement. To finance my education, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in September 1974. At that time, there were few women in the military, most serving as nurses or other medical professionals. Mothers desiring to join the military had to surrender their children for permanent placement and adoption before they would be accepted on active duty; they could not simultaneously serve and raise a child. If a woman became pregnant, she was discharged from the military.

As might be expected, such a work culture created an especially challenging environment for women. However, I wanted my degree and had not lost sight of the childhood vision that one day I might work for the U.N. Nevertheless, I figured out pretty quickly—while studying Latin, French, and Spanish, in addition to college-level English courses—that I did not have the talent or skill required to work as a simultaneous interpreter. Political science, international human rights, and law school became the “plan B” to get me where I wanted to go.

That alternative plan led to a 29½- year career in the Air Force, which began with my enlistment as an airman basic and ended with my serving as the chief circuit military judge for Europe and chief circuit military judge for the Eastern Circuit in Washington, D.C. During my time as the chief circuit military judge for Europe, I presided at the first courts-martial tried by the U.S. Air Force in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, which took me to Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia on five occasions.

I retired from the Air Force in 2004 as a colonel (O-6), but soon thereafter achieved my goal of working for the United Nations when I became a senior legal officer; acting head of chambers; chief, Court Management Services Section; and acting deputy registrar at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; and later as the chief, Court Management Services Section for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

I have several key inspirational phrases that motivate and inform my life, and the unique journey toward the achievement of my childhood objective reflects one of those, “If you believe it, you can achieve it.”