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September 21, 2023 My Path to Law

Protecting the citizens on the ground—both in Afghanistan and as a lawyer

By Samuel Van Kopp

How do you live after you should have died?

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the organization of people. How is it that a collection of strangers can imagine themselves to be a community? Why is it that the culture of that imagined community can seem immutable for generations, only to transform with sudden revolutions in leadership, philosophy or law?

Growing up in Bakersfield, California, with my eyes glued to the news and my bookshelves crammed with histories, I thought this capacity for reimagination was the motive force in human affairs, the magic that turned subjects into citizens and set men free. I thought that if every community could be liberated and organized in this way, humanity would know no limit.

Ideas are destiny. Mine sent me to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, to platoon leadership in Afghanistan, to the intensive care unit—and, eventually, to law.

Eager to help

The effort to reconstruct Afghanistan and Iraq brought me to West Point. I knew that America had not entered the war on terror with the intent to build nations any more than the Union had begun the Civil War with the intent to abolish slavery. But by 2006, nation-building was the Army’s mission, and I was eager to help.

After graduation in 2010, I was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade and ordered to lead a platoon of paratroopers—the most difficult job I’ve ever had. This was genesis, a year and a half of learning who I actually was when push came to shove, and what it took to lead 24 men who were older, tougher and more experienced than myself.

My unit deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, at the beginning of America’s withdrawal and the Taliban’s reconquest.

What I saw broke my heart.

Even in communities choked by biblical poverty, a fragile sort of prosperity bloomed amidst violence. And everywhere: children. Boys and girls walked to school in the early dawn. Roads overflowed with motorcycles, battered trucks and herds of livestock off to market. Young families built new houses and started new lives. Nothing better demonstrated the country’s hope in its future than this baby boom, and nothing better symbolized the fragility of that hope.

But our missions also took us through villages where that vulnerable prosperity had died, where the Afghan army existed only on paper, where the Taliban severed the highways and executed government officials, where schools were closed and markets empty.

Our patrols, undermanned and perpetual, sought to cauterize these wounds, to keep the violence away from the towns and families that might save the country if only they could live and grow in peace a few more years. So we walked the countryside. We found improvised explosive devices and hit them, ambushed and were ambushed. What little we accomplished constitutes the most important work I’ll ever do in life.

On Sept. 26, 2012, a civilian walked up to my team on patrol and detonated a suicide vest. Ten pounds of homemade explosives killed two of my noncommissioned officers, Sgt. John Gollnitz and Staff Sgt. Orion Sparks. Two more soldiers took shrapnel to the face, arms and legs. One small piece drilled into my brain, nicked my optical nerve, ricocheted off the inside of my skull and came to rest in a crevice between lobes. I lost consciousness.

A heroic medevac effort and series of minor miracles got me from Puli Alam, Afghanistan, to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where I woke days later to a world of darkness, muted voices and incomprehension.

Impossibly lucky

I was alive. But how does one go about living?

At first, tentatively. My body burned through 50 pounds of muscle and fat to feed a brain struggling to reboot. A few minutes of consciousness cost hours of sleep and recovery.

But I proved impossibly lucky — prefrontal cortex intact, speech and motor skills impaired but recoverable. In time I moved from the ICU to the inpatient ward, then to the outpatient barracks and a year of rehabilitation. I learned to live with the headaches, mental fatigue and visual impairments that are my fate. I learned to medicate, caffeinate and pull through. I learned to adjust for a blind spot that obscures the first couple letters of every word, to read everything two or three times to make sure my senses aren’t betraying me, to never read aloud –unless –I’ve –prepped –every –word –with –a –leftward –indicator.

But mostly I learned that none of these are real problems. Those belong to those without an arm or leg or face or to the millions of Afghan refugees whose displacement coincided with American withdrawal.

In 2014, I moved out of the outpatient barracks and went to work for my hometown congressman, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a centrist Republican in those days. I handled his district’s defense portfolio and met the kinds of generals, contractors and civil servants whose decisions dictated the life I knew in the Army.

Most of those decisions had their roots in law. Not in high concepts of constitutional law or justice, but in rough and awkward fragments of the U.S. Code. I found the code to be the true unmoved mover of organizations, the DNA of our national imagined community. If ill-conceived or left too long untended, these clauses metastasized into cancers that tied the hands of good people and left organizations to atrophy. I didn’t care about the culture wars—I wanted to reform the code. So I went to law school.

Georgetown University Law Center was a shock. My professors and classmates were brilliant, but much of the coursework was painfully theoretical. A summer spent in general civil litigation work for Klein Denatale Goldner was a welcome dose of reality. Then I interned and later clerked for the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals, a small administrative body that resolves government contract disputes. Like Klein Denatale Goldner, the board constituted my real education, where I learned a trade and could again glimpse how the business of government is actually conducted.

In 2020, I joined Nichols Liu, a small Washington, D.C., firm founded by BigLaw partners tired of bureaucracy. As an associate, I handle government contract claims, bid protests and other litigation. Having witnessed a few of the first arbitrations of Federal Emergency Management Agency grant awards at the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals, I brought the practice to Nichols Liu, where I am working to become a subject matter expert in this new field.

Now, newly married and a member of a profession that tends to be quite proud of its accomplishments, I lean on my path to law to keep my work in perspective. We are extraordinarily lucky to spend our days tinkering with the legal fabric of our imagined community, and to face no greater threat than carpal tunnel and billable hour requirements. We owe that community far, far more than our code of ethics suggests.

I try to remember the end user on the ground behind every dispute and to temper any sense of accomplishment with the knowledge that far better men than I died long ago.

#MyPathtoLaw is a guest column that celebrates the diversity of the legal profession through attorneys’ first-person stories detailing their unique and inspiring trajectories.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.