SERVING COUNTRY AND COMMUNITY
By BY PETER F. STEVENS, special to the BIR, October 9, 2013
Marine and attorney Tim McLaughlin has wrestled with the ‘Big Questions’ from war to helping others
BY PETER F. STEVENS
In ancient Ireland, warriors and poets were revered. In many ways, Tim McLaughlin is a modern-day embodiment of both, but he recounts his experiences as a Marine tank commander in the second Gulf War with an unflinching candor that is stripped of the romantic and is neither for the squeamish nor for those who try to shape his words into a viewpoint mirroring their own. If you ask Tim McLaughlin a question, you will get an answer – thoughtful and utterly candid, part Marine officer, part attorney (BC Law 2009).
Raised in Laconia, NH, McLaughlin went to Holy Cross on an ROTC scholarship and entered the Marine Corps officer training program immediately after his graduation. Assigned in 2001 to a temporary administrative job at the Pentagon while recovering from a fibula broken during training, he went out for a jog on Sept. 11, 2001. As he neared the Memorial Bridge, one of the hijacked jets slammed into the Pentagon, sending him rushing back to headquarters. He ran into the smoke-shrouded building to help make sure that his co-workers had gotten out while assisting emergency-rescue teams.
Just about a year and a half later, around 4 p.m. on April 9, 2003, McLaughlin – Bravo Company, Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, First Marine Division – was the commander of the first American tank to rumble into Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Before the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in the square, an image that captivated the world, an American flag had shrouded the dictator’s head. That flag belonged to Lieutenant Tim McLaughlin, handed to him by a friend in the aftermath of 9/11. He would later be interviewed by Christiane Amanpour and Dan Rather, among many journalists and broadcasters, and would write about his recollections in The New York Times in 2009.
All the while, McLaughlin was keeping a diary in the time-tested manner of every era’s soldiers. His writing skills, however, set his words apart from most others, the Marine having studied Russian and literature at Holy Cross as well as trying his hand at poetry. He began his journal on Feb. 21, 2003, at a Marine base in the Kuwaiti desert and over the following weeks would chronicle the terror, the tedium, and every other aspect of war.
In a recent Boston College Law School Magazine article, the noted author and war correspondent Peter Maass, who convinced McLaughlin to make his diary public, wrote: “The diaries are unusually intimate. They don’t just describe the people whom McLaughlin shot and killed and the ease with which he did so, they also describe personal details of his life, from the first time he fell in love to his fears that everything he saw and did in Iraq would warp his mind.”
In March 2006, McLaughlin, whose unabashed pride and love for the Corps and his comrades are unmistakable, made a personally difficult decision not to pursue his longtime goal of serving his country as a career Marine. That September, he entered BC’s law school; in his third year, he went to Sarajevo as a legal intern on a war crimes tribunal.
Today, Tim McLaughlin is a corporate attorney for the Boston firm Holland & Knight, but his driving purpose remains public service. President of the nonprofit Shelter Legal Services (SLS), which offers free legal services to low-income and homeless veterans, he also volunteers at a Boston middle school where he works with at-risk kids. His wife works with incarcerated adolescents. In large part, McLaughlin attributes his strong desire to serve his country and community to his family: his father was in the military and served as New Hampshire’s attorney general from 1997-2002; one brother was a fellow Marine, another a police officer.
From October 28 to November 20, the multimedia exhibit “Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq” will be open in the Boston College Law Library. The exhibition not only displays Tim McLaughlin’s searing war diaries, but also photographs by Gary Knight and texts by Peter Maass – both of whom covered the Iraq War.
In a recent phone interview with the BIR, McLaughlin spoke about his experiences during and after the war, his struggles, and his ongoing efforts to find perspective on all he has gone through and challenged others to seek how they can make life better for others, to live lives of genuine meaning in their community.
BIR: Did you know you wanted to follow your parents’ path in the law when you went to Holy Cross?
McLaughlin: Actually, no. I was there on an ROTC scholarship, which meant I owed the military eight years. I joined the Marines with the intent to make it my career – I think in many ways, that’s every Marine’s original dream. I wanted to stay in the Marines after the war, but I also wanted marriage and a family, and that is not easy as a Marine officer. Still, I would serve again in a second.
BIR: Besides your love of literature and poetry, what compelled you to write the diaries in Kuwait and Iraq?
McLaughlin: It was a way to pass the time when not on the move or fighting, but some of it came from the fact that for officers at the front, there aren’t a lot of friends around. Of course, you’re close to your men, but not as friends, equals. You’re there to lead them. So there was that, and I was often just sitting in the desert for long stretches. I had a book, a pen, and those stretches of time. Later, after the war, I’d put those diaries aside. When Peter Maass interviewed me for a New Yorker piece he was writing about the statue in Firdos Square and my role there, he looked at my diaries and thought they were interesting. I don’t have as much memory of writing them as of the memories themselves.
I found it tough to read them and didn’t like a lot of it at first, and that made me hesitant to put them on display. But Peter thought they would make people think, and I eventually agreed.
I think that people certainly think about their war experiences, but it takes time to present them thoughtfully. Peter and Gary [Knight] did. The exhibit is not designed for people to agree or disagree with me about the war and my part in it, but to think about it.
BIR: What was the decision to leave the Corps like for you personally?
McLaughlin: I had the opportunity to stay in the Corps as an instructor at Basic School – for officer training. It’s one of the most prestigious jobs in the corps because it’s designed for captains to teach lieutenants the basics we have learned the hard way. I did that for two years after the war before I left. My parents were happy, of course, to have me home again – my Dad and I could resume our tradition of going to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Southie – but sad in a way because they knew how much I loved serving in the Marines.
BIR: What was the transition from Marine officer to law student like for you?
McLaughlin: I made the choice to leave the Corps in March 2006 and started law school in September. I had horrible nightmares, especially one in which I was sitting on my parents’ front porch watching my Marine comrades fighting. I lost ten pounds from anxiety.
My first days in law school proved a surprise when I found I was not as alone in my experiences as I’d thought. My section had several other veterans, which shows how thoughtful and innovative BC Law is.
It was a period of time when I was trying to put some things behind me, but as I reflected about my experiences in war, what it all meant, I chose to go to Bosnia in my third year and be an intern at the war crimes trials there. This time, I could be the man without a gun.
In many ways, my time in Sarajevo was disheartening. The hatred was so generationally entrenched and the crimes so horrific that it makes one wonder whether anything can change until the generation with the worst memories and experiences has died away. That’s how deep the hatred was.
BIR: It sounds as though in many ways, you view things not as always black and white, but in shades of gray.
– McLaughlin: There’s truth to that. In my article for the New York Times, I mentioned that 189 people had been killed at the Pentagon on 9/11 – including the four terrorists. A lot of people were upset by that, but unless we’re willing to look at every aspect of things, we can never learn all that we need to, can never understand why it happened.
– Now we board the cancer train,
– with our destination unknown