Soldiers who transitioned to become Florida lawyers recall their service to the nation
Both Dinsmore associates and beginning lawyers say Veteran’s Day holds a special resonance as they honor former comrades and launch a second career that involves serving something greater than themselves
From deployments to Iraq and Kuwait as a combat medic, to his law school days volunteering at a veteran’s legal clinic, to his Bar oath not to reject the “defenseless and oppressed,” Tampa attorney Christopher Odgers’ life has revolved around service.
“When I was in basic training, we had one sergeant who would say that there’s only three professions that have to take an oath, and that is lawyers, doctors and military members,” he said. “I think about that. A lot.”
Three decades of military service for Tampa attorney Andrew Zacherl involved multiple combat tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, and humanitarian assistance missions to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Thailand after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 230,000.
Both Dinsmore associates and beginning lawyers say Veteran’s Day holds a special resonance as they honor former comrades and launch a second career that involves serving something greater than themselves.
“As lawyers, I’m afraid we’re too hard on ourselves sometimes,” Zacherl said. “Whether [clients] are facing dire consequences, criminal charges, the potential loss of life, liberty, and property, or whether they need to figure out how they are going to hand down their property to the next generation, we are making the rule of law real to somebody. It’s all service.”
Odgers didn’t mention his Army enlistment until a week before basic training. The Iraq war was on, Odgers was a recent high school graduate, and his parents were dead set against it.
“My parents worked very hard to provide for us, and they didn’t want to see their son coming home in a body bag,” he said.
A California native who was raised in Las Vegas, Odgers figured his future was in medicine or the law. But when the 2008 recession hit and jobs evaporated, the Army’s offer seemed too good to ignore.
“I was looking for other ways to find a career path, and the Army had a combat medic position, and I figured if I was going to join, I would join as medic and be able to help people,” he said.
The military wasn’t a stretch, given his family history.
“My grandfather was in the Air Force and the Navy, my dad was in the Marine Corps, I have a cousin who is in the Army, I have another cousin who is in Coast Guard, and another cousin was Air Force, if I’m remembering correctly,” he said.
Odgers served from 2009 to 2015 — four years of active duty and two years in the Army Reserves — before he decided to go to law school.
After basic training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, and medical training in Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, “my first really only duty station was Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas,” he said.
For about a year, between 2011 and 2012, Odgers’ unit was deployed to Iraq and Kuwait.
In October 2011, President Barack Obama announced the war was over, and with Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki agreed, 40,000 U.S. troops would return home.
“My unit was in the drawdown, we were one of the last convoys out of Iraq, and then we stayed in Kuwait as an emergency response team after the drawdown,” Odgers said. “My unit was tasked with breaking down outposts, and then convoying all of the materials back to Joint Base Balad, where it was air-lifted out.”
Joint Base Balad was a sprawling Iraqi/U.S. air base about 40 miles north of Baghdad. There were occasional enemy mortar rounds, but they failed to inflict serious damage, Odgers said.
“At that time, we had a fairly peaceful relationship with the Iraqis because we were breaking everything down and moving out,” he said. “So, we were fortunate enough not to have any serious injuries during our deployment.”
Odgers’ assignment was “senior line medic.”
“I had four medics underneath me, three to four at the time, who were working directly with the soldiers, and then I was riding with the troop leadership, the sergeants, the first sergeants, the commander,” he said.
Odgers’ medical training still came in handy.
“I got very good at diagnosing knee and back problems,” he said. “I’m also very familiar with diagnoses for flus and colds.”
In addition to the mortar attacks, “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs) were a constant threat to the convoys. Months of separation from family and friends could be challenging, Odgers acknowledges.
“While I was deployed, my grandmother died, and I had to miss the funeral, and that was probably the worst part,” he said. “Christmas is tough, but there’s a lot of support groups out there that send well wishes, cards and packages to make the experience a little less difficult.”
Toward the end of his military career, Odgers considered becoming a doctor, but figured 27 was too late to begin medical training. A roommate at Texas State University, where Odgers completed his undergraduate degree, raved about his hometown, Ft. Myers.
Odgers looked at Florida law schools, and Stetson looked especially appealing when Odgers learned about the Veterans Law Institute, where students help ex-military and their families navigate the VA benefits system.
“The first semester, you get to assist with helping veterans file VA claims for disability benefits,” he said. “The second semester, you get to help veterans appeal denials of claims in front of the court of appeals for veterans’ claims.”
Odgers joined the Bar September 24, 2021. An associate, he focuses primarily on construction, consumer finance and health care law. When he’s not practicing, he spends a lot of time volunteering with the Florida Association of Veteran-Owned Businesses.
Odgers will spend Veteran’s Day reminiscing with an Army friend who is visiting from Texas.
Odgers has no regrets about volunteering for military service.
“It takes a lot, but there’s a lot of great things that come out of it as well,” he said. “There’s camaraderie; some of my closest friends are people I served with in Iraq, and they always will be.”
Zacherl retired from MacDill Air Force Base as chief of psychological operations in 2019, a full Army colonel. Nine days later, he was attending Stetson law school orientation.
Zacherl was 50. His youngest classmate was 19.
“I lost count of the number of times that people asked me for directions during the first week, because I couldn’t be a student, right?”
Zacherl entered law school with a master’s degree in international relations and defense analysis, but he muzzled any reflex to “look down” on his less experienced classmates.
“One of the things I loved about law school was, I did feel different, but not excluded,” he said. “I have many law school friends who are many years my junior.”
Zacherl joined the military after graduating high school in 1987 in Chicago. His family wasn’t wealthy, and he needed help paying for college.
Organic chemistry “cured” him of his initial desire to become a veterinarian.
“For four years I was an infantryman in the Oklahoma National Guard, in the 45th Air Assault Brigade,” he said. “I was commissioned as an officer in armor, in tanks.”
He served as a tank officer for eight years, and as his career progressed, he crossed the country and the world. He served variously in Fort Knox, Fort Bragg, and Germany. In 1995, he applied for and was accepted into a special operations field, psychological operations.
Training for the specialty included earning a master’s degree from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California. He returned to Fort Bragg for special operations language school, where he learned French. In 2002, he was assigned to a psychological operations battalion.
A year later, after a brief, post-911 deployment to Kosovo, his unit was transferred from Fort Bragg to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
During two subsequent deployments to Iraq, and two deployments to Afghanistan, Zacherl experienced combat.
It never unfolds as planned, he said.
“Combat is like being in the middle of a bull ring with a bag over your head, and people running up and tapping you on the shoulder from every direction, while you’re trying to avoid the bull,” he said.
He can’t describe his psychological operations work in detail, but he gladly recites the Army definition.
“Planned operations to effect the opinions, attitudes, and ultimately, behaviors of directed audiences, in support of US national security objectives.”
Military training gave him the discipline he needed to complete his law school studies, Zacherl said, and his military specialty will make him a better trial attorney when the time comes. He joined the Bar in March.
Psyops, like litigating, involves “influencing,” he said.
“We want the judge or adjudicator to see things our way,” he said. “Some of that is the facts that surround the case, definitely, but then also presenting them in a way that resonates with the audience that you are presenting them to.”
The military gave Zacherl a ticket to see the world, and that, in turn, gave him a greater appreciation of his own country, he said.
“When you spend time in places where the rule of law has obviously and undeniably broken down, it’s impactful,” he said. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of the rule of law, to be a nation that is bounded by the rule of law. So many Americans, including attorneys, frequently think that’s just a given. It is not a given. It requires maintenance.”