Home of the Brave
Three Kentucky attorneys share memories of serving their country in the armed forces
Published in 2008 Kentucky Super Lawyers magazine
on July 25, 2008
Updated on February 5, 2021
Answering the Call
How R. James Straus stepped forward in a dark hour
When he was growing up as the oldest of four children in Lexington, R. James Straus never considered becoming a United States Marine. Then a war came calling.
In 1968, Straus was a senior at Yale, where anti-war sentiment swelled to a thunderous roar as the Vietnam draft wore on (the university famously kicked its ROTC units off campus the following year). Straus was planning not for a military engagement but a career in law when the Tet Offensive was launched that January. Straus was drafted in June.
“I was very much opposed to the war,” he says, “but I also thought it was a fundamental element of citizenship that if it was your generation’s time to be called into harm’s way, it wasn’t appropriate to step aside.”
Straus chose the U.S. Marine Corps to fulfill that obligation. After attending Officer Candidate School and receiving basic training in Quantico, Va., he was transferred to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., to learn Vietnamese. He was deployed first to Okinawa, Japan, and then joined a battalion landing team in the South China Sea. He was sent ashore in Vietnam in January 1971.
Straus served as a civil affairs officer in northern Quang Tri province, working directly with Vietnamese citizens and soldiers. He quietly demurs when asked to elaborate on the things he saw there, offering instead a simple assessment of his time in service. “It reinforced my view that our policies in Vietnam were ill-advised,” he says.
After returning home in 1971, Straus completed his law degree at the University of Chicago; he’s now a member of Louisville’s Frost Brown Todd, focusing on business consulting and transactions.
Straus believes that his Marine Corps training and wartime service benefit his career. “They’re not two completely different worlds,” he says. “In the military I learned a deep appreciation for people from all walks of life, and I think I acquired a confidence that no matter what life’s challenges are, they can be handled.”
The Foxhole Test
Pierce Hamblin on friendship, fairness and whom he’d want watching his back
Pierce Hamblin knew from the start the path his life would take. Born and raised in Lexington, Hamblin wanted nothing more than to follow in his lawyer father’s footsteps. “I really admired my father, like all boys do,” Hamblin says.
The senior Hamblin was a retired Army officer who earned a Purple Heart for his service in World War II. “He took me up to Fort Knox a lot during my childhood,” Hamblin says. “I made up my mind early on that I wanted to be an Army officer like him.”
Hamblin enrolled in the Army ROTC program at the University of Kentucky in 1969 and remembers very clearly the tension surrounding the conflict in Vietnam. “There was a lot of protest, a lack of respect for the uniform,” he says. “It was so bad that one of my most vivid memories was that we were not allowed to wear our uniforms to drill at the university during the day because it upset a lot of folks and was not really politically correct. So we had to wear our uniforms at night.”
Either in spite of this pressure or because of it, ROTC gave Hamblin—now a mediation attorney and partner at Landrum & Shouse in Lexington—a strong dose of confidence. “They make you do a lot of things you think you can’t,” he says. “Like rappelling out of helicopters at 300 feet.”
Upon graduation from UK in 1973, Hamblin was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, but received an educational delay to attend law school. After he received his law degree (also from UK), he went into active duty in the Army Reserve and was assigned to the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. “It was fascinating,” he says, “especially back then, because we were still in the middle of the Cold War, and the Communists were the big threat.”
Hamblin underwent tactical intelligence and counterintelligence training and qualified to join a Small Military Intelligence Detachment Team of the Army Reserves that was available for dispatch on a moment’s notice anywhere in the United States, although, as one might expect, he remains mum about his duties there. Hamblin completed his reserve obligation by getting his Judge Advocate General diploma from the Army JAG Corps School at the University of Virginia College of Law and serving as a legal affairs officer for an Army training brigade in Louisville.
Hamblin remains a member of the inactive reserves, but he’s not anticipating a call-up anytime soon. “Given my age, I think they’d probably be scraping the bottom of the barrel if they called me,” he says, laughing. “They’d have to be in bad shape.”
Looking back on his Army days, he’s got an impressive list of benefits from his service, including enduring friendships with his comrades from officer basic training in 1977. “They remain my closest friends and confidants,” Hamblin says. And his Army toughness recently helped him on a personal quest: he shed 100 pounds from his 6-foot-7-inch frame by hopping on a bicycle and burning up the streets. “I’ve kind of gotten bike-militant,” he says. “I think every city ought to have more bicycle paths.”
But the best skill the Army gave him is the ability to read people, he says. Hamblin’s post-Army legal career has been a successful one, built on his reputation for fairness. In the last five years, his 2,000-plus mediated cases have come to him by referral—every single one. How does he do it? “It’s very important in being a fair and neutral mediator to be able to judge a person’s character,” he says, “and I’ve developed a basic test for judging character that I learned while I was in the military—I’m a foxhole guy. If the person is someone I would want in my foxhole in the middle of a firefight, I think they’re OK. If it’s a person I think I would turn around and all I’d see was their asshole and elbows as they’re running off, then it’s a person I would probably have difficulty with.”
Pass or Fail?
Sheldon Gilman and the most nerve-wracking test eve
Don’t complain to Sheldon Gilman about the pressure of taking the bar exam. No story of bar exam anxiety can beat his.
Gilman, a partner at Lynch, Cox, Gilman & Mahan in Louisville, joined the Army ROTC when he enrolled at Ohio University in 1961, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s rallying cry to “ask what you can do for your country.” After earning his law degree at Case Western Reserve University in June 1967, he faced entering the military at the height of the Vietnam conflict.
“I had made an application for the Army JAG Corps,” Gilman says, “and was told they were receiving 15 applications for every one slot available. So I considered it an honor, a privilege, when I was selected. I had received a series of letters from the Army about my impending assignment that said if I passed the Ohio bar exam, I would report to Fort Lee, Va., for two weeks of military training and then to JAG school at the University of Virginia Law School. Then I would be assigned to the United States Army Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. If I didn’t succeed on the exam, there was a high likelihood that I’d be going directly to Vietnam as a platoon leader.”
Gilman, who by then was married, got the news he wanted: “I did very well on the Ohio bar exam.”
Gilman entered active duty in March 1968. Assigned to Redstone Arsenal after JAG training, Gilman became a father for the first time in June 1969, but his son Stephen was born prematurely with serious health problems. Doctors predicted that even if Stephen survived, his mental capacity would be severely diminished.
The very next month, Gilman received a letter ordering him to report to the American Division in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Given the health crisis the family was facing, Gilman sought and received what the Army calls a “compassionate assignment” in order to stay in Alabama during the ordeal.
In August 1970, Gilman was called to serve at the Office of the Judge Advocate General at the Pentagon. Stephen’s health had stabilized and so the family moved to Washington, D.C. Gilman completed his Army duty there, working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the U.S. Armed Forces Voting Assistance Task Force and serving as the resident JAG officer on the Conscientious Objector Review Board until December 1971. He completed active duty in March 1972.
By then, Gilman yearned to start a private law practice, which had been his career plan all along. He moved to Louisville with his family, including Stephen, who had made a stunning recovery, and his new little brother, Scott. (Stephen, despite his dire early prognosis, went on to earn his Ph.D. from Harvard and now speaks three languages.)
Gilman hasn’t maintained much contact with old Army buddies because the opportunity hasn’t presented itself. Only recently was he able to visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington; he knows too many names inscribed on it. “I went to too many funerals,” he says.
Of the Vietnam conflict in general, he says, “I volunteered to serve. Right or wrong, it was my country. I’ve always had a high admiration for the members of our armed forces and I was proud to serve.”
To wit, he still lives by a nugget of Army wisdom. “There’s a concept in the military that you learn very quickly,” he says. “Loyalty down breeds loyalty up. If you take care of your troops, your troops will take care of you. It’s one of the things I still practice in my law office today. If I take care of my lawyers, my paralegals, my assistants, they’ll help me take care of my clients.”