Turning Al Anbar
Why Mark Budzinski left his med-mal practice to lead troops in Iraq
Published in 2010 Wisconsin Rising Stars magazine
on November 11, 2010
Updated on November 15, 2010
In February 2005, when Mark Budzinski arrived in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, their destination, Al Anbar province—which includes Fallujah and Ramadi—was considered a Sunni insurgent stronghold and one of the most deadly places in Iraq for U.S. forces.
Budzinski didn’t have to be there. He’d done his time. In 1993, when he was 17, his mother signed him up for the Marines. He served for a decade—through undergraduate and law school at the University of Wisconsin—and in 1999 he put away his uniform to concentrate on medical malpractice and insurance defense law at Corneille Law Group in Green Bay.
But in 2004, when he discovered that his former battalion was being summoned to Iraq, he started the process of getting back in.
“I had been a Marine for a long time,” Budzinski says. “My dad was a Marine; he fought in Vietnam. My grandfather fought in WWII. So I didn’t really look at it from the perspective of: What was the risk? I didn’t think the fact that I was a lawyer gave me the excuse to avoid sharing the burden with everyone else.”
He ended up being deployed with another unit. From the moment his U.S. military jet touched down at Al Asad Airbase in Al Anbar—Iraq’s largest province, bordering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia—he knew nothing was certain.
“You can’t dwell on that—especially in a leadership role,” he says. “I had a squad of 10 Marines that I was leading. Everybody has those same thoughts.”
Budzinski led Marines on raids in areas suspected of holding insurgents, on reconnaissance patrols to locate insurgent firing positions, and in setting up ambush sites for insurgents planting IEDs. “It’s trying to get eyes on the enemy,” he says. “We were the ones going into the cities, trying to root out insurgents.”
One of his most dangerous missions took place in Hit, a city on the northeastern edge of Al Anbar, bordering the Euphrates River. The goal was to establish a permanent coalition presence in the city.
“As far as I know, that was the first time [U.S. forces] had employed that tactic. In other cases, because we were stretched fairly thin, we would go into a city, and then we’d have to leave,” says Budzinski, who also led missions in Haditha, Dulab and Barana, among other Iraqi cities.
“When we first pushed into [Hit], we had an extremely large presence so that there wasn’t a real significant fight at that point in time. The force that we had rolled in with was so overwhelming,” he says. “But after everybody else leaves, it was two companies of Marines that stayed in the city, to hold the city. That’s when things got a little bit stressful again.”
One of the greatest challenges was intelligence gathering. Out of fear for their lives, the local population was slow to identify insurgents for U.S. troops. It was only after several months that the citizens began to trust Budzinski’s battalion.
“Once they realized we weren’t going to pack up and leave next week—and we were going to have an established coalition presence in the city—and then once we started to incorporate more and more Iraqi forces into our operations, I felt things were starting to turn,” he says.
In October 2005, he returned to Green Bay.
“It was a quick transition. That’s the unusual part of the whole experience,” he says. “You’re most thankful for all of the conveniences you just take for granted every day. Running water. Toilets. Regular food. The ability to just walk outside. When we were in Hit, if we went to the bathroom, we had either pits or Porta-Johns. You had to put a Kevlar helmet on and wear your flak vest just to go to the bathroom.”
He picked up his practice where he left off, defending insurance companies and physicians in medical malpractice cases, but says his experience in Iraq reinforced how he views his colleagues. “I want it to be a team effort,” he says. “I want the people involved with my office to feel like they have a vested interest.”
Currently he’s defending a neurosurgeon in a medical negligence case. His wins have ranked among Wisconsin’s most impressive zero-dollar verdicts. “In cases where I think people are taking advantage of the system, where you’ve got someone who you think isn’t as injured as they’re claiming—I have less tolerance for that,” he says.
He married his wife six months after returning from Iraq, and today they have two children under the age of 3.
“The most difficult cases I’ve handled have dealt with wrongful death cases that have involved young men with young families,” he says. “Because you’ve got minor children involved and it’s those cases where the event—the death—is so sudden and unexpected.”
After his 2005 tour, Budzinski resigned from the Marines. He’s proud of his service but thankful he’s home. “That’s right,” he says. “I’m done.”