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Federal judge held court in combat zones

By Gary L. Wright, McClatchy Newspapers –

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney kept his 9 mm pistol under his black robe in a holster strapped to his right leg.

The sirens in Afghanistan sometimes sounded twice a day warning of incoming mortar rounds and rockets. The 52-year-old federal judge would hit the ground and wait two minutes. Then, before another round of fire could be launched, he’d rush to a bunker.

“We stayed in the bunker until the all-clear was sounded,” Whitney recalled. “Then we went back to work. Back to our normal duties.”

Whitney has just returned to Charlotte after a seven-month assignment as a military judge in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, where he presided over courts-martial of U.S. soldiers.

Fred Borch, the historian for the U.S. Army JAG Corps, said Whitney is the first federal judge to become a military judge and preside over courts-martial in a combat theater.

“That’s never happened before,” Borch said. “Judge Whitney made history again when earlier this month he presided over the last court-martial in Iraq.”

In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Whitney talked about what life was like as a military judge amid the violence.

Whitney said he never had to pull his pistol, but combat was always a possibility close to the front. He recalled hearing nearby explosions day and night: “The mortars and rockets struck close to where we worked and lived. But I was never in fear of my life. I knew the odds of being hit were very slim.”

Whitney’s father was in the Army. So was his grandfather.

Whitney, who called it a family tradition, joined the Army Reserves in 1982 while attending Wake Forest University. He’s been dispatched all over the world — Germany, Italy, Japan, Johannesburg, Panama and the Republic of Georgia — during his 29 years in the military reserves.

But he called his work in Iraq and Afghanistan his “most challenging assignment.” It also was the most dangerous.

Before leaving for the special assignment in June, Whitney told the Observer he was not worried about going into a combat zone. “There are always risks,” he said. “I’m an old soldier. I will be in military installations for the most part. I won’t be holding court at the forward lines of troops.”

The overseas assignment for Whitney was, in many ways, a sobering experience. On average each week, he recalls, 10 U.S. military personnel died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Just days after his arrival in Afghanistan in June, Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas O’Brien was point man on foot patrol when an IED (improvised explosive device) blew up under him in the violent Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

Whitney didn’t know the 21-year-old soldier. But the judge has known O’Brien’s mother, Tammy, for years. She’s a court clerk at the federal courthouse in Charlotte.

Asked what he will do when he sees Tammy O’Brien for the first time after returning to his job at the federal courthouse, Whitney replied: “I’ll give her a huge hug and tell her how deeply saddened I am.”

Whitney left Afghanistan and Iraq with admiration for the commitment and bravery of America’s fighting men and women.

“The young men and women serving our country are extraordinarily patriotic,” the judge said. “Many people in this country don’t appreciate the sacrifices our soldiers are making.”

While in Iraq and Afghanistan, Whitney often worked 12 to 17 hours a day. It wasn’t unusual for him to begin court at 7:30 a.m. and adjourn between 8 p.m. and midnight.

“We worked seven days a week,” Whitney said. “There were no holidays. No days off.”

In all, Whitney presided over 25 courts-martial. He held the last trial in Iraq before the U.S. troops pulled out of the country in December. The U.S. soldiers had been charged with crimes ranging from rape and robbery to assault and drug offenses. All but one of the soldiers was convicted.

Whitney didn’t always impose the sentences. That was often left up to the panel of military personnel — all senior in rank to the accused — who served as jurors.

The harshest punishment Whitney imposed was seven years’ imprisonment for aggravated sexual assault. A male soldier had sexually attacked a female soldier.

The courts-martial panels ordered some of the soldiers to perform hard labor without confinement. Others were dishonorably discharged for their crimes.

Whitney said the worst part of the assignment was being so far away from his family. But he was given leave in July to fly to Paris and spend a week with his wife and two daughters.

Whitney’s overseas assignment ended last month. When he arrived at Fort Benning, Ga., on Dec. 11, his wife, Catherine, was there waiting. “I hugged her and gave her a big kiss,” he recalls.

Four days later, Whitney was back home in Charlotte.

“I’ll never forget that day,” he said. “Being in Afghanistan and Iraq was a very meaningful experience. I’m glad I did it. But I’m glad I’m home now with my family.”

Whitney’s wife and daughters met him at the airport in Charlotte and drove him home. He was in for a touching surprise as the car turned onto his street at about 1 a.m.

At every house along the street, a yellow ribbon and bow had been tied to a tree.

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