FORT WAYNE – Mike Phillip seemed to have everything going for him: He had left high school early to go to DePauw University where he graduated with a degree in political science.
Three years later, he was graduating from the Indiana University School of Law and clerking for a law firm in Indianapolis.
But then the 24-year-old from Syracuse wanted something more.
It was good experience, but I had always wanted to join the military, Mike says.
Maybe it was his family: Older brother Edward is a petty officer second class in the U.S. Navy; younger brother Christopher is a U.S. Marine stationed in Pendleton, Calif.
Mike grew up in Whitley and Allen counties and spent his sophomore year at Homestead High School. He spoke to The Journal Gazette from Kabul via a phone line spanning 8,600 miles and an 8 1/2 -hour time difference – it was 10:30 a.m. here, but 7 p.m. there.
Maybe it was a career move: I wanted to do something in law enforcement, and this was a way to do that, Mike says. Military justice can be very interesting, and it’s a way to get trial experience right away.
So he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he is an attorney with the Judge Advocate General, and became Capt. Mike Phillip.
Working for a firm, you’re basically doing research for a couple of years, he says. In the service, it’s very different. You’re in a courtroom right away, you get a lot of different cases, things like international law.
But unlike a cushy law-firm job, there’s the possibility of being sent into a war zone.
I also wanted to deploy overseas, Mike says.
Or maybe it was something more. But how do you explain a desire to serve?
You want to help the guys that are doing the mission, he says. It’s all about supporting the troops out here to the best of our ability. That’s why I volunteer; that’s why everyone volunteers out here.
So he had fun when he was stationed in Las Vegas – handling drug abuse cases, drunken-driving cases, working weekends – but he’s really been in his element since he arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, in January.
Kabul’s definitely got its places that are beautiful, Mike says. You go outside the wire and the traffic here is crazy – there’s not a lot of lights or stop signs, so it’s a free for all. You’ll see things like a donkey pulling a cart in the middle of traffic – it’s a very surreal experience.
In fact, he makes it sound so interesting and fun that David Lakin, the public affairs officer who arranged the interview, interrupts the phone call to inject some reality.
We’re not in a safe place. This isn’t a suburb of Fort Wayne, Lakin says. We’re behind sniper veils, sandbags, armed guards and razor wire.
It hasn’t been a safe place in decades.
This country has been a battleground for about 30 years, Lakin says. There’s little or no infrastructure, the things you take for granted back home are not here. We are not free to go out the gate and walk around.
At the same time, Lakin says, the multinational force in Afghanistan has an important mission.
The people here are warm and nice, and for the most part they want what we want back in America – freedom and security, he says.
OK, sure, Mike concedes, maybe it’s not a job where your biggest worry is what time your next Starbucks run will be, so he deals with it by volunteering for force protection duty. So when he’s not busy with his legal duties, he takes shifts on the wall guarding the compound, often carrying an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon – the modern, smaller and lighter equivalent of the old M60 machine gun.
Mike, he’s coming in as a lawyer and he’s learning to handle a 249 SAW, Lakin says. Guys like Mike put it on the line every day.
You can almost hear Mike shrug over the phone.
Being in a guard tower is really interesting, Mike explains. You take a lot of pictures. You’re right in downtown Kabul, with all the traffic and people.
Kids come up to the tower and want water, so you throw that down to them.
It can be physically grueling – he wears body armor, which includes heavy chest and back plates, has a helmet, carries an M4 carbine and several magazines, carries a medical kit and has an M9 pistol strapped to his leg.
All in the heat of Kabul.
There’s no humidity, though, Mike explains.
And he’s in the best shape of his life.
There’s not much to do here but work, Mike says. You pretty much eat, sleep, work out and work over here. But I’m able to work out about an hour-and-a-half or two hours every day. That definitely helps with the pressure.
Oh, yeah, there’s also driving around Kabul: Mike got his Combat Drivers License, which lets him drive up-armored Humvees outside the wire when his legal services are needed at other bases in the area.
It’s such a unique experience and it probably won’t come around again, so I want to see as much as I can, and being a combat driver lets me do that, Mike says.
Despite the dangers, Mike focuses on how interesting it all is.
There’s very little traffic regulation out there. People don’t pay attention and you have to kind of force your way in and out, he says. You’ll get traffic going both ways in a traffic circle.
There are, of course, things he misses – like fiancée Kim Trocio, back in Las Vegas.
I miss pizza quite a bit, he says. And there’s General Order 1-B, which means no drinking. I do miss having the occasional beer once in a while.
But he also loves what he’s doing. His deployment is scheduled to end in January, and his original service commitment ends in July 2013, but Mike says he will probably stay in the service.
I definitely enjoy it here, he says. I’d definitely like to stay in.