Maj. William "Matt" Blackston is like a man with a previous life. Today, Blackston, 38, is an unassuming corporate lawyer, dressed in a suit and tie, with a trim runner's build. Only his intense green eyes suggest that from 2003 to February 2004 he served as an Army reservist with the awesome responsibility of trying to determine who should be freed from Iraq's prisons.
"We were part of the process in deciding who would be detained," he says of the 377th Theater Support Command, Staff Judge Advocate General Section (JAG). "The infantry would either catch them or kill them. We would review the case files of the suspects who were arrested -- according to the Geneva conventions -- to see if there was any basis for detaining them. It is where the rubber meets the road."
Originally deployed from New Orleans to a U.S. base in Kuwait in May 2003, Blackston was later sent to the 800th Military Police Brigade, which operated all U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. "They requested a JAG to help with the detainee review process," Blackston recalls. By the time he was posted to Baghdad in August 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross had already been protesting conditions and treatment of detainees to U.S. military officials for six months. From modest quarters at the sprawling Baghdad International Airport, Blackston says he could see Iraqi detainees as he and other JAGs spent long hours poring over the records of individual prisoners.
"Over time, we reduced the prison population by releasing the ones who were clearly not bad people,'" he says. "The prisoner work was probably the most rewarding work I did."
As a JAG, he also helped U.S. troops with their legal needs and coveted opportunities to represent hapless members of the ever-dangerous truck convoys. "I felt really bad for the trucking guys," Blackston says. "They would drive up from Kuwait, sleep in the cabs of their trucks, eat MREs (rations) all day and they were getting hit with rocket-propelled grenades. Unlike other troops, they didn't get mail. And they didn't get a chance to hop on a computer and email home every once in a while. If they got blamed for fender-benders it would come out of their pay. And there were a lot of minor accidents due to blinding sandstorms, close-file convoys and fatigue. If we (JAGs) ever had a chance to do something for those guys we would. Those guys probably don't get the recognition they should."
As a JAG, Blackston did not engage in combat. From his office outside Baghdad, however, he could hear the occasional rattle of small arms fire or the thud of an explosion. At the top of every hour, coalition forces would detonate seized arms caches. "So you could look at your watch whenever you heard an explosion and say, Oh, that's us.'"
Media reports tended to exaggerate the frequency and extent of the danger, he says. "The scariest thing for me was flying in and out of Baghdad; the C-130 would suddenly take evasive action to avoid possible fire." A more constant threat was weather. Summer temperatures climbed as high as 130 degrees by 2 p.m. To beat the heat during his workouts, Blackston got up at 5 a.m. to run four miles every morning outside the gates of Baghdad Airport.
But the worst part of the war is not knowing when you are coming home, he says. After 10-months "in-country," Blackston finally returned to New Orleans, two months before the uprising at Fallujah.
A native of Oxford, Miss., Blackston joined the Army Reserve at age 21, before earning his law degree from Washington and Lee University School of Law. He and his wife, who also is an attorney, have resided in New Orleans since 1992. Today, he is a partner with the local law firm of Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn and specializes in construction litigation and products liability. He follows media reports of the war as well as the Iraqi trials of "Chemical Ali" and other accused war criminals. Blackston recalls meeting Iraqi judges and lawyers who wanted to re-establish a judicial system that would gain the respect of the international community. "They wanted to show they were not medieval," he says. "The courts were secular and there were women judges." Since returning home, Blackston has volunteered for a defense program to promote employer awareness of the rights and responsibilities of employees serving in the Guard and reserves. And he says he will serve again, if called. "I signed up for this," he says, his eyes sharpening. "And I will do it again if I have to. It's not a sacrifice. I wouldn't even use that word." -- Allen Johnson Jr.