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Students ... and soldiers

For two students and an alum, serving their country and learning the law have proven compatible. Read on to learn more about a trio of ASL's veterans.

Mario Cicconetti

Mario Cicconetti '13

Mario Cicconetti's post-Iraq to-do list didn't include much rest or relaxation. The retired Army captain from Painesville, Ohio, had bigger plans: climbing a mountain and going to law school.

His mission to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley was about more than the physical challenge of reaching the summit, however. Cicconetti '13, now in his first year at ASL, was climbing for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that aids injured troops.

"It was the closest thing I could do that mirrors the experience of a soldier who has been wounded in battle," he said. "The mountain was stronger than us; we could put ourselves at a disadvantage and really get a sense of how it is to live with such injuries."

Cicconetti grew up near Cleveland and attended Ohio University, where he ultimately received his degree in 2005. During college, however, he felt "some blank void ... a call to do something greater."

He joined the National Guard and eventually the Army, where he climbed the ranks. At Georgia's Fort Benning, he attended airborne, infantry, reconnaissance and ranger schools from 2005 to 2007. The training "tests your limits," he said. "You get to know yourself mentally and physically. You get to know how you handle yourself in stressful situations."

After leaving Fort Benning, Cicconetti was stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. And in 2008, he was called to serve in Iraq, where he led an elite combat platoon of more than 80 men charged with rounding up terrorists in Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad. Initially, he conducted operations from an old warehouse in one of the most densely populated areas of the city.

"We were arresting terrorists and ultimately trying to prosecute them," he said. "We would have to hunt down judges and bring them to court, too. We were like bailiffs."

Two of his men died in one attack, and a sergeant was nearly burned alive in another. More than a dozen of his men were injured.

"You can do triage on the spot, but the fighting doesn't stop. (My men) would be taken away, and I wouldn't really know how they were doing. Days would pass before I would get to see them. And none of us were around to tell them it would be OK."

After retiring from the Army, Cicconetti "still wanted to give back and help somehow." In his Alaskan backyard, he saw the perfect opportunity to do so. Cicconetti and friend Brian Stoltz hatched a plan to climb McKinley, the nation's highest peak at 20,320 feet, to raise money and awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project.

The nonprofit has representatives at several facilities where injured soldiers begin their recovery, Cicconetti said. The volunteers were injured in battle themselves, so they're in a better position to comfort wounded troops. "They can relate," he said. "You may have a guy with shrapnel in his neck talking to an amputee." Volunteers also help injured soldiers with educational and recreational opportunities as well as the transition back to civilian life.

Cicconetti and Stoltz prepared to summit McKinley for months. They knew it would be tricky: Of those who attempt the climb each year, about half finish it.

They started their climb June 1. For most, the trip takes 16 to 17 days. For Cicconetti and Stoltz, it took 22.

"We were stuck at a camp at 14,000 feet for 12 days," Cicconetti said. "We were stuck between two weather systems, above us and below us."

So they waited. And ate. They happily accepted food from descending climbers: bagels, peanut butter, pepperoni, salami. "It was way better than all the dehydrated food that we brought," Cicconetti laughed. Still, even on a diet of 5,000-6,000 calories a day, he lost 12 to 15 pounds.

The other major snag: The altitude made Stoltz severely ill. "He would take five steps, and have to rest 30 seconds," Cicconetti said.

Despite those obstacles, the two made it to the top of McKinley on June 22. "Everything came full circle for me then," he said. "I felt really good about what we had done."

The next challenge was beginning classes at ASL. Law school had "always been at the back of my mind," Cicconetti said. His father is a municipal judge, and the drive toward practicing law really ramped up in Iraq. "It was frustrating. We would see a guy blowing up our guys, and then he would go free," he said. "I wanted to fix it. Seeing that crystallized the desire for me."

Even after hunting terrorists and climbing a mountain, Cicconetti said, law school isn't easy. But the military prepared him for it. "It's foreign material," he said. "But I can handle the pressure in a way that others may find difficult. I can manage my time well, and there's no reason to freak out."

Cicconetti can see himself practicing some sort of civil litigation or focusing on natural resources law.

Ultimately, though, he would love to teach. "I am where I am today because of all the teachers and mentors who gave me valuable advice," he said. "I feel like I can give that to someone else."

Jarrod Crockett

Jarrod Crockett '06

Going into his last semester at ASL, the only classes that stood between Jarrod Crockett '06 and his law degree were Advanced Torts and Secured Transactions.

But then he got a call from the Maine National Guard asking him to serve in Afghanistan. He became a combat advisor for an infantry company in the Afghan Army for six months and commanded the HHC 240th for a year.

The Maine native was able to complete his classes abroad, taking his exams in a war zone. "You think law school is bad?" he joked. "This was so much harder. Having time to study was terrible, and they sent my tests to my JAG officer. I took them at a forward operating base in Afghanistan. The lights went out, but I had a flashlight, so they told me to keep going."

Crockett is the son of a logger and worked in the family business growing up. "My dad was a Vietnam vet, and that instilled in me that I would serve my country at some point. I come from a family that's old school. We believe in giving back to something greater than yourself. And the Army provided a way to go to college."

He attended Radford University in Radford, Va., on an ROTC scholarship, where he received a degree in political science in 1999. After that, he became a lieutenant and was stationed in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, until he decided to come to ASL in 2003.

When he went to Afghanistan in early 2006, ASL friends sent outlines to help him study, and professors posted material online to help him out. "My classmates were really supportive," he said. "That's what I loved about ASL ... It seems like you're tucked away in the mountains, but you're pretty tight with everyone by the time you're done."

Discipline from the Army spilled over in law school, he said. "At first, everyone thinks they are going to read and do everything. I spent tremendous hours trying to get everything done. But one of the first things you're taught in the Army is to use the resources you have and stop trying to reinvent the wheel. That kind of discipline helped me out a lot."

Crockett also became pals with other veterans at ASL. "We would go over to Italian Village and head upstairs. Besides drinking an excessive amount of beer, we would compare outlines, bond, and just take care of each other. We had study groups. Some people are super competitive in law school, but in the Army you learn to work with each other to succeed."

On graduation day, Crockett had a video feed so that he could watch the ceremony from Afghanistan. But the video went out, and he could only listen by phone. Celebration was low-key, he said. "A couple soldiers came to congratulate me, and we had a couple of O'Douls, since you couldn't have real alcohol," he laughed.

He still had a representative in Grundy, however: his dad, who stepped up and received his degree on his behalf. "Dad still gives me a hard time," he said. "He'll tell me, ‘I'm the one who actually graduated from law school, just so you know.' "

Crockett stayed in Afghanistan until August 2007. "I worked with Afghans all the time, and learned so much about the culture. Things that you read about the war are often tainted-it's not like that on the ground. Afghans are tenacious, and the people who actually live there are not as extreme as they're painted to be."

After returning to the States, Crockett geared up to take the bar in February 2008. He was also preparing for a run for office. In November 2008, Crockett was elected to represent District 91 in Maine's House of Representatives. He was the only Republican to oust an incumbent Democrat that year.

"My family is not political," he said. "But when I was little, a couple of older ladies would take me to political meetings, and it piqued my interest." In college, he interned for Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Crockett's experience as a lawyer lent itself to the state legislature, where he suddenly found himself dealing with topics including adverse possession and civil perjury law.

He continues to practice with Hanley and Associates of Maine, where he takes real estate, state planning, and business association cases. "It's a neat place to work. I helped write the foreclosure law, and now I'm fighting a couple cases myself."

He plans to continue serving in public office, too. His priorities include cutting through red tape for the state's small businesses and implementing an effective evaluation system for Maine teachers. Beyond that, he's taking things as they come. "Some have asked me to run for higher office, but I don't know if it's in the cards. I do want a family and a real life," he said.

Whatever he does, he credits ASL for helping him accomplish it. "The reality is that the education you get at ASL is just as good as you'll get at any other law school. What you get out of it is what you put into it."

Donna Ridgel '11

Donna RidgelLast May, Donna Ridgel '11 watched from the bleachers as members of ASL's Class of 2010 received their degrees and kicked off a summer of studying for the bar. She was supposed to be graduating with them, but the National Guard member had been called to serve in Iraq during her 2L year, putting school on hold.

Commencement speaker and former Virginia Gov. George Allen told the crowd about Ridgel, prompting a standing ovation. "It was very touching. I teared up," Ridgel said. "I didn't expect it. I don't see serving in Iraq as, ‘I did this for you.' It was just something I was supposed to do-just trying to give something back that's bigger than myself."

Ridgel, commander of the Tennessee Air National Guard's 1/230th Air Cavalry Squadron's aviation maintenance unit, helped keep OH-58D Kiowa Warrior attack/reconnaissance helicopters in top shape from her base in Mosul, Iraq.She also happens to be the first female Kiowa pilot and commander, as well as the only female Kiowa test pilot. She flew about 350 hours of missions in roughly 10 months.

Ridgel, a New York native, joined the Army reserves in 1991. From 1994 to 1999, Ridgel was on active duty, stationed in Colorado and Korea, and was trained as a generator mechanic. "I chose that because there was a bonus," she laughed. "No one wanted to do it. And it turned out that I met my husband in that class, who had gotten stuck in it after not getting into another class he wanted. "Every major milestone in my life was by accident," she laughed.

In 1999, Ridgel headed to school at Middle Tennessee State, where she received a political science degree in 2001 and was commissioned through ROTC. The same year, she went to flight school in Alabama, where she graduated in 2003.

In the Army, Ridgel found herself researching a lot of rules and regulations to build various cases, planting a seed that eventually led her to law school. "I really found myself enjoying it. When I got to law school, it was like what I had already been doing."

After starting at ASL in 2007, Ridgel gravitated toward contracts and criminal procedure. She has been president of the Criminal Law Society and sings in the jug band.

Her long history with the military has given her an edge in school, she said. "You can manage your own time. In the Army, you're told what to do 24-7. But you can do law school more on your own terms. The military teaches you to multitask, how to overcome obstacles. You realize that things change constantly. So I'm not rattled by the time constraints of law school or the things I can't control."

Knowing she could be called up in the near future, Ridgel took an extra class as a 2L, a couple of summer classes, and is taking a couple of extras now, too. She's on track for May 2011 commencement.

Until she deployed in March 2009, many classmates hadn't even realized Ridgel was in the military. "I kept it low-key," she said. "I had one friend who was so shocked: She was like, ‘You're a pilot, and you're just now telling me?' It was a little modesty, but it was also that sometimes people treat you differently. I tell my daughters that people should like you for who you are. I'm a student, you're a student, and I just want to relate on that level."

Members of the ASL community sent care packages of food and holiday decorations. "All my soldiers were so grateful," she said. "My office was literally piled with care packages."

Being a woman in the military is "100 percent what you make of it," she said. "You occasionally have to deal with crap, or with men who have no boundaries. But that's anywhere. At first, some in my unit treated me like a novelty-they would ask each other, ‘Have you met the woman?' But then word of mouth would get out that I'm very strict."

Ridgel's unit lost two pilots in February 2010, just before she was slated to go home. "They were on their way to Kuwait to go home. It was a very scary time, and it put everything in perspective. So, getting home was just this gift ... but it was also bittersweet."

Knowing that she was simply lucky to be back raised her spirits as she watched her former classmates graduate. "After everything that happened, I wasn't sad that they were up there and I wasn't."

The comforts of home have helped make her transition easier.

"I was so excited about the bathroom. We would only have one on our forward operating base ... and it would get pretty nasty. But everything was so clean when I got home, and I could get up in the middle of the night and not have to get my weapon to go to the bathroom. I wanted to just lie there on the bathroom floor."

Ultimately, Ridgel hopes to get into criminal law-probably prosecution. Perhaps private practice down the road, she said. She also marks 20 years with the military this year.

While she hasn't ruled out becoming a JAG officer, military life has taken a toll on her family, she said, and she may prefer keeping law and the military separate. "I can only handle so much at once!" she laughed.