A casino worker huddled behind a craps table pondering a life of rolled snake eyes while a gunman aimed at gamblers on a Mississippi riverboat in January of 2001.
It was 15 years ago when now Tech. Sgt. Wayne Freeland, 56th Fighter Wing paralegal, found himself listening in fear to gunfire and considering how his life accomplishments would later be described to his infant son.
“Even a bricklayer can point to a building and tell his children he helped build that,” Freeland said. “If I died that night, what had I accomplished or done for my son? I knew I was capable of more; I knew I wasn’t going to grow while living inside my comfort zone.”
After carefully considering multiple military options, Freeland decided the active-duty Air Force would provide the fulfilment he was looking for and chose to become the third generation of his family to serve as an Airman.
“Initially I came in as a computer networking specialist, but five years later I was promoted to staff sergeant as a first-term Airman in a career field that was 130 percent manned,” he said. “I was bored with computers and figured if I was going to stay in, I wanted to do something else.”
After discussing his curiosity about a career in the legal field with his sister-in-law, who was serving as an Air Force paralegal, he decided to begin the interview process at the base legal office in 2006.
“I knew what I was walking into,” Freeland said. “It seemed like it would be challenging and interesting, always changing, and I would have a chance to feel like I actually made a difference by coming to work each day. I made a great choice.”
In 2009, Freeland deployed to Iraq where he assisted in investigating and prosecuting war criminals. This resulted in the discovery of more than 2,000 witnesses of war crimes, which reduced the risk to investigators in the field.
“That shaped who I am today because I learned of the horrible things people do to one another in a region that can be very violent,” he said. “It was some of the most important work I have ever done. At least some of those people were put to death before we redeployed. I truly believe we saved lives by stopping these people.”
With three enlistments and two deployments under his belt, in 2014 Freeland wanted to devote himself to law school to become an attorney. Taking advantage of the Palace Front program, he separated from active-duty and transitioned to the Air Force Reserve.
“I love being a paralegal in the Air Force, but after spending many late nights preparing cases for attorneys, I began to envy them,” he said. “I wanted to be the one arguing in court.”
Freeland said once he separated from the active-duty Air Force and was accepted into Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, he was able to continue his education on a full-time basis.
“Before joining the Reserve, I was attending night school, which meant I often left the office before my Airmen,” he said. “I felt like I was putting my goals above the mission. I needed to choose whether I wanted to be a military paralegal or an attorney.”
Freeland chose the Reserve’s individual mobilization augmentee program because it allowed more flexibility in his busy schedule.
“Being a law student, I am swamped. If I’m not in class, my mind still is,” Freeland said. “Being able to schedule my Reserve time to fall between semesters or during spring breaks is a blessing.”
Freeland said the traditional Reserve program might have also worked for him, but there was the possibility of wing schedules conflicting with studies and finals.
“The best thing about the IMA program is I worked as an active-duty paralegal here in the Luke legal office, and now I’m able to maintain the relationships I’ve built with the same people on a part-time basis,” Freeland said. “A part of me feels like I am coming home when I return for duty.”
Freeland is scheduled to graduate from law school in May and plans to continue his Air Force career as a paralegal while practicing law as an attorney in the civilian sector. He said being an Air Force paralegal paved the road for him to attain his goals and will enhance his future career.
“Grueling hours, attention to detail, critical thinking, multitasking and public speaking are things Air Force paralegals do nearly every day,” Freeland said. “All of this brings confidence and the ability to think quickly.”
The man who once threw dice on a casino table used what the Air Force offers to land himself in a courtroom where clients will look to him for a different kind of favorable outcome.
For more information about how to cross-train or join the Air Force Reserve as a paralegal, call Senior Master Sgt. Penny Thornton at 478-327-0469 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.