Jim Holbrook wasn’t a typical U.S. Army recruit in 1968 when at age 24 he volunteered for a combat tour in Vietnam.
He’d earned two degrees in philosophy and had planned to pursue a Ph.D. in that field at Yale. He disagreed with the U.S. premise for going to war, understanding the protestors whose anger spewed into streets and onto college campuses, where they argued against the military draft and marched for a peaceful end to the conflict.
This internal struggle led Holbrook to a deeper understanding of war on the battlefields of South Vietnam. In 1968, not long after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a hotel balcony and Bobby Kennedy was gunned down at a campaign rally, Holbrook took a step considered unusual by most of his peers at the time—he enlisted in the Army.“I was curious about the war—about what it was, not why we were doing it,” said Holbrook. “And I was curious about how I would handle myself in the war.”
He boarded a plane full of strangers to fly halfway around the world, leaving behind the quiet life of academia for a war that would forever change his outlook and set the course for his future.
“It was one of the worst experiences of my life, but I’m glad I did it. It profoundly affected me,” said Holbrook.
Life in Vietnam
Holbrook became an artillery fire direction specialist in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam with the Ninth Infantry Division. Like most things he has tried throughout his life, he excelled at this job.
His service in Vietnam was tempered with a horrific reality: carrying out orders meant killing others. For four months, he directed artillery shells at the enemy. One particularly bad day in 1969 still haunts Holbrook. He directed high explosive shells that killed seven people traveling in three small boats on a canal near the Cambodian border.
Holbrook’s tour was relatively short by Vietnam standards. At the time, it was customary for soldiers to serve for 365 days. But President Richard Nixon ordered part of Holbrook’s division to leave the country, sending Holbrook home after only eight months, with honors including the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal for Valor.
The transition from bathing in a rice paddy while mortars exploded nearby in Vietnam to returning to the routine of day-to-day life in the U.S. wasn’t easy. Veterans weren’t encouraged to talk about their experiences and there were no reintegration or counseling services for soldiers readjusting to life outside a warzone. Some war protesters spit on those who served, labeling them “baby killers” and holding them personally responsible for the war, instead of welcoming them home after months away risking their lives serving their country.
Holbrook found he had lost his one-time passion for philosophy. He used the G.I. Bill to attend law school at the University of Utah College of Law, graduating in 1974. After law school, he clerked for the chief judge of the federal district court for Utah and later served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City.
He practiced law for 28 years, primarily in the areas of complex civil and federal white-collar criminal litigation. Trial lawyering, however, lost its luster as Holbrook realized there must be a better way to resolve legal problems than fighting in court—a lesson he’d learned at war. He shifted his focus to becoming a mediator, and today he has mediated or arbitrated over 800 disputes dealing with a wide range of issues. He started teaching at the College of Law as an adjunct professor in 1990 and he joined the full-time faculty in 2002, sharing his knowledge of conflict resolution with hundreds of students.
Along the way, he began to confront the guilt he’d carried around for years over killing dozens of people in Vietnam. In 1995 he publicly shared his Vietnam experiences in an article he wrote for an alumni magazine at Grinnell College, his undergraduate school. He found the experience of writing publicly about his guilt-based PTSD to be liberating. He also realized he was struggling with grief and remorse about his actions in Vietnam. In 1996 he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the first time. A year later he returned to Vietnam, to visit the same places where he served decades earlier. He wore his dog tags, intending to leave them behind in Vietnam.
In Ho Chi Minh City in 1997, he met a waiter in a restaurant who had fought for the Viet Cong. The man’s family had been killed by Americans. Holbrook removed his dog tags and gave them to the man, telling him, “I wish your children and their children have long, happy lives–with no war, forever.” The man wrote Holbrook’s words on a napkin in Vietnamese, sending his blessing home with Holbrook to the U.S.
Holbrook’s war experiences combined with his philosophic outlook have helped him to foster a broader conversation over the years related to war and killing. He’s both an author and teacher of war, speaking about the role of trauma in a person’s life, through sharing his own experiences.
Often, war trauma resembles other trauma he’s seen play out in the courtroom, Holbrook said.
“I’ve realized that many veterans experience trauma and there are two different kinds: One is fear-based trauma—that’s when you see a friend killed. The other is guilt-based trauma —that’s when you do something that violates your own moral code. Many, many people have experienced fear-based or guilt-based trauma in their own lives, whether or not they are veterans, either personally or in the life of a loved one,” said Holbrook.
“We are taught to hold trauma at arm’s length, which is the wrong thing to do. I encourage mediators to integrate their experience of trauma and tell them it’s one of the experiences they’ve been given that they can use in service to others who have experienced trauma. Mediators can use their own trauma to be approachable, credible and useful to others in conflict,” he said.
Remembering the journey home
Holbrook has reflected on his experiences in Vietnam in a number of media, including in an essay Reflections on War and Killing, where he wrote, “only when we have removed the harm in ourselves can we become truly useful to others.”
He’s embarked on what he calls a “karmic journey of redemption,” which has taken him in recent years to India, where he taught negotiation and mediation, and to Iraq, where he led the law school’s Global Justice Program, which provided legal assistance to the Iraqi government and judiciary.
He’s also made a difference closer to home. In the halls of the S.J. Quinney College of Law, Holbrook is a trusted friend to student veterans navigating the complexities and challenges of law school after seeing combat. He serves as advisor to the law school’s Student Veterans Association.
“Jim has been a constant and stalwart supporter of University of Utah vets. Not only does he have the academic and administrative experience to provide direction, since he is a veteran himself, he possesses that deep sense of family with our student veterans,” said Roger Perkins, past director of the University of Utah Veteran’s Support Center.
Ed Fornatero connected with Holbrook when he arrived at the law school as a student in 2006, a few years after being in combat in Iraq. Fornatero served as an artillery officer in the Army, rising to the rank of captain. He’d spent his entire career with the 3-29 Field Artillery, Third Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division based in Fort Carson, Colorado, and he deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom from April 2003 to April 2004.
“Jim is certainly an advocate and friend to veteran law students at the U. I consider him a mentor and friend who greatly helped me throughout my law school career. I can’t put into words how valuable it was to talk with a veteran of another war who had successfully navigated his homecoming and postwar adjustments,” said Fornatero.
Known for his service to veterans and his understanding of war, Holbrook was a natural to turn to for advice when sisters Sharlene Hawkes and Elayne Harmer produced a documentary film exploring the experiences of veterans who returned home after serving in the Vietnam War.
Hawkes, a former Miss America, had first crossed paths with Holbrook when she was pursuing a master’s degree from the U’s communication department. Holbrook was assigned to her master’s thesis committee and they have kept in touch over the years as Hawkes became president of a company called Remember My Service Productions, which publishes books and produces films about war history.
For her most recent project, Hawkes created the film, “The Journey Home,” which documents Vietnam veterans’ experiences returning from the war. In addition to the documentary, she published a commemorative hardbound book, Vietnam War: 50th Commemoration A Time to Honor which is available at no cost to all of Utah’s Vietnam veterans. Holbrook is a part of both projects.
In recognition of Veterans Day, the S.J. Quinney College of Law on Nov. 10 will screen the film and host a panel discussion featuring veterans of the Vietnam War who are also graduates from the College of Law. The panel will discuss the ethical dilemmas raised by treatment of Vietnam veterans—and how many of these issues are still relevant today.
The documentary is gut-wrenching to watch, said Holbrook. The film takes on a topic that is still playing out today: reconciliation between Vietnam veterans and those who opposed the war. It also presents other thought-provoking issues, he said.
“I hope there are a number of takeaways: A recognition that when our country puts someone in harm’s way in combat, that person’s life is changed forever… often adversely, through the experience of psychological and spiritual harm. Our country has an obligation to help those veterans deal with that harm. And that might be a lifelong obligation,” said Holbrook.
“The second takeaway is now that we have ended the draft, we need to recognize that the sacrifice of military service falls in a very tiny footprint of the American population, less than 1 percent. We largely forget about that as we go along with the rest of our lives. We should not forget our current veterans, and the film underscores that those of us who served in Vietnam were forgotten by our country. So we have made a commitment not to forget our sons and daughters who are serving in the military now,” he said.
The prevailing theme of the film, Holbrook noted, is that the deeply painful political divide between the “hawks” and “doves” in the Vietnam era has not yet been healed. He’s hopeful that a national reconciliation about this divide may one day take place.
The next phase
After influencing hundreds of students at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, Holbrook is poised to take on retirement at the conclusion of the spring semester in 2017. He’ll set aside teaching courses on arbitration, mediation and negotiation. He’ll still write and reflect on his experiences of war and killing—and how they apply to the world today.
“One of the things I’ve learned over the last 47 years, is I can’t go back and undo what I did in Vietnam, which in part was to kill people who only wanted me to go home. Instead, I can put what I learned about myself and what I’ve learned about war and killing into service—especially with young veterans who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
He’ll retire from the U with numerous accolades. In 2002, he received the Utah State Bar’s Award for Outstanding Dispute Resolution Service. In 2010, he received the International Academy of Mediators’ Sid Lezak Award for Excellence. In 2013, he received the Award for Excellence in Teaching from the College of Law. In 2015, he received the inaugural Peacemaker Award from and gave the inaugural Peacemaker Lecture at the BYU Center for Conflict Resolution.
Most recently, he received the Amicus Curiae Award from the Utah Judicial Council during the Courts’ Annual Judicial Award Luncheon in Park City in October. Holbrook was honored for making an outstanding contribution to the improvement of Utah’s judicial system. Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant praised Holbrook for his work on the Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee of the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts since the committee’s inception in 1993. He also recently received the Emeritus Board’s Merit of Honor Award from the University of Utah Alumni Association.
He also feels deep gratitude for the love of his wife, Meghan. “Without her care and support, I would not be here. And I certainly would not have accomplished any of the things I’ve done in the last 34 years,” he said.
As he leaves behind his teaching days at the U, he’ll move ahead with one thing that has kept him going since the darker days of serving in Vietnam: Hope. “People become inspired when they feel hope,” he said. “With hope, it’s easy to imagine great things are possible.”