URBANA — It's a paradox faced by many who have served in the military.
Serving in Kentucky and the Middle East, George Vargas couldn't wait to get back to his wife, daughter, mother and clients in Champaign County. Now that he's back, he's wondering about colleagues and cases he left behind in Afghanistan.
"I was telling my wife I'm going from one war zone to another," said the assistant public defender for Champaign County, who hung up his fatigues to return to his suit-and-tie civilian job in early April after having been away just over two years.
The 36-year-old Army captain's most recent assignment was as a trial defense attorney for the Judge Advocate General's Corps. In that post, he defended military men and women accused of everything from having alcohol or pornography in a Muslim country to rape.
A native of Costa Rica who is now a U.S. citizen, Vargas has spent about half his life linked to the military. Although his parents pushed him firmly in that direction when he was only 17, it's a choice he's never regretted.
Serving in the military paid for his college education at Parkland College and the University of Illinois. He's seen different parts of the world: Korea, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. And he feels the experience has significantly sharpened his legal skills.
He has been a lawyer about seven years, and before that worked as a Champaign police officer for a year before attending law school at Michigan State University.
Vargas' latest deployment began in February 2010 at Fort Campbell, Ky., where, as a member of the Trial Defense Service, he handled cases similar to those he's had as a lawyer for the indigent in civilian life.
"Unfortunately, it seems like we have a lot of sex assault in the military. There's fraud, theft, pretty much everything, but unfortunately the sex-related cases are our bread and butter," he said.
"My worst rape case I ever had was at Fort Campbell. It was a forced rape at gunpoint. It didn't go too well for him. He got 50 years," Vargas said.
Vargas was at Fort Campbell for a year before having to go overseas.
In February 2011, he was sent to Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq.
He could look out the window of his spacious office across a man-made lake to Al Faw, one of the many palaces that Saddam Hussein had built for himself. Vargas said he visited the palace about six times, mostly for business, and like many, snapped a shot while sitting on one of Saddam's swank settees.
For him, a typical day in Baghdad involved getting up about 7:30 a.m., getting breakfast then heading to the office. His home was a section of a trailer referred to as a "containerized housing unit," or CHU, that served as living quarters for him and one other man. There was just enough space on his half for twin bunk beds, two wall lockers and a canvas and aluminum bag chair, which he affectionately referred to as his "recliner." He used the upper bunk bed for storage. Bathrooms were in separate buildings.
With temperatures reaching as high as 135 in the summer, the mile walk to the office meant Vargas "would be drenched by the time I got there."
A fellow captain lived in their office since it had a bathroom with a shower and was roomier than a CHU. Vargas preferred sleeping somewhere other than where he worked.
The office was open for business from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. but Vargas usually stayed until 9 p.m. or after.
"There was nothing to do except work," he said, adding there was no opportunity to leave the base to explore Baghdad nor even the desire to do so. "Flying to other places was the only time I ever got off the base."
After finishing work for the day, he usually headed to the gym to work out for 90 minutes. "I was in really good shape in Iraq," he said.
His first couple of months there were relatively quiet in terms of attacks, but in the summer of 2011, rocket fire was frequent on the massive Camp Victory compound.
"You knew it was going to happen three to four times a week. You knew it would happen on a Friday or Saturday, at night or early morning. During the summer, they got bold and would do it during the day.
"I consider myself macho, but every time those alarms (for incoming fire) would go off, I'd get on the ground and say, 'Please God, protect us.'"
Once, on a night he was working later than usual, he could hear the rockets whizzing overhead. They hit the gym — where he normally would have been — and near his living quarters. He saw the hole pierced in the concrete wall protecting a fellow soldier's CHU. It only knocked the man out of his bed.
In October 2011, he and another attorney closed the Baghdad office as troops were being pulled out of Iraq and moved to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.
Vargas described the country as "very rugged" and much different looking than Iraq.
"The weather was very cold, as it was at a higher elevation," he said, noting that about the coldest weather he experienced while in Afghanistan between October 2011 and March 2012 was around 23 degrees.
In Afghanistan, he lived and worked much nearer the airfield than in Iraq, so there was the noise of fighter jets around the clock.
"I would remind myself that's some guy on the ground who needs them," he said of the protective jets.
Vargas said his work for the Trial Defense Service was pretty much the same in Afghanistan as in Iraq, with violations that might not turn a head in the U.S.
"The main thing we'd see was alcohol, some pornography, stuff they could do at an Army post but because we were in a Muslim country, you couldn't have it," he said. That also included being in the room of a member of the opposite sex.
In Iraq, his most serious case involved a soldier accused of the armed robbery of a local national.
Not only can the penalties for offending in the military be great, so too is the emotional consequence, he said.
"You're a disgrace to the military and you have harmed the good order. It's a different culture," he observed.
He defended a soldier in Iraq who had fraudulently displayed a Ranger tab, which suggested that he had completed a higher level of training than he had.
"He got court-martialed. Here, you won't get a federal conviction" for pretending to have a skill you don't.
His personal feelings about such negative behavior notwithstanding, Vargas said he loved his military defense work and helping men and women wind their way through the military justice system.
"I felt a sense of purpose being there that I don't necessarily feel here," he said, back in the county courthouse.
Upon his return to the office where he first started in August 2005, he was handed approximately five dozen files. About 30 involve people charged with felonies and half of them are in custody, so their cases need more immediate attention.
He also inherited 20 to 30 Spanish-speaking clients charged with everything from traffic offenses to serious felonies. Vargas was the only attorney fluent in Spanish when he left the public defender's office two years ago. Colleagues with less-than-fluent Spanish skills made do while he was gone.
"The curse of speaking Spanish," he smiled, then added in the next breath: "No. It's a blessing."
Switching from the military jargon of violations of articles to terms about transgressions against the Illinois compiled statutes appears easy for Vargas. Just as he's able to instantly switch from English to Spanish, he can rip off the difference between an Article 32 hearing and a grand jury, similar kinds of probable cause hearings. But there are many differences between the military and civilian justice systems.
Vargas said the onerous pretrial preparation required in the military has given him some new tactics he's eager to test in Champaign County courtrooms.
His military superiors wanted him to make the JAG Corps his permanent work, an appealing proposition because he could make more money and be exposed to many different kinds of law-related assignments.
But the thought of moving his family every few years outweighed the career benefits, he said.
"The crazy thing is, I do miss it. The work is very interesting," he said.
Although he doesn't want to be away from his wife and daughter anytime soon, Vargas said, "If they call me in a year or two, I'll do it again at the drop of a hat."