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Marine veterans at Tulane Law get national spotlight

November 04, 2015

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Tulane Law first-year students Andrew Darlington (above) and Jackson Smith (below, left) each served two tours in Afghanistan as Marine infantry officers. Darlington was featured in a National Public Radio story about the New Orleans Veterans of Foreign Wars post, and Smith appeared on “The Ellen Degeneres Show” to tell a remarkable story in which his friend Brian McKenna (with beard) and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees were key players.


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Bottom photo courtesy of The Ellen Degeneres Show 

Before they even got into the meat of their first semester, Tulane Law students Andrew Darlington and Jackson Smith were attracting national attention.

In July, Darlington, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was featured in a National Public Radio story about the rejuvenation of New Orleans’ Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Then, a Washington Post column Smith wrote about his best friend from Tulane undergraduate days and the inspirational power of Saints quarterback Drew Brees led to two appearances on “The Ellen Degeneres Show” after fall classes had started.

It’s a lot to juggle. But both are used to demanding duty: Darlington and Smith are U.S. Marine Corps veterans who served as infantry officers, and each deployed twice to Afghanistan. Now they’re tackling courses such as torts and legal research and writing, while taking on other challenges not typical for first-year law students.

Darlington helped his Afghan translator secure a job and housing to relocate in Houston and is trying to stay active in the VFW post, which has become one of the fastest-growing in the United States through the efforts of dedicated members such as Tulane Law graduate Marshall Hevron (L ’09).

A New Orleans native, Darlington served as an adviser in Afghanistan in 2012 then returned two years later as commander of a mortar platoon.

In the NPR story, he told of initially resisting efforts to recruit him to the VFW because he imagined it would attract mainly older veterans telling war stories. While the post welcomes service members from any branch and era, many served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and membership has surpassed 200. The goal is to provide a range of services, including legal assistance, job-search help and even low-cost housing in a renovated apartment adjacent to the post’s headquarters.

“The post is really there to make sure veterans come home and they’re well-established in what they want to do,” he said. “Everyone in there gave so much, it’s great to see them succeed and take care of each other.”

Meanwhile, Smith, who also belongs to the VFW, has been raising funds for his friend Brian McKenna, a Tulane business school graduate undergoing rehab in Utah after being paralyzed in a summer mountain biking accident. A Nov. 8 event at The Boot Bar & Grill, where both once worked, attracted several hundred attendees.

In his Post column, Smith wrote that while he was fighting in Afghanistan in 2010, McKenna secretly plotted to ensure that his friend did not miss the joys of Mardi Gras back home.

McKenna created a life-size cardboard cutout of Smith in Marine uniform and took it along to Mardi Gras parades and parties, snapping photos to record it all, including a shot with Brees, that year’s King of Bacchus and Super Bowl XLIV MVP. McKenna then surprised Smith in Afghanistan with a photo album of all the fun.

The gesture, Smith said, “didn’t just mean a lot to me; it meant a lot to all of us that people back home were thinking about us to that extent.”

This summer, when McKenna was working to recover from his paralyzing injury, Smith returned the favor: He surprised McKenna with a photo of Brees with McKenna’s life-size cutout after the Saints practiced at Tulane’s Yulman Stadium.

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Tulane Law Student Jackson Smith (L ’18, left) helped host a Nov. 8 fundraiser at The Boot for Brian McKenna (B ’07), who was paralyzed in a mountain biking accident.

When Smith and McKenna appeared on Degeneres’ show Sept. 30, she surprised them with a Skype visit from the Saints’ QB. Smith profusely thanked Brees — who then called Smith a hero for his service and presented a $40,000 check to buy McKenna a specialized wheelchair. When the friends reunited for Degeneres’ Oct. 20 show, McKenna demonstrated his progress at breathing without a ventilator.

“I’m so fortunate to be at the intersection of so many incredible things happening and incredible people being involved,” Smith said recently during a break from law classes.

Working TV appearances in with his studies was challenging, Smith said, but “I’ve been really fortunate to have great professors” who’ve been understanding as long as the work gets done. “Tulane is such a perfectly New Orleans institution, and this story is such a perfectly New Orleans story,” he said.

Smith came to Tulane from Chevy Chase, Maryland, went through ROTC as an undergraduate and entered the Marines in spring of 2008. He served in Afghanistan for almost eight months as a rifle platoon commander, returning for a second deployment in 2011. Tulane Law has 17 students who have served in the U.S. military; several remain in the reserves or on active duty status. 

Darlington said Tulane reminds him of the Naval Academy, with faculty who are highly accomplished yet accessible to students. “You can tell that students are absolutely the priority here,” he said.

(Note: This story was updated Nov. 9 to reflect results of a Nov. 8 fundraiser.)

 
   


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