Mick Wagoner spent almost a quarter century in the Marine Corps. He ran convoys in the Gulf War and hopped into Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq in the first months of those conflicts.
Through multiple military moves, he and his wife, Susan, have raised four daughters, helping one through cancer and a second with autism.
Now that he’s retired from the military, you might think he’s ready to take it easy, to let someone else take on the burden of helping others for a while.
Not even close.
Aside from his day job with a commercial insurance underwriter, Wagoner, 53, of Omaha, has taken the lead in establishing a Veterans Treatment Court in Douglas County, helping former service members who have committed crimes get their lives together.
He also has set up a small nonprofit that provides free or low-cost legal help to veterans in need. He’s helped several vets who were tossed out of the military for minor offenses get their discharges upgraded, a necessity for them to get services from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Those of us who have been given a lot, a lot is expected,” Wagoner said. “I saw how gifted I’d been, and I need to give back.”
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
He grew up in Grand Island, in a family with a tradition of military and other forms of service.
He moved in with his aunt and uncle in Omaha to attend Creighton Prep, where he graduated in 1985. He went to college at the University of Texas.
A friend introduced him to Navy ROTC, which also trained future Marine Corps officers.
“Work hard, party hard — that’s what I liked about them,” Wagoner said.
After graduation and being commissioned as an officer, he was sent to Twentynine Palms, a base in the California desert, as a motor transport officer.
“I’m in charge of 20 guys, even though I don’t know how to turn a wrench,” Wagoner said, laughing.
He arrived there in 1990, just as Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Five months later, he deployed to Saudi Arabia to join in Operation Desert Storm.
What everyone expected to be a hard fight turned into a rout of Saddam’s forces, with Iraqi troops surrendering by the thousands. His motor pool job turned into one transferring huge numbers of prisoners.
Two years later, he was on the verge of leaving the Marines when he was sent to Somalia, where President Bill Clinton was deploying troops to deal with a famine in a country that had fallen into chaos. It was months before the “Black Hawk Down” raid that presaged the U.S withdrawal.
“People call Somalia a failed mission,” he said. “But we saved probably 500,000 people from starvation.”
His Gulf War interactions with detainees stirred an interest in the law. He left the Marines for the Reserve while he attended the Creighton University School of Law and returned to active duty in 1997. He met and married Susan, who is from Council Bluffs.
Wagoner was in Darwin, Australia, as a staff judge advocate with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit when the 9/11 terror attacks occurred. Two and a half months later, the unit was in Afghanistan, among the first U.S. troops outside of special forces with boots on the ground there.
He was one of the lawyers who first worked with Johnny Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.” Lindh converted to Islam at 16, and four years later was captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban. (He was later sentenced to 20 years in prison and was released from federal custody in May after serving 17.)
In early 2003, Wagoner deployed to Iraq and was part of the invasion force there. His job was to teach Marines the rules of engagement — when they should, and should not, fire their weapons.
“It’s very important,” Wagoner said. “When they come home years later, they’re asking themselves, ‘Did I have to kill?’ They’re OK, because they had a solid grounding in the morality.”
Wagoner served in a variety of legal positions over the next decade, winding up with a tour at a Marine Corps base in Japan. In 2012, daughter Gigi, then 2, was diagnosed with autism. That compelled Susan to move back to Omaha with their children so Gigi could get proper treatment. Wagoner retired the following year and rejoined them.
Even with retirement pay, excellent insurance and family support, Wagoner learned that moving from the highly regimented Marine Corps lifestyle to civilian life was difficult.
“We missed the military community. It’s still an adjustment for us,” he said. “It was a sense of purpose, starting anew.”
Wagoner found a corporate job in Omaha, but the sense of service he felt in the Marine Corps wasn’t there. That gnawed at him.
He felt he could use his skills helping other service members who had trouble transitioning to civilian life, just as he did — and may have lacked his advantages.
That led him to found the Veterans Legal Support Network (VLSN.org) to help veterans in legal trouble.
“There’s a need for free or highly reduced legal services for veterans and their families,” Wagoner said.
He specializes in helping veterans with other-than-honorable discharges through the arduous process of appealing what the military calls “bad paper.”
Bad paper can prevent a veteran from getting some jobs or receiving services from the Department of Veterans Affairs, including treatment and benefits that could help them improve their lot. He said a high percentage of the veterans he meets who are in jail have bad paper.
Wagoner said he has helped LGBTQ veterans who were dishonorably discharged decades ago, when homosexuality was considered incompatible with military service and could be criminally prosecuted.
He’s also helped veterans from racial minorities who were handed bad paper in an era when discrimination was more widespread and blatant than today.
Wagoner works with Creighton law students on cases that don’t require a member of the bar. And he helps veterans find legal help — often from other lawyers who have served.
For veterans who commit crimes, he helped start Douglas County’s Veterans Treatment Court. That started with lobbying the Legislature to pass a bill authorizing creation of the courts (it passed unanimously), and then working with the court system, prosecutor, probation office and public defender to create it.
In many cases, these are veterans who suffered from post-traumatic stress and took refuge in alcohol or drugs.
“They lose their support systems. That safety net’s gone,” he said. “What I work with now is the people who really miss that net.”
Veterans Treatment Court diverts veterans who apply and are accepted into the 1½- to 2-year program. They must agree to plead guilty, and they are provided with alcohol or drug treatment, drug-testing, job training and housing.
The program is now three years old. Thirty-five members have enrolled, and 15 have graduated.
“We have relapses, and we have failures. But when you look at it, we’re very proud of where we are,” Wagoner said. “We’ve returned taxpaying citizens to their communities and their families.”
Some of those who do fall through the cracks wind up in the Douglas County Jail, in the “veterans mod” — a housing unit made up mostly of former service members.
Wagoner works with them, too. He helps as a mentor, and with peer support and anger management.
“They are different, and they treat each other differently,” Wagoner said. “They hold each other accountable.”
What might be most surprising is the reward he feels from working with these men and women who have worn the uniform he has, but fallen down.
“As bad as jail is, it’s a place of hope,” he said. “They really lift my spirits up, because they want to get better.”
Some civilians, he said, put veterans on a pedestal. He thinks that’s wrong.
“Veterans aren’t better than other Americans. We’ve had different experiences,” Wagoner said. “We come from the civilian population, and we go back to the civilian population.”