Kirk Warner was into his 40s when he went to Iraq, where he helped set up a court system in a time of utter chaos.
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Warner was part of a team of army lawyers who scoped out prison buildings, flew onto ships to prosecute Persian Gulf pirates, and helped reunite families with bodies, or body parts with corpses. Even in his position, new horrors awaited him at every turn.
Yet his sympathies were on the front lines, where young people hardly out of high school were seeing their friends ripped limb from limb by improvised explosive devices and living in constant fear.
“You’re living on pins and needles,” says Warner, a partner in the Smith Anderson law firm in Raleigh. “If everyone you meet potentially wants to kill you, what does that do to you psychologically?”
Warner knew then that these soldiers would need a lot of help when they got home, and since he retired from the Army Reserve in 2013, he’s given much of his time and his considerable influence to do just that.
Warner, one of the nation’s top product liability attorneys, also spent 33 years military service, where he headed legal teams and served as an adviser to three defense secretaries until his 2013 retirement.
As founding chair of the N.C. Bar Association’s Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, Warner has devoted his time and contacts to helping the many veterans of recent wars to re-establish themselves in their communities by offering all kinds of legal support.
He’s helped educate attorneys about how post-traumatic stress disorder might be affecting their clients, and has worked with judges to create diversion programs for veterans who commit minor offenses. He speaks widely on the challenges facing these veterans, from finding housing to getting medical treatment.
Michael Archer, who has worked with Warner on legal aid projects for veterans, says Warner’s extensive military background gives him a unique perspective – and the time and energy Warner is willing to put into this work is rare for someone with his rank and career success.
“Kirk seems to be involved in just about everything related to military affairs,” says Archer, who heads legal assistance at Camp Lejeune. “There’s a great deal of commitment and knowledge that serve as the foundation of his work, but he also just exudes this energy and enthusiasm for a variety of projects that makes people want to be a part of it.”
Warner grew up on an Ohio dairy farm that had been in his family for generations.
Unsure of his future, he majored in zoology at Ohio State University with a specialty in birds, an interest he developed on a birdwatching trip from Texas to Alaska that he took with an aunt when he was in fifth grade.
His family also had a history of military service going back to the Civil War. When Warner went to college, he joined the ROTC.
Once out of college, he went to law school at Duke University, and soon put his scientific background to work as an attorney representing businesses in product liability lawsuits.
On one of his first cases – a massive lawsuit against the Rely tampon company over toxic shock syndrome – he was assigned to a team covering 15 states. He would go on to represent several companies that were sued for asbestos-related illnesses. His current clients include government contractors – he once represented the company that was then known as Blackwater USA in several lawsuits – as well as pharmaceutical and automotive companies.
For a time, he became a special prosecutor assigned to investigating banks involved in the 1980s savings and loan scandal.
Warner’s military service involved working on legal teams first on bases in the U.S. and later in Kuwait and Iraq. Among his duties was to preside over the tribunals that determine whether a captured fighter should be considered a prisoner of war.
When he returned from serving abroad, he spent more than three years at the Pentagon as an adviser on military strategy and policy.
He particularly enjoyed working with former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who would rattle off a constant stream of ideas he called “snowflakes.” “He’d throw out all these ideas, and we’d have teams of people figuring out if they would work,” says Warner. “About eight of them would be totally insane, and two would be brilliant.”
Throughout his service, Warner was struck by the young men who were serving in such a surreal and violent place, only to be suddenly returned to civilian life.
“Within days, they’re back in their home towns,” he says. “It’s a recipe for serious psychological problems.”
Focused on helping
Warner has also been engaged in community work. He is vice president of the local USO chapter, and will soon take over as head of the Raleigh Rotary Club. For 30 years, he officiated more than 600 high school football games.
He had worked in legal assistance through the N.C. Bar Association and the North Carolina Bar, which are separate entities. In 2013, after his retirement from the Army Reserve, he founded the Military and Veteran’s Affairs Committee to coordinate and expand these efforts.
Much of his attention goes to training, in particular helping lawyers and judges in civilian courts to recognize and understand post-traumatic stress disorder, which is often a factor when veterans are struggling.
One of Warner’s key roles has been to help establish a diversion program for veterans who commit minor crimes, particularly when their crime can be related to their service.
In addition to PTSD, many former soldiers get into trouble seeking out the daily rush they had in battle, Warner says, by drinking and drugs, or fighting or driving too fast. Warner cites statistics that say 1 in 9 North Carolina prisoners are veterans.
“You’re been running 24-7 doing exciting stuff,” he says. “You want to get back that adrenaline rush.”
Other programs help military lawyers, who are often from other states, to learn more about North Carolina law, and to get law schools more involved in legal matters that are important to veterans, from family law to disability claims.
He’s also working to expand programs for homeless veterans, including granting them priority status in public housing.
Warner hopes to see the thousands of attorneys in the association reach more veterans, and tackle more issues, from helping veterans find employment to making sure they receive the benefits they deserve.
“There’s a legal aspect to everything,” he says.
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Kirk G. Warner
Born: March 1958, Greenville, Ohio
Career: Partner, Smith Anderson; retired colonel, U.S. Army Reserve, and Judge Advocate General’s Corps
Education: B.S. zoology, Ohio State University; J.D., Duke University; M.A. history, N.C. State University; M.S.S. strategic studies, U.S. Army War College; MBA candidate, N.C. State University
Family: Wife Diane
Fun Fact: Warner enjoys academia and is pursuing his fifth degree – an MBA with a focus on biosciences that he says will help in some of his cases.