For many students, the first year of law school is one of the toughest challenges they’ve ever encountered. Older, nontraditional law students – such as 1L David “Tom” Peterson, who recently returned to the classroom after 22 years in the U.S. Navy – are, by contrast, somewhat more likely to take it in stride.
“I keep the same hours today I did in the Navy,” Peterson said, noting that all those years of military discipline definitely come in handy when fielding the demands of law school. “The type of work is very different, but so far it’s been pretty manageable.”
A surface warfare officer trained to manage nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers, Peterson was selected to serve as the commanding officer of several ships over the course of his career, with his first opportunity to do so arising in 2004. However, a few years later, in 2008, he was assigned to a dangerous frontier mission in Afghanistan. “I was only there for nine months,” he is quick to note. “There are Army and National Guard veterans who have endured much, much worse, with multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
But for Peterson, accustomed to life at sea, it was one of the most challenging deployments of his career. “I was totally out of my element as a naval officer,” he said. “I had never envisioned ending up stationed in a landlocked country.”
But in fact, such assignments were by that time a fairly common practice (albeit a recent one, begun during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars), in which Naval personnel were called upon to serve as “individual augmentees” supporting Army operations. “We were selected, trained, and served alongside other Army and Air Force officers in jobs that would predominately be considered Army jobs,” Peterson explained.
As Provincial Reconstruction Team Commander for Paktika province – located in southeastern Afghanistan, along the dangerous and poorly marked Durand Line border with Pakistan – Peterson trained and led a multi-service team of 85 troops, “helping the Army, the State Department and the Afghan government to help create stability in the region.”
Disaster struck on June 18, 2008, when he lost two of his sailors to a rocket attack. “I still wear a remembrance bracelet for them,” Peterson said. “The 18th of June is always a tough day.”
Peterson retired from the Navy in 2013, after a tour as commanding officer of U.S.S. Porter (DDG 78). “That was really the pinnacle of my time in the Navy,” Peterson noted proudly. “It is the most prestigious position that I was selected for and held.”
Having always harbored an interest in the law, pursuing a J.D. seemed like a logical next step. With the G.I. Bill benefits on offer, “it was kind of a perfect time to invest in going to law school,” he said. Perhaps predictably for a Navy man, Peterson – a native of Seattle – found Roger Williams’ proximity to the ocean a big draw. “You’re right on the water, and it’s always easy to visit a beach in Rhode Island.” On the professional side of the equation, “it’s one of only five law schools in the country offering a Maritime Law program, which fits right into my background.”
Readjusting to life as a student can be tough at times (Peterson completed his B.S. in aerospace engineering two decades ago at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis), but Peterson says RWU Law offers ample support. “I took the Jump Start program, which gave me a great opportunity to hit the ground running when School actually started in August.”
Individual attention from the faculty is another plus: “They’re always available to help if you ever have questions; they do a good job of helping older students get back into academics.”
At RWU Law, Peterson is involved in the Alliance, the Military Law Society, the Marine Law Society and the LGBTQ Task Force, among other groups. He lives in Lincoln, R.I., with his husband Michael, an intern in family medicine at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, R.I. He the father of four children who live with their mother in Virginia.
Peterson says that, although he doesn’t see his kids as often as he’d like, he makes it down “two or three times a semester” – which is a lot more frequently than during his long absences on active duty in the Navy. “Even those unpleasant days spent taking final exams are better than being half a world away from your family,” he said.