It’s not likely Roberto Suarez is intimidated when he walks into a courtroom or negotiating session.
In July 2007, Suarez was caught in a mortar attack while serving in Iraq, incurring multiple injuries to his back and legs from the blast, which also caused a traumatic brain injury, and injuries to his right shoulder. Less than a month ago, he underwent another surgery on his hip that hadn’t healed properly. Last week he was walking with crutches to perform his duties as a newly minted local attorney.
Suarez, 41, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., graduated from Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in January following an unconventional path to securing a law degree that he hopes will vault him up the legal career chain, much as he moved impressively through the ranks of military life.
The new law school graduate secured a position with Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge in downtown Grand Rapids earlier this year. But he was well on his way to honing the skills required of a top-notch litigator through his 14 years of service in the military.
Suarez was in his third term at Cooley’s Lansing campus when he was called to active duty and deployed to northern Iraq’s Mosul area. There he served as a lieutenant for the Provincial Police Transition Team in the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. It was a nearly 18-month tenure that exposed him to the rigors and rewards of pursuing justice. He impressed his military superiors with his innovative investigative strategies to bring high-value targets down.
“When I got called to active duty in Iraq, my initial job was as a platoon leader,” Suarez said. “I was part of a brigade combat team conducting intelligence work. It involved getting information from other Iraqis. It involved being real conversational. I was able to do some cool things, working with the CIA and the DIA, the Department of Defense arm of the CIA. For some of the things I experienced, I am sworn to secrecy for at least 20 years.”
Serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Suarez trained Iraqi police officers, investigated civil and criminal complaints of embezzlement and corruption, arrested suspected insurgents and conducted internal investigations. For his work, he received a letter of reference from General David Petraeus and was awarded a Bronze Star.
His efforts in Iraq “involved getting information about Iraqi citizens, gathering information and making arrests,” he related. “But it wasn’t just civilian folks. A lot of information was brought in on actual Iraqi soldiers trying to hurt us. From my area of operations in Iraq, I also tracked information in Iran and Syria.”
Suarez’s military duty traces back to just after high school graduation. He entered the U.S. Marine Corps in which he was “involved in a lot of covert operations, including down in Central America. I was able to speak Spanish to the Nicaraguan contras. I also conducted some South American operations with FARC — a little militia group — assisting in combating the production and exportation of cocaine from Columbia.”
Following his service in the Marines, Suarez pursued a bachelor of science from Long Island University and then, using his degree in biochemistry, took a position as a health investigator with the New York City Department of Health. Four years later, he became a sworn law enforcement officer after attending the North Carolina SBI Academy. A special agent with the North Carolina Department of Justice, he was again put in the position of weeding out “the bad guy,” conducting investigations of corrupt police officers throughout the state.
At the same time, he had not yet had his fill of military service. “I saw myself more of a leader than a line officer. I wanted to do more.”
He entered the U.S. Army where he was on a mission basis through ADSW (active duty for special work) status. He became part of an airborne unit, which included over a number of years such functions as airlifting care packages in Kuwait and other locations. His service culminated on the fateful day when he was caught in the mortar attack. He is still awaiting his medical discharge.
“We had just arrested about 14 insurgents. Several massive explosions took place from the mortars,” Suarez recalls. “I was the officer in charge. I was trying to make sure everybody was safe. One (blast) got too close. I flew in the air and landed on my first-aid pack. It’s led to back problems, which is difficult because I used to run in marathons and triathlons.”
The injuries and realities of war have taken their toll, but he said he is fighting through his personal challenges. “I took a long vacation, but when I got back, I found that I was super jumpy, even like something as simple as the pop of a champagne bottle. I still can’t sleep when storms are here. I have to go into the basement. I had a mild brain injury from the actual blast and still go through speech therapy.”
Suarez said he didn’t realize the magnitude of the challenges until he had problems reading and staying at the same level as his law school classmates.
“The Cooley professors and staff were very helpful,” he said of his condition that sees his current employer provide him with special accommodations, including a horizontal, “stand up” desk and ergonomic seating.
So what led to his intense motivation to improve himself and serve his country?
“My mom raised us; my father wasn’t around,” he said. “She laid down the law, always encouraging me to give 100 percent. She said, ‘As a Latino, you must prove yourself in order to stick out.’ She drove me to get a good SAT score, which led to good things when I got a scholarship to Long Island University.”
After high school, he said, “I tried to accelerate things and raise the bar even more. That’s what led me to the Marine Corps. Even when I was going to school, I got into an EMT program through a four-month intensive course and became an emergency medical technician in New York City. I worked the midnight shift as an EMT and went to school in the daytime.”
His military experience also led him to his wife, Lena. He met her at a film festival while on a parachute mission in Germany in 2000. They have two children.
Suarez said his interest in the legal field intensified following his experience as a special agent law enforcement officer in North Carolina.
“I was told what cases to develop, and those cases had to be approved by someone above me,” he said. “I started seeing a pattern. It always seemed like we were doing things like going after the low-level drug buyer, never reaching the level where we were going after the established people in the community. That was seen as normal, but, to me, it wasn’t legit. As I got to know the process, I wanted to open up cases (against the heavy hitters), but I was told, ‘We can’t, these are prominent people.”
He also recalled conducting an undercover drug investigation in which the suspect was dealing large quantities of substances. “The prosecutor did a deal and he wouldn’t explain it to me. He wouldn’t tell me how this happened. He said, ‘This is it; you can’t do anything about that.’”
He then investigated law schools across the country, settling on Cooley because it accommodated his diverse schedule. When he was deployed prior to incurring his injuries, he envisioned pursuing a career as a federal agent, a path made physically impossible by the incident.
Upon graduation, Suarez received several offers from prestigious New York law firms and also could have taken a position with the New York City District Attorney’s office. But he’s enamored with West Michigan and his ability to grow into the field with strong mentorship from his Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge colleagues.
He’s finding that his ability to speak fluently in five languages, including Arabic and Russian, creates opportunities to serve clients, just as it aided his military endeavors.
His practice areas include business consultations regarding everything from entity formation and corporate governance to employment law and general litigation matters. He also represents clients facing criminal charges and helps families with personal injury and wrongful death claims. He enjoys working on immigration issues and has a built-in interest in working with veterans.
“I’ve had to learn the law for my own sake,” he said. “In doing things with my own case, I learned the ins and outs of what to do and not to do. I just helped a guy who didn’t know how to get his medical records. I did that for free to help him out.”
“Based on my background, I believe I could be a prosecutor or assistant D.A.,” he said, but he is appreciative of the “free range” he is given by his firm “as long as I’m being ethical and present the cases I want to do to my senior mentor and the business planning practice chair. It’s turned out to be great.”
“It’s all about helping the community and protecting people’s rights,” he said, in pursuing the habits engrained by his past and emboldened by a promising future.