These could be scenes from many war movies or deployments, but they are not. These are Capt. Tomasz Nowak’s memories from his childhood in Communist Poland in the early 1980s.
Nowak, who is an Individual Mobilization Augmentee Judge Advocate at the 7th Bomb Wing, Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, immigrated with his family to the United States as refugees in 1985. He was six at the time and his homeland had just undergone a period of social unrest, government crackdown and martial law.
“Waiting in line for food at the meat market or bakery was commonplace but I didn't know it was different anywhere else,” he said. “I didn't want for anything but at the same time I didn't know what life was like [in the United States].”
The contrast he found in his new life near Dallas, Texas, complete with supermarkets and NASCAR, helped shape a worldview that would lead him to become a lawyer and develop into a desire to serve his adopted country.
The path Nowak took to military service was unlike those taken by many other officers, such as Reserve Officer Training Corps or the Air Force Academy. Instead, Nowak established an entire legal career prior to entering the Air Force.
After earning his legal degree from Baylor Law School, where he met his wife (she’s now a federal magistrate judge), he served for a number of years as a felony prosecutor, specializing in the areas of child abuse and drugs.
Nowak said that despite his success, military service was always in the back of his mind as something he had to do. He ties that urge to a desire to make his grandfather, a World War II veteran, proud. He also felt he “owed it to America” for the life and freedoms his adopted country provided him after emigrating from Poland.
However, it wasn’t until he found a direct-to-commissioning opportunity with the Air Force Reserve as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee that he found his path to service. He said he was searching online for opportunities and all of his research pointed him to the Individual Mobilization Augmentee program as the best fit for his life and career.
IMAs are Air Force Reservists assigned to active-duty organizations. They are required to serve between 24 and 36 days each year, depending on their position but may volunteer to fill additional needs. There are more than 7,200 IMAs assigned to major commands, combatant commands and government agencies around the world.
“[The IMA program] allowed me to stay on my legal career path, keep my day job with minimal disruption other than Commissioned Officer Training (COT) and Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course, and [they were] actively looking for the trial skill set I possessed,” he said.
Nowak interviewed with the legal staff at Dyess Air Force Base and was hired. He attended Officer Training School in 2012. He said the new military lifestyle was completely foreign but he loved everything about it “except the first two days of COT.”
Not only did the commissioning opportunity offer Nowak a path to service, it also provided the Air Force a highly skilled and qualified Airman; Nowak came to the Air Force having already tried over 100 cases as a civilian prosecutor.
Since joining the Air Force, Nowak has shifted gears in his civilian practice and is now a defense attorney, working with some of the worst criminals in Texas. His Air Force career has also grown. In addition to supporting the 7th Bomb Wing Judge Advocate’s office with their day-to-day operations when he’s on duty, he has also earned his Air Force trial certification.
“I go from meeting clients in the jail to meeting with Airmen about their wills and offering legal assistance,” he said.
Being a Citizen Airman allows Nowak to bring all of his civilian experience, including expertise on state and local laws, to the team at Dyess.
Lt. Col. Justin Dalton, the staff judge advocate at Dyess, said Nowak’s contributions to the mission at the 7th Bomb Wing are many.
Dalton, who came to Dyess only a year ago, said he had never led a legal office that consisted of both active-component Airmen and Reservists. What he quickly found was that Reserve support was critical to mission success.
“I can say… we could not have accomplished the mission at Dyess without the Reserve Component, including Capt. Nowak,” said Dalton.
Nowak happened to be pulling duty during Dalton’s first week in the office, and the Reservist quickly proved his worth to his new boss by stepping in to support a special court-martial trial. The deputy staff judge advocate was deployed and two additional judge advocates were away attending training, leaving only two active-duty captains. Even though Nowak only had one other military trial under his belt, Dalton called on him to serve as a third trial counsel based on his extensive experience prosecuting criminals in the civilian court system.
Dalton said the captain skillfully handled preliminary examination of witnesses, responding to defense motions, the direct examination of a sixteen-year-old victim, multiple cross examinations, and the sentencing argument. He added that the military judge praised Nowak’s extensive experience in the civilian sector and noted how well-prepared, professional, and confident the Citizen Airman was in the court room.
Another recent contribution from Nowak where his civilian experience came to bear happened when the wing commander at Dyess wanted to implement a vehicular concealed carry weapons policy. Dalton said this was a very complicated legal puzzle and his Reservist was the person he turned to for local gun law advice. Nowak’s talking paper on the issue was instrumental in Dyess Air Force Base becoming the first in Air Force history to allow members to carry private, loaded weapons on base. Dalton added that Headquarters Air Force is now reviewing that work to provide guidance to other Air Force installations that want to follow Dyess’ lead.
Nowak hopes his effort to repay his debt to the United States will help others see that the way of life in his adopted country is worth the effort of maintaining it. Whether it’s an Airman who needs a reminder that their work serves a purpose, or a citizen who needs a reason to feel good about where their taxes go, he wants people to see the contrast between life in the United States and places where freedom is suppressed.
Dalton, for one, believes Nowak has achieved that goal, calling him an “incredible ambassador for the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, [judge advocate corps], and America."
For Nowak, though, his service boils down to freedom.
“I ‘had to’ do it, but [it was] because I live here and I had the choice and opportunity to do so, not because someone else forced me or told me to,” he said.
To learn more about opportunities in the IMA program, visit www.arpc.afrc.af.mil/HQRIO.aspx.