CAREERS PODCASTS


Norm Hile
Orrick Senior Counsel & Author of
Keeping Each Other Alive: A Vietnam War Memoir

Distinguished Orrick litigator Norm Hile talks about his book, Keeping Each Other Alive: A Vietnam War Memoir, published on the 50th anniversary of his service. In this podcast, Mitch talks with Norm about writing a book based on letters he wrote to his parents, lessons from a career of pro bono representation of veterans, and reflections on what all of this means as we grapple today with Afghanistan and other conflicts.

photos of Betsy Popken and James Hargrove

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Resources

• Keeping Each Other Alive: A Vietnam War Memoir

• The Veterans Consortium

• Veterans’ Legal Career Fair

Show Notes

Mitch Zuklie:

Hi, it’s Mitch, and I’m thrilled to be joined today for another episode of our internal Orrick podcast with my friend and Orrick Senior Counsel Norm Hile. Norm joined Orrick in 1973 after graduating from Columbia Law School, and over the course of his remarkable career as a partner Norm amassed an extraordinary record of success in trial and appellate courts for clients such as Proctor & Gamble, Honda, Bank of America, the Kroger Company and Bayer. Norm is also very well known for his work on death penalty habeas corpus appeals, including his 17-year fight to exonerate California death row inmate Kevin Cooper. Earlier this summer, Norm’s team convinced California Governor Gavin Newsom to order an independent investigation of the case based on new evidence of innocence. For anyone interested in learning more about that, I highly recommend the columns of Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times. Norm’s also served as a firm leader; he headed our Sacramento office for two decades and he served on what was then known as our Executive Committee. In recognition of all those contributions and several more, he was the 2005 recipient of our highest honor at the firm, the David R. Jewell Award, which recognizes integrity, excellence, cooperation and innovation. In addition, Norm received the Ninth Circuit’s John P. Frank Award in 2019 in recognition of outstanding lawyering and service to the courts. Norm’s also a U.S. Army veteran and has long been an active member our veteran’s affinity group. To mark the 50th anniversary of his return from combat in Vietnam, Norm recently published a memoir of his wartime experiences, and that’s the topic of our conversation today. So, Norm, it’s a complete honor to have you here. Thank you for joining.

Norm Hile:

My pleasure, Mitch.

Mitch:

Could you start by telling us a little bit about you service—by the way, thank you for that—and when did you join the Army and where did you serve?

Norm:

I was drafted in June of 1968 at the end of my first year at Columbia Law School because of the Tet Offensive, which occurred in January of that year. They took away graduate school deferments for anyone who was in their first year of graduate school. Law school qualified for that, so suddenly I was in the U.S. Army. I went through the process of applying to go to officer candidate school and I was accepted for that, which meant I was going to spend an extra year in the Army. But I thought, with any luck, Richard Nixon, who was then running for President on the platform that he was going to end the war, would have ended it before I would have to go to Vietnam. Unfortunately, he was not a man of his word. Therefore, on the 1st of August, 1970, as a first lieutenant in the artillery, I boarded a flight to South Vietnam. And I then served basically two parts of my tour, which are divided up in my memoir as such. The first part of the time I was a Forward Observer with an infantry company on the ground in the field trying to keep the infantry company protected by whatever artillery I could bring in. And I was there for almost five months. Then I was rotated out of the field to what I was hoping would be a much safer job, but unfortunately my assignment was to become an arial observer in light planes and helicopters for the remainder of my tour, which I did. So, that was the basis for my memoir. It’s two halves; one about being in the field just as an infantry grunt trying to bring in artillery, and then the second part as an arial observer trying to support troops on the ground.

Mitch:

And an enormous amount of stuff that you must have experienced in that time, Norm—what caused you to decide 50 years later to write this book?

Norm:

Well, that’s a really good question, and a number of people said, “How can you remember any of this?”

Mitch:

{Laughs}

Norm:

The fact of the matter is that I’d always wanted to put down what happened to me because I thought it was not only important for my family, and now my grandchildren, to know, but also I thought it was important for there to be a report for historians and others who study such things as to what went wrong, at least from my perspective, in that war and how did we end up losing it so badly. So in the early 80’s, I decided to dictate my memories of it so I would have something to base it on, and I did and my Orrick secretary—don’t tell anybody—transcribed that for me. Well, many years passed and I never—with family and all my work at Orrick and other things—I didn’t get to do it. But when the pandemic came up, I realized that the 50-year anniversary of my going to Vietnam in August of 1970 and of coming home almost a year later in June of 1971 was upon me, and I’d like to get this thing done. So I decided to give myself a deadline of finishing the thing by the end of that 50‑year period in July of 2021. I missed it by a month, but I got it done. While I was working on getting the book together two years ago, at the beginning, I found in my attic the letters that I had written to my parents from Vietnam. They had saved them and put them in a box, and when I went through the box looking for other things, I found them. So the letters, which I wrote, are attached as part of the book—every letter that I wrote—and a lot of them are quoted within the text of the book. And that gives a certain amount of instantaneous nature to it, but it also gave me the ability to know exactly where I was and what I was doing on any particular date and during that year in combat because I wrote home about every three or four days. So the other thing that I was able to add for the book was I took photos with a little old Kodak Instamatic camera while I was in Vietnam, and I still have them. The photos are not great, but I have shown them to the Sacramento office a number of times on Veteran’s Day so some people could see what it looked like during that war.

Mitch:

Norm, what was the process of unpacking these memories like for you?

Norm:

At first it was very painful. I suffered from PTSD for years after I came back, and I’ve avoided talking about my wartime experiences to most people because it was painful. And when I started really writing this in earnest, the first couple of weeks were difficult. I had to push myself to do it. But fortunately, after probably a month or two, it became somewhat cathartic, and I began to realize I wasn’t dreading it as much as I had been, and I was actually beginning to feel better about my feelings and what had happened. So I think it’s had a good impact. The other thing that I think has been so good about doing this project is that my wife Melinda and her sister Brenda, who is a retired Hollywood literary agent, both read early drafts of the book, and they were very encouraging, saying, “Hey, don’t stop. Keep going. This is good stuff.” So I think that helped a lot. I think if they had been not as encouraging, I might have never gotten through it.

Mitch:

It would be incredibly meaningful, I think, if we can hear some of the story in your voice. Is there a passage that you’d be willing to share with us, Norm?

Norm:

Sure. I’ve chosen two, they’re both from the period when I was in the field as a forward observer with an infantry company, and so I was on the ground. I had my own M-16, and I was tasked with trying to bring in artillery support when we needed it. So here we go, beginning on page 31: “At dawn, an explosion ripped me awake. I rolled out of the tent into our foxhole, trying to grab my rifle, steel pot and ammunition all at the same time. My first sight was Doc, our medic, running at incredible speed toward one of the tanks, but crouched so low that his rear end was almost hitting the ground. I heard screams from one of the tanks, but they were soon drowned out by the roar of retaliatory fire from the armored vehicles and our own weapons. A few explosions from within our perimeter were drowned out by our return fire. The tank where Doc had dragged his medical bag was on fire, looking like a rumpled heap of torn metal. Doc started attending to a clump on the ground. I found out later that one soldier died, and three were wounded in the RPG explosion, which struck the side of the tank. One victim Doc was attending to had his leg blown off and later died. The survivors were taken out on Medivac helicopters. I measured the distance from our foxhole to the larger foxhole dug by this command post for Captain Moran and his RTOs. I saw nothing blowing up anywhere within this perimeter for about 30 seconds and decided to get to Moran to see if he wanted me to shoot any artillery. As I jumped into the hole, I couldn’t help but thinking of how ridiculous Moran looked. He had also been woken by the blast, and was crouching in his foxhole with his t-shirt, no boots and his steel pot. ‘You want any artillery,’ I asked. ‘Sure.’ ‘Where?’ ‘I don’t know. RPG must have come from over there.’ He pointed. ‘Try putting some rounds over there.’ I dashed back to my RTO, Ed, and we called in a fire mission. Then, as always, we waited. After a good 20 minutes, Fire Direction Control radioed back and said that they couldn’t get clearance to fire artillery where I had asked for it.” The next one is just shortly thereafter, and it, I think, tries to reflect the central theme of the book, and this is the way it reads. “What was I feeling in those moments? I do recall thinking of how surprised I was at not being petrified. I can only attribute that to over 2 years of army brainwashing. In fact, I felt almost a sense of exhilaration when, during such intense action, I was still alive, functioning and capable of acting. Jumping into Moran’s foxhole was a result of two things: lack of any constant fire coming near me for a moment, and the hope that perhaps I could do something to help out. That feeling grew into a philosophy for acting during any firefight, as well as for my day-to-day actions. I wasn’t particularly hungry to kill the enemy; rather I was doing whatever it took to keep me, and as many as us as I could, alive. Whether we knew each other or not, we were all stuck in the same situation. We couldn’t refuse to fight. We couldn’t desert because there was nowhere to go. Basically, our mission was to do what we were ordered to do while trying to survive. And that meant doing everything we could to keep each other alive, since we had to rely on each other in order if we were going to survive for the whole tour. If I failed to do my job, not only was I more likely to die, but also so many others.”

Mitch:

Thank you for sharing both of those passages Norm. I’d be curious. Over the duration of your service, how many people who you were friends with were wounded or died during the fighting?

Norm:

You know, Mitch, it’s hard to get an accurate count for a couple of reasons. One was that when people were wounded or killed, they were immediately air-lifted or medivacked by helicopter out of the field. And a lot of the people who were wounded, I have no idea whether they survived or not, because we didn’t know. They were gone from the field, and we were out there doing what we had to do without them. One thing that I think is interesting about your question is that there was no way to communicate, at the time, as we do these days with cellphones and everything. If somebody went to the rear, I had no way of calling them on the phone or sending them a letter even, because I had no idea what address to send it to. And so it was…once we were out there, if was just those of us who were out there who could talk to each other, but we couldn’t talk to those who we’d lost. During the time that I was in the field with Charlie Company—the infantry company—we were down to under 50% of our normal fighting group that we should have had because of people being killed, people being wounded, people going on R&R, and people rotating out and going home after their tour is over. It was just a crazy way to run a war. None of us had trained together. We had all been plopped into the field as new people in Vietnam. And when whatever it was that resulted in us leaving the field happened, we were gone and that was it, and someone else—we hoped—was brought in and stuck in our place. It was the worst way to run a war because we had no sense of unit cohesion. Or no sense of being there as being a part of the team.

Mitch:

Thank you for sharing all of that. If we could, let’s turn to today. So, obviously, we’re grappling with human right’s issues today in all of our forums, both at home and internationally. And with our recent exit from Afghanistan, many have, of course, drawn comparisons to and lessons from the period about which you’ve experienced and written, including the Vietnam War. That’s a huge topic, of course, but I wonder if you had a few thoughts that you could share with us about the parallels or differences you see between those two situations.

Norm:

Well, one of the letters in my book which I wrote home—this is of course now in 1970, so 5 years before the United States took its last people out of Saigon by helicopter. Five years before that. And we were supposedly winning the war in 1970. And, one of the things that I said in my letter was that the South Vietnamese were not fighting. We had them with us, we tried to get them to fight with us, and they were more interested in trying to get cigarettes from us or extra c-rations. And I said when I wrote home, I said, “They don’t fight, and the North Vietnamese do. And they are incredibly impervious to any of the high-powered weaponry that we have.” And I said, “As soon as the U.S. leaves, the North will take over this country.” And that was 5 years before. So, we just never learned this lesson, that you can’t just go in and put military hardware and military might into a country and have it turn our way. The enemy that is trying to set up its own government is often more determined than the people that we are supporting. And that was exactly what was going on in Afghanistan, and all the reports show that the Afghanistan forces that we were supposedly training—just like the forces from South Vietnam that we supposedly trained—were actually in it for the pay that they got and for the positions that they got, but as soon as it required actual fighting, they didn’t do it. We’ve got to learn that lesson someday, that we can’t just impose, by our military might, our way of government onto another country.

Mitch:

Thank you for sharing that as well. And, by the way, just for our listeners who are interested in reading your memoir, it’s called “Keeping Each Other Alive”, correct Norm?

Norm:

Yes, that’s the title. If anybody wants one, let me know. But you can also get it on Amazon.com, and on Apple Books, and on BarnesandNoble.com among other places.

Mitch:

Thanks Norm. Let’s turn, if we could, to pro bono. That’s obviously been an enduring theme of your career. And I think it began with your work on behalf of veterans after your return from Vietnam. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and why pro bono has been such an important part of your entire career?

Norm:

Yes, when I started at Orrick in 1973, the partners that I worked with immediately encouraged me to do pro bono work. And I was really excited about that because I believe that it was an important thing that any lawyer should do. But I also saw, as a litigation associate, that it was a wonderful way for me to get in-court experience and trial experience.

Mitch:

Mhm. {affirmative}

Norm:

And so, one of the first things I did was I started representing Vietnam vets who had received less-than-honorable discharges, whether that be general or dishonorable discharges. The reason why that was important for them was that they were not be entitled to any veteran benefits if they didn’t have an honorable discharge on their record. And virtually all of the people who had received these less-than-honorable discharges had received them because, in fact, they had been using drugs in Vietnam, but that the Army was not entitled by Department of Defense order to take away their veteran’s benefits…just used different ways—usually an Article 15 or something else— saying that they had been asleep on guard or something like that. So, we had all of these young guys who had come back from Vietnam, whether they had been able to get over their drug treatment or not, they had no way to get veteran’s benefits. So, I represented a bunch of them individually in hearings before military panels, and what I needed to prove was that they had been on drugs. {Laughter} And that was the reason that they were AWOL or didn’t show up for guard duty or whatever it was. And, so, it was a sort of a perverse thing. But, we were able to get a whole bunch of them to have their discharges upgraded to honorable, which I think was very important for their futures. And I think that anything that we can do for our veterans is important, because they have been the ones who bore the burden of so much of what we’ve done, whether it was good or bad, mistaken or not mistaken. And I’m so glad that I was able to succeed in civilian life. I certainly would not have wanted to stay in the Army. But I think that those people who have served deserve our help and our gratitude.

Mitch:

And how did it go from that interest to the incredible work that you’ve done on death row inmates? How did your pro bono trajectory develop in that way?

Norm:

When I was in Vietnam, I saw so much discrimination against soldiers of color, in particularly black soldiers. In my book I talk a lot about that. And, when I came back, I hadn’t really before that given a lot of thought—I was against the death penalty, but it was not a big deal. But by the time I got back, I decided that the government, or any government agency, should not be making the decision as to who is to live or die, because the government is likely get it wrong, and will probably have an awful lot of discrimination involved as to getting it wrong. And so, I became an advocate in doing away with the death penalty. So, around 1990, I was asked by the federal court in Sacramento to take the first death penalty habeas case that was going to be in federal court as a pro bono assignment. And I thought, “Gee, this is a chance not only to help the court,” which I think was important, “but also to actually show what I know and what I believe in with respect to the death penalty.” So, I took the first case, and it lasted 15 years. And finally, after many, many trips through the Ninth Circuit, my client was given a new trial on the penalty phase. And so, I breathed a sigh of relief, handed the case over to a state lawyer for the new trial, because I was not qualified to do a death penalty state defense case, and within a year the Kevin Cooper case came along, so I got right back into it then. And that was in February of 2004.

Mitch:

Norm, I’ve got to say, what I admire most about you is how you’ve practiced at the height of our profession as a corporate lawyer, and also found such a broader sense of purpose meaning and connection throughout your career. Great trial career, working for some of the biggest corporations in the world, and a very rich life full of service to others who are just the opposite in terms of their ability to access your legal skills. So, do you have any advice, particularly for our junior team members, but really for all of us, on how to recreate that sort of beautiful balance that you’ve found during your career?

Norm:

Well, I would say first of all that doing pro bono work is incredibly rewarding no matter what the area is, and I would encourage every lawyer to have the experience of doing pro bono work, whatever it may be and there are a lot of different ways to do it, whether you are a litigator or a corporate lawyer or a bond lawyer. Second, I think that you – I would encourage people to treat their pro bono clients just like their other clients. They’re entitled to have as much of your time and interest as any other client, and you should not put their work at the bottom of your list just to work on if you happen to have time. I think it’s important to treat them with respect and to work hard for them, and I think the returns and the rewards will be far exceed what anybody might have hoped from doing that. I also think that it’s important when we have the ability to do so, to get involved with committees of the court, whether it be state court or federal court, because that really gives back to our legal system, and the judges and the staff really need to have an experience of positive reinforcement with lawyers.

Mitch:

Mmm hmm (affirmative).

Norm:

So that they respect what we do and they listen to us and I can’t tell you how many times I went into court and was given a nice welcome from the judge because of what I had done, whether it be pro bono or helping the court out. And I really think that it helped me to be successful for my client, as well as making me feel that what I had done was worthwhile and had helped to have justice be part of our system.

Mitch:

Norm, thank you so much. We’re just incredibly grateful to you, not only for this time, but for your service to the country, to our country, to your commitment to justice and to our community, to your service to the bar and obviously for all that you have done for our firm over many decades. So thank you for sharing your reflections and thank you for being such an important part of the fabric of Orrick. We could not be more grateful to you and thank you for taking the time to create this memoir and for putting in our hands the time where I think in the way you already described it is quite relevant. Even though it’s 50 years removed from your return, it’s still very timely and topical thing to be wrestling with. So thank you, we’re grateful.

Norm:

You’re welcome Mitch, and it was my pleasure. I hope that the firm continues to do the type of work that has made it such a great place to have a career.

Mitch:

Well, you will have to keep us honest, Norm. Thank you again.