AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq --
Combat engineer Cpl. John Turpin opened the double doors and took a few familiar steps into the vacant courtroom. Playfully, he said “all rise.”
He moved through the room and looked over the jurors’ box and witness stand, making a few last minute checks. Satisfied, he stood and admired his team’s handiwork.
The legal assistance staff asked Turpin’s team, engineers with Marine Wing Support Squadron 172, Marine Wing Support Group 37, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), to construct a courtroom similar to ones back in the United States.
Turpin recently led the team of engineers in turning an empty, dusty 20 x 20 space into a courtroom complete with a judge’s bench, jurors’ box, witness stand and desks for the plaintiff, defendant and the court reporter.
“It will be used for anything to include administrative separations, special courts martial, general courts martial, summary courts martial or anything we will need it for,” explained Navy Lt. Matthew Wooten, a judge advocate for 3rd MAW (Fwd).
Prior to the completion of the courtroom, lawyers and judges found themselves carrying out legal proceedings in makeshift courtrooms that lacked a “certain grandeur,” according to Wooten.
“When you have a courtroom it is easier because you know the needs of the court,” explained Wooten. “Courtrooms are set up the way they are particularly for security purposes and you want to have a certain grandeur to a court proceeding so that all participants understand this is a solemn occasion.”
Creating that atmosphere in a combat zone is not a common task, and the Marines lacked familiarity with the particular carpentry work required. Moreover, the 22-year-old Turpin was put in charge of a new team at the start of the project, and working against a tight deadline, the “getting to know one another phase” had to wait.
“The type of carpentry that was needed we weren’t too familiar with,” said Turpin. “Engineers out here usually fix damaged airfields and such and don’t do many of these projects.”
He and fellow engineer, Sgt. Gabriel Linn, scoured pictures of courtrooms and researched basic woodworking plans to get an idea of how to build it. Turpin familiarized himself with the carpentry and then guided his Marines through the actual building process.
“The entire base will use this courtroom, so it had to be well put together,” explained Turpin, a Shorter, Ala. native.
Turpin, who grew up designing smaller projects to help around the house, used the courtroom project to teach his Marines.
1st Lt. Crystal Serrano, Turpin’s platoon commander, trusted Turpin’s ability to teach the Marines he worked with and drive them to successfully completing the courtroom on time. She knew when she put him in charge of the project that his initiative and resourcefulness would result in a quality product.
Subordinates also shared a faith in his abilities. “Cpl. Turpin is always involving our input into the project so it feels like we are a team and we finished a good project,” said Lance Cpl. Nick Stadler, a 19-year-old combat engineer working under Turpin. “I had a lot of fun working on this project and my skills as an engineer grow everyday that I work for Cpl. Turpin.”
The team cut the first boards and drove in the first nails Aug. 15. Just seven days later, the Al Asad Air Base courtroom stood ready for its first proceedings.
Turpin joined the Corps at the age of 19. He joined for the opportunity to see and interact with different cultures and to become “a more well-rounded person.”
“I extended to make the trip to Iraq,” added Turpin who saw the combat deployment as a unique way to expand his skill set and familiarize himself with another culture.
Turpin will leave Iraq in a few months, but when he departs, his contribution to Al Asad Air Base will remain.