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J.P. Norman: a Marine's journey from helicopter pilot to judge advocate to local hero

Avalon Hester

Village News Intern

Fallbrook lawyer and local hero, J.P. Norman began his journey as a Marine over two decades ago when he joined the United States Marine Corps as an attack helicopter pilot after commissioning as an officer in 2000. His passion for flying was evident, and he envisioned a long career soaring through the skies. However, fate had a different plan for him.

In 2004, during a training exercise in Numa, Arizona, tragedy struck as Norman's helicopter crashed and erupted in flames from a ruptured fuel line. Trapped in the wreckage, he suffered third-degree burns all over his body and lost several portions of his left hand. The road to recovery was long – two and a half years of burn unit treatment, surgeries, skin grafts and intensive physical therapy. While this level of injury would not only qualify, but usually necessitate, a medical separation from the service, Norman fought to stay in.

Norman even fought to maintain his position as an attack helicopter pilot. When his request was denied due to concerns about his ability to maneuver the controls during combat, he appealed the decision. Norman refused to give up, seeking an alternative pathway to continue his active service.

He applied for a competitive program that sends Marines to law school to become Judge Advocates, responsible for administering justice within the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ comprises a distinct legal system that applies exclusively to members of the armed services and military base residents, governing their conduct and penalties in parallel with local and federal laws.

When asked if he ever expected to become a lawyer, Norman admitted, "Absolutely not. When I was commissioned as a Marine Officer through the Naval Academy, all I really wanted to do was fly. I envisioned myself flying for my whole career. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I would be a lawyer."

Despite the change in his career trajectory, Norman embraced the opportunity and began his legal education at the University of Alabama, and the Naval Justice School. Graduating from law school, he joined the ranks of the judge advocates, specializing in criminal law. Norman's military law career spanned various roles, from serving as a prosecutor and a member of the defense counsel, to eventually supervising both positions.

"It was a double edged sword. On the one hand I was very grateful for that second opportunity," Norman said, "to do something unique, and get an advanced degree. It's a real blessing. I look back on my life and I see how God kind of led me along that path and got me to where I needed to be. But it was Plan B. It was never the thing I most wanted to do."

He explained the difficulty of not being able to deploy as a pilot, "I qualified as a helicopter pilot and got to fly during training, but never got to deploy overseas. That was one of the things that was most difficult for me."

"I was in flight school in 2001 when 9/11 happened. It became the thing that defined my generation's service and the thing that we felt was our calling," he remembered, "To see my friends and fellow servicemen [get deployed] and me get left behind was hard, it was difficult."

However, Norman's commitment to service prevailed, and he finally got the opportunity to deploy as a legal advisor to the 2nd Marine Airwing Aviation element in Afghanistan. His diverse experiences in the military law landscape culminated in four and a half years as a military judge at Camp Pendleton before his retirement in November 2022. Reflecting on his judicial service at Camp Pendleton, Norman fondly expressed, "[Being a judge] was my favorite job. It was the pinnacle of my work."

Alongside his family, he fell in love with Fallbrook, California – a place he never expected to call home but where he and his wife discovered a profound sense of community reminiscent of their Tennessee roots. "It really is the Friendly Village. Everybody knows everybody here."

In an extraordinary twist of fate Sept. 17, 2021, as Norman and his family were leaving church after their volunteer duties, a sudden explosion shook the vicinity. Acting on instinct, Norman rushed to help and began evacuating people from an apartment building. Despite experiencing a traumatic past involving fire, his Marine training kicked in, and he fearlessly assisted a severely injured man who had jumped from the building, and an elderly woman who turned out to be the man's mother.

Recalling the harrowing experience, Norman described the chaos and the man's pain. "I distinctly remember hearing the man's screams."

Norman then remembers, "I could tell as I looked at him that he had third-degree burns, I could see everything that was in front of him." Norman told the man to stay calm, that everything was going to be okay, before his pastor, JD Larson, entered the room and started to help. Shortly after, emergency responders arrived and took over the rescue.

Norman remembers how hot it was that day, and how his church then sprang into action setting up tents, putting out food and water, and caring for the people that had to evacuate the building.

"There was a moment right before I was about to go in where I thought, am I really going to do this? I don't want to be burned again."

Norman found an unexpected sense of healing through his actions. He remarked, "It became a healing thing. It didn't feel like that at the time, but I came to appreciate it as a situation where

For his heroic actions that day, J.P. Norman was honored with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal – the highest non-combat decoration bestowed upon service members for exceptional acts of valor.

However, despite the accolades, Norman remains humble, insisting that he merely did what he hopes any Marine would do – "be a good citizen, a good neighbor and always look for ways to help." He expressed his hope that people feel safe when they see Marines, knowing they can rely on them for assistance.

Having experienced the transient nature of military life, Norman understands the challenges of getting involved in a community. Nevertheless, he encourages fellow Marines not to hesitate and to "dive in" whenever possible.

As for his future, J.P. Norman continues his legal work for the Veterans Association, advocating for his fellow servicemen and women. He also eagerly anticipates a school trip to his alma mater, the University of Alabama, with his son, who aspires to attend next year.

And through it all, Norman remains content, grateful to call Fallbrook home – a place where he and his family have found solace, camaraderie and a true sense of belonging.


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