Joseph Baar Topinka, Major
While one might imagine an attorney a US Army sitting sedately behind a screen, Major Joseph Baar Topinka’s service, from storming buildings as part of an exercise to establish rules of engagement to offering legal medical counsel to transgendered people at a time when they did not officially “exist”, is nothing short of remarkable for its boldness, breadth, and benevolence.
Beginning in his early years, Joseph had a strong sense of community growing up in historic Riverside, Illinois. It was a provincial community within the sprawling metropolis of Chicagoland that contains neighborhoods of various ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds. Joseph was lucky to be raised by two sets of grandparents (one he called his babí and dědí which is Czech for grandmother and grandfather) and his great grandmother, his babí that emigrated from what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czech and Slovak heritage which he cherishes. Joseph, known by his nickname as Pepi which means Joe in Czech, understood that the United States of America and the Chicagoland area gave so much back to his family.
Joseph’s relatives, in particular his mother, the late Illinois State Treasurer and then Illinois State Comptroller, Judy Baar Topinka -- the daughter of Lillian, one of first local women realtors -- influenced him greatly. Judy was one of the early women journalists in Chicagoland investigating local corruption and writing hundreds of articles on a variety of topics. Major Topinka recalls that as a youngster he had exposure to journalists, politicians, and exemplary community police. His mother took him all over the Chicagoland area exploring neighborhoods of different heritages. When she ran for elected office, Joseph volunteered in her legislative office. For Judy, constituent work, or the helping of citizens with their issues, was the greatest focus of her life. The subliminal message was that community and civil society matter. Joseph took this and applied it to his life.
In contrast to some of his relatives, Joseph felt that his way of giving back to his country was by joining the US Army. He trained in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) on scholarship while successfully studying for a BA in Political Science/Pre-Law & History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the interview, Topinka humorously describes juggling the two such as washing off camouflage paint in the student dorms. Joseph was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army as a Quartermaster Officer on May 1, 1990 when he graduated. Topinka received a delay from active duty to attend law school which he attributes to the military draw-down in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
While going to law school at Northern Illinois University, Joseph became a member of the 108th Support Battalion of the Illinois National Guard. For approximately four years, Joseph remained in that unit spearheading community outreach from helping communities pick up garbage to training soldiers for civil disturbances. He also ran annual open houses to teach people about the value of the National Guard. Similarly, Topinka did not shy away from explaining the value of military service to a largely pacifist student population.
Upon his graduation from law school, Joseph was selected as a legal counsel in the US Army’s Judge Advocate General’s [JAG] Corps and on October 2, 1994, he enthusiastically began his active duty. Some of his responsibilities included the provision of legal counsel to service members, their families, and to veterans, and the administration of military court operations in the capacity of prosecutor. With his usual verve, Topinka addressed thousands of questions from divorce to deer hunting. He also taught military law to soldiers, attempting to cultivate their legal thinking. While not a “chaplain” discussion of ethics were always put on the table.
Major Topinka spent his military career in various locations. He began his career at Fort Wainwright, Alaska and after two years moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky. His next JAG stint took him to Fort Lewis, Washington, then to Fort Drum, New York and back again to Fort Lewis. Topinka ended his military career at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, as the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate (Deputy Legal Counsel) to the Office of the US Army Surgeon General & US Army Medical Command. Topinka squeezed in a brief tour to Afghanistan, after Fort Knox where he saw first-hand the legalistic challenges of rules of engagement.
Major Topinka loved helping military personnel, family members, and veterans as a legal assistance attorney, prosecutor, general counsel, and certified, military instructor. In Fairbanks, Alaska, Joseph was recognized for his unflinching support for military personnel on consumer issues. It was in Alaska, too, that Joseph met and married his love, Christina. At Fort Knox, his legal assistance office was recognized with the US Army’s Chief of Staff Award for Legal Assistance for outstanding support at the installation. Prior to 9/11, he pioneered the development of a field exercise for lawyers in an urban terrain facility giving military lawyers a first-hand view of line unit perspectives. In the sweltering heat of Fort Knox, he enlivened soldiers about the juicier aspects of the Universal Code of Military Justice. At the Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Topinka was helping administrators, clinicians, and patients alike. He was even able to provide tax assistance and estate assistance bedside to patients. Topinka also worked closely with the CID [Criminal Investigations Department] whose special agents mentored Topinka in the art of the investigation.
Between two of his assignments, Major Topinka was sent to the Loyola University Chicago Law School to get an advanced law degree (LLM) in health law. Topinka, who had been ill in Afghanistan, subsequently became interested in military health care. During training at Loyola, Joseph did an internship at Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital and then volunteered at the Chicago Military Academy-Bronzeville as part of Loyola University’s Street Law Program.
At Major Topinka’s last assignment at Fort Sam Houston, he was also an Assistant Professor in the US Army Baylor MHA/MBA program. He was the first, active-duty Judge Advocate Officer to be selected to help teach courses in the program. Topinka had earned an MBA and MHA part-time during his previous, military assignments while attending night-school. These degrees, along with his advanced law degree in health law and an advanced degree in military law, made him a perfect candidate for the program.
This 2015 interview took place at a time of transition. Less than a year after his mother’s passing, he warmly discusses her friendship, in addition to her formidable influence. Yet he also notes the challenges of being an only child of a divorced mother, attempting to support her political career, while he was on active duty. He also humorously recounts, for example, his chagrin when his mother, not deterred by military protocols, freely kissed him at a ceremony. In time, Judy Baar Topinka began to understand the military/ veteran issues through her son’s eyes. Although not mentioned in the interview, Joseph founded The Judy Baar Topinka Charitable Foundation and wrote a book entitled Just Judy, A Citizen and Leader for Illinois, intended to inspire the young to contribute to this country.
During that same year, Joseph Baar Topinka had retired from the military, embarking on an academic career at the School of Health Administration at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, eventually appointed as the School of Health Administration’s Residency Placement Professor. Topinka has been determined to maintain the family connection to Illinois and even more so importantly impart his Czech and Slovak heritage to his daughter.
Throughout this interview, Major Topinka offers reflections. He emphasizes the need to grapple with legal complexities, even if the topics are sensitive, such as the cumbersome nature of previous military code on homosexuals, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Topinka advocates for face-to-face contact in spite of online technologies, especially where life and death decisions must be made, as in military medicine.
The highly decorated Major Topinka and his myriad contributions show that there is more than one way to serve as a model citizen soldier.