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From Battlefield to Bar Exam

From Battlefield to Bar Exam: Graduate, a Marine Veteran, Defies the Odds
Earl J. Catagnus Jr.

Earl J. Catagnus Jr.

When Earl J. Catagnus Jr. receives his law degree, it will be the culmination of a long journey that in many ways started in Iraq.

Catagnus, who was deployed as a scout/sniper and section leader for two tours, including as a sergeant with the U.S. Marines in Al Fallujah, Iraq, sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2004 when an improvised explosive device exploded fewer than three meters away from where he was removing insurgents from civilian homes.

“The day I was hit, I was unprotected, wearing no helmet or goggles,” he said. “The blast left my face covered in fragmentation wounds, nearly costing me my eyesight.”

The injuries generated cognitive impairments that affect his memory and make memorization particularly difficult. But they also ignited in him a deeper sense of faith and purpose.

After leaving the Marines with a purple heart, multiple commendation and achievement medals and more, he felt compelled to “live a life for others.” So, he set out to combine his personal military experience with the academic and intellectual exploration of urban warfare and military history. In 2006, Catagnus graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor of science in life science and a bachelor of arts in history, both with academic distinction. He went on to earn a PhD in history from Temple University. It was a remarkable achievement for the Norristown, Pennsylvania native who had nearly failed out of high school, and had dropped out of community college.

Catagnus went on to become an assistant teaching professor of information science and technology at Penn State University Brandywine, working with students, contributing to academic journals and providing expert commentary in frequent interviews – a position he still holds today.

Through it all, Catagnus credits his wife, Rebecca, as the driving force behind every step he’s taken.

“She pushes me. I listen to what she has to say. She has a wisdom beyond her years,” he said, noting it was Rebecca who first suggested law school while he was a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations.

Delaware Law's track record of combining scholarly knowledge with practical experience to produce successful practicing attorneys earned his respect, and he enrolled in 2021. His only regret now is not immediately seeking accommodations for the challenges posed by his traumatic brain injury.

“I realized that memorization and recall were absolutely essential to being a successful law student,” he said, adding that he overcame concern about labels and stigma in the middle of his first semester to seek – and receive – help through learning disability services.

“Delaware Law has been absolutely wonderful through the process, particularly the Registrar Tammy Graham,” he said.

Along the way to collecting his juris doctor on Friday, Catagnus became a dean’s list student, earned multiple academic achievements, worked as a teaching assistant, and clerked for Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Megan Sullivan. Catagnus said he felt a surprising sense of belonging and community with students, faculty, and staff and is deeply grateful for his Delaware Law experience.

And next? He is determined to pass the bar exam on his first try, plans to maintain strong connections with the law school, and is hoping to address societal issues and effect positive change through a new career focused on corporate law or as a cybersecurity consultant. He wants to focus on analyzing organizational problems that could be solved through the convergence of law, security, and effective leadership.

Beyond his studies and career, the most important job in Catagnus’ life is that of father and husband. Without his wife and daughters, his survival in war and his professional success mean nothing.

“It was my firsthand experiences, facing the true evil of warfare, that shaped my perspective on the world. Having confronted manifestations of evil on the battlefield, I came to recognize that amidst the darkness, there is also true goodness and light,” he said.