In 1993 Leon Barfield told a friend he’d rather die on the way to the courthouse than take the bench when he got there.
Now a year away from his 20th anniversary as a U.S. Magistrate Court judge in the Southern District of Georgia, Barfield admits with a smile that life has a funny way of upending our best-laid plans.
The fickle nature of fate is something Barfield, 64, learned about well before he launched his legal career in 1979 as a state prosecutor in Augusta and one he’ll take with him into retirement next May from the federal post. It came to him literally in a flash on May 23, 1968, when a mortar shell rose out of Vietnam’s humid jungle and exploded at his feet.
“That ruined my entire day, but not my attitude,” Barfield said.
The explosion launched Barfield through the air and destroyed his right leg. He knew it was bad when he couldn’t see his right boot on the helicopter ride to a hospital ship. When he awoke the next morning, the operating surgeon was by his bedside with an X-ray that showed how badly the shell had shattered his leg. There was nothing left to save.
“Gosh, Doc, do you think I will play golf again?” Barfield asked.
It was a legitimate concern. At age 7, Barfield’s father moved his family to Moultrie, Ga., where he worked as the head groundskeeper for a golf course. Barfield grew up watering the course and raking bunkers, but also playing the links. Before the draft caught up with him, he had plotted a future that included earning a PGA tour card and having a small course of his own. The surgeon seemed confident that was still a possibility.
“Barfield, you’ll be dancing with the best of them in a year,” he said.
“Well that’s good because I could never dance before,” Barfield cracked.
The surgeon was wrong.
The prosthetic leg the Army gave him before his discharge in 1969 was functional but uncomfortable. Every round of golf rubbed a raw sore the size of a quarter in his stump that always took more than a week to heal. His disability excluded just about any other manual job.
College was the only option left, which terrified a lousy high school student who focused on what Barfield calls the three G’s: “Golf, girls and gasoline.”
He passed the entrance exam, though, and made the Deans List in his first semester at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.
“It’s amazing what being motivated will do for a young man,” Barfield said.
Barfield went on to the University of Georgia for his law degree. Walking the hills of the Athens campus was brutal for a young man with one good leg, but he persevered.
“I had no alternative; I had to be a success,” Barfield said.
The law degree landed him a clerk position in Augusta, which was followed by a stint in the district attorney’s office from February 1979 through August 1981. Barfield then took a post as an assistant US attorney and attached himself to some of the biggest drug cases in Richmond County’s history.
In the early ’80s, he successfully prosecuted Augusta’s first black mayor, Ed McIntyre, on extortion charges.
In a recent interview, Barfield had nothing but respect for McIntyre, who died in 2004. During the trial, Barfield admits he was “pretty rough” on McIntyre, but after one day of testimony McIntyre introduced Barfield to his mother.
“It was the most surreal thing that’s happened to me in a courtroom,” Barfield said.
Barfield’s successes in the courtroom came with a price. Burying himself under a seven-day work week allowed him to ignore the dark memories from Vietnam, but it cost him his first marriage and any meaningful relationships with co-workers.
“My constant friends were isolation and anger,” Barfield said.
In 1989, the woman who would later become his second wife, Lennie Shore, came to work for the US Attorney’s Office. The two struck up a friendship that blossomed into a romance. Barfield found himself releasing years of pent up frustration and finally talking about things he had never shared.
“Her companionship and perseverance in the face of what’s an ongoing problem for me is my redemption,” Barfield said. “She brought me out of that dark time.”
When he took the judgeship in ’93 he also got a new prosthetic leg. The years of pain he had endured become a distant memory, and Barfield was once again able to play golf as much as he liked and walk without pain.
A major part of his own healing process has been talking with the wounded warriors returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. As a guest speaker at the marriage seminars held by Augusta’s Veteran Affairs hospitals, he talks about the mistakes he made and encourages open communication between spouses.
Even if it’s not the one he envisioned as a teenager, “there is life after injury,” Barfield said.