Anta Plowden Dancing in the Law Library | Photo by Joshua Prezant
Anta Plowden has seen stuff. Really, really bad stuff. Ten tours at the stick of a C-130 cargo plane in Iraq and Afghanistan will leave even the most hardened individual with lasting psychological scars.
The Air Force Captain and Lockheed C-130 Hercules pilot transported bodies, so many he can’t remember the name of the first solider he started on the long road home. He was shot at, repeatedly; so many times that it no longer fazed him. He hated writing home because writing reminded him how much he missed his family and friends.
But Plowden gets it. When the Miami native finished his tours, he came home and took a gap year to decompress. He threw himself into something that was the polar opposite of coffins and bodies and surface-to-air missiles. He took up dancing. Cha-chas and rumbas and, hardest of all: the Viennese waltz, at 180 beats per minute. Foxtrot was no longer part of the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, but a lively dance in 4:4 time to the strains of big band music.
Dancing was new and something he was good at from the start. “It’s probably one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life,” he said. “When you come out of the military, it can really change the way you are as a person. You have become a little more intense. You are used to giving orders and people following them, but dancing is very different. You are working with a partner, and they may not have ever danced in front of anyone and they are going to dance in front of you. You have to get them to trust you. You have to put them at ease and listen to what they are saying. That was one of the hardest parts—building the emotional aspect of it. You have to ask and coax and convince them that they are looking good doing it. It really helped me with my ability to reconnect with people.”
Most valuable lessons
When the 35-year-old second-year law student was growing up in Miami he learned a very practical lesson. Every year his school handed out end-of-year awards and every year Plowden would dress carefully in his best suit and tie and wait. “I would expect to get awards, and I wouldn’t, and then I would cry,” he said. “My mom never really knew why I was crying and then eventually, in third grade, she asked. I said because I was expecting an award. She told me that if I wanted an award, I had to do well in school. I was like, ‘oh, is that all?’ So the next year I got all the awards.
“I realized if you want the good things in life, you’ve got to work hard. Luckily, I learned it at an early age and it seems to have carried me through so far.”
Plowden, who was named after the Senegalese anthropologist, physicist, and politician Cheikh Anta Doip, did work hard, and he played hard. He transferred into the gifted program at school. By high school he had begun playing water polo, a sport that would take him to the All-Dade team, and later he even played for the United States Air Force Academy.
In high school, he spent a lot of time in the library as a volunteer tutor. Between students, he would thumb through encyclopedias to pass the time. The entry for the U.S. Air Force was particularly compelling. He loved the movie Top Gun and the television series Wings. Flying seemed like a very cool thing to do, and he thought the Air Force Academy chapel looked like “a really beautiful modern art structure,” he recalled. “It’s like a silver pyramid, and it has mountains in the background.”
Plowden went straight into the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado from high school. He was 18 years old and would see snow for the first time.
Plowden decided at the academy that he would rather lay the groundwork for law school and an eventual future in politics. He pursued a political science degree and figured he would go into the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, but near the start of his senior year 9/11 struck. The tragedy would profoundly reshape the next decade of his life.
“I saw the second tower get hit,” he recalls. “My sister was living in New York, and we have a lot of family there, too. I can’t reach anyone because all the lines are down. The Academy goes on lock down because we are right next to the North American Aerospace Defense Command and Fort Carson. We are wearing body armor and helmets to class because we don’t know if we could be a target; it is a viable area to hit.
“I thought, ‘this is the moment; this is our Pearl Harbor.’”
Plowden felt the need to fight, to fight and to win. “I can’t sit behind a desk, I need to fly.” When it came time at graduation to make his selection, he took a pilot slot. And he went straight to pilot training from there.
“I wanted to be a fighter pilot—I was pretty good at all the checklists and landings and takeoffs in the plane. However, I get a bit queasy whenever I go inverted.”
Plowden would train on C-130 cargo planes. “The planes I flew generally didn’t go inverted unless we did something really, really bad.”
Ironically, when Plowden was a child, he always promised his mother he would stay in Miami. “And I always keep my promises,” the second-year student said. So even though when he turned eighteen he moved across the country, then across the world for fifteen years, he wanted to come home.
“I wanted to get to know my family,” he said. “I have six nieces and nephews who only knew me as the guy up in the plane in the sky. It’s nice to have that now—to get reconnected.”
He says being back in school is rewarding. While he misses working, he says that being an older student has its benefits. There are fewer distractions, and he feels like he is more of a purpose driven student.
“So, yeah. I feel like I need to get this done,” he said. “But I do miss that sense you get when earning a paycheck.”
Plowden spent his rising 2L summer as a Colson Hicks scholar. As luck would have it, the firm is working on an aircraft mishap investigation, and Plowden spent time in the military in the flight safety office.
He still carries himself like a military man, albeit with the subtle grace of a dancer. It will always be part of his past, and for his future he wants to continue to serve. “I’d like to be a state prosecutor and maybe one day a judge,” he said. “Fingers crossed, but at the same time I’m open for whatever adventure comes my way.”