During his first deployment to Iraq, Tom Hagen served as a lawyer with the Minnesota National Guard, often joining his unit on dangerous patrols through rural provinces south of Baghdad.

His job was to advise the brigade commander on matters ranging from the rules of engagement and “escalation of force procedures” to the treatment of captured enemy combatants.

“Those experiences on those deployments greatly accelerated my understanding of the military, of soldiers, of the decisionmaking process and of where a lawyer can best interject themselves,” Hagen said recently.

Today, the 45-year-old attorney is working in private practice, taking on veterans disability claim cases at a time when more and more vets are returning from war with complex injuries.

Hagen, of Waseca, began working at the Woodbury telecommunications law firm of Bradley & Guzzetta in October after a stint with the state Department of Commerce. Despite the job change, his mission remains essentially the same: helping servicemen and women navigate legal minefields.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is working its way through a backlog of claims, which have soared nationally after the Obama administration made it easier for more former soldiers to get benefits. The list of outstanding cases peaked last March at more than 600,000. Most involve Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange and Gulf War vets grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder and infectious diseases.

At his new job, Hagen “will be concentrating his practice on military veterans, helping with veterans’ benefits, criminal matters, re-employment rights, veterans’ preference, and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, among other matters,” according to a Bradley & Guzzetta news release announcing his hiring.

Hagen, a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and William Mitchell College of Law, said his view of the law was influenced and shaped by his tours of duty in Iraq and one in ­Bosnia-Herzegovina — where he was deployed in support of a NATO-sponsored peacekeeping operation.

“I think I understand my clients and the experiences in general that they’ve been through and the military culture and what their service was like,” he said.

Michael Bradley, a partner at the firm who has known Hagen since their days together in the Guard’s JAG Corps, described him as someone with “tremendous passion” who has “worked hard for military veterans.”

A burgeoning interest in politics led Hagen to take a job out of college on the staff of longtime U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., whom he credited with inspiring his law career.

Soon after taking office, Duren­berger said, he was asked about what he looked for in a staffer. He responded that a leader should be surrounded by people who are “gifted in ways that you’re not” and those who “treat every single person that comes into contact with the office as if they were a member of your family.”

“I think both of those things apply to Tom,” said the former senator, who is now a senior health policy fellow at the University of St. Thomas and who heads the National Institute of Healthy Policy.

After his time on Capitol Hill, Hagen was elected mayor of Waseca, earning a reputation as an energetic and enthusiastic leader who was “passionate about historic preservation,” said Owatonna city administrator Kris Busse, who held a similar position in Waseca for part of Hagen’s tenure.