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In this post, I discuss my transition to and experience in the Air Force JAG Corps.

Air Force JAG Corps

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I recently left the Air Force JAG Corps after serving on active duty for four years. I have previously written extensively about my experience in the Army JAG Corps. You can find several blog posts elsewhere on this site describing the training experience every new Army JAG attorney endures. I have also published two books on the subject: The DCC Survival Guide and The JAG School Survival Guide.

I have not, however, written about my military experience since completing training in 2014. I aim to remedy that here.

I have received many emails over the last few years asking about the JAG Corps. Joining the military is an experience fraught with fear and anxiety. It is an unknown even for those—like me—who were military brats. I hope, therefore, that my writings can alleviate some stress for those interested in the Air Force JAG Corps.

Army to Air Force JAG Corps

I served in the Arkansas Army National Guard as a JAG officer from 2013 until 2015. In 2015, I transitioned from the Army National Guard to the active-duty Air Force JAG Corps, where I served from 2015 to 2019.

I recently left the Air Force. As I did in the Army, I took extensive notes during my Air Force training, but I never got around to doing anything with them. I would like to share them now to help others interested in the Air Force JAG Corps. Now that I have left active duty, I aim to provide an honest assessment of the Air Force JAG Corps to provide those interested in joining with a realistic set of expectations.

I will soon publish a series of blog posts detailing the training process. This post, however, merely provides my general thoughts about my military experiences, both in the Army and Air Force JAG Corps.

My Time in the Army National Guard

As I said above, I spent a little over two years in the Army National Guard, serving the traditional one weekend per month, two weeks per year. I never deployed, and, other than for training, I was never called to active duty.

I served in three different positions with the Army National Guard.

Legal Assistance Attorney

For my first eight months, I served as a legal assistance attorney assigned to Joint Force Headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas. In that role, I provided legal assistance to National Guard soldiers. The bulk of my work revolved around drafting wills and other legal documents.

I also helped out elsewhere when needed. For example, I did a few SRPs—Soldier Readiness Processings—at various units. (The Air Force calls these pdf lines.)

This consisted of manning a table while soldiers waited in line to see us. Our job was to make sure they had all their legal affairs in order before deploying. We drafted a lot of wills on the fly during this process.

(Many other departments participated in this program as well. Legal was one of many tables the solider had to visit.) The goal was to get an entire unit of soldiers through the process in just a few days.

Trial Counsel

After this, the State Staff Judge Advocate assigned me to be Trial Counsel at the 77th Theater Aviation Brigade. This is a Blackhawk unit at Camp Robinson in Little Rock. I reported to the Brigade Judge Advocate—a Major position filled by a Captain at the time. (A brigade generally has three levels of command. The brigade, commanded by a Colonel, battalions, commanded by Lieutenant Colonels, and companies, commanded by Captains.)

Our job was to provide legal advice to the commanders on various issues. This was usually—but not always—related to disciplinary matters. We did several nonjudicial punishment actions (Article 15s).

I was later assigned to be Trial Counsel at the 142d Fires Brigade—an artillery unit. This was the same job I had with the 77th.

These jobs allowed me to interface with senior commanders regularly. Very few Captains give regular advice to the Colonel brigade commander. As the only attorneys in the unit, however, this was our job.

Thoughts on the National Guard

I loved my time in the National Guard before transitioning to the Air Force JAG Corps. I served under several great leaders, and I loved what I did every drill weekend.

One great thing about the Guard was how little bureaucratic and unnecessary time-sucking crap I had to face. I didn’t appreciate this until after my time on active duty.

Since the duty is only one weekend per month, the focus is on the actual mission: combat training. There is little time to waste on creating PowerPoints, drafting memos that no one will read, and sitting through endless meetings that accomplish nothing.

I loved the Guard. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to serve, particularly those who do not want to serve full-time. Deployment tempos ebb and flow, however. You could find yourself called to active duty without much notice and deployed for a year. So, if you go this route, that is something for which you will need to prepare yourself.

Joining the Air Force JAG Corps

In late 2014, I decided that I loved my time in the military and wanted to go full-time. I knew, however, that I wanted to join the Air Force JAG Corps, rather than the Army. My father was a career Air Force officer, and I had always wanted to join the Air Force.

The application process for me was the same as for anyone else. The Air Force JAG Corps treated me like a civilian for application purposes.

Once accepted, I had to ask the Arkansas Army National Guard to release me. I had an eight-year commitment with them, and they could have refused to let me go. But they didn’t. My leadership was supportive of the move, and the Adjutant General signed off on my release. 

Induction into the Air Force JAG Corps

My onboarding process was atypical. Most new officers in the Air Force JAG Corps attend Commissioned Officer Training (COT) at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. This is the Air Force’s version of the Army’s Direct Commissioned Course. (The rumor is that they are soon going to make JAG officers go through the same officer training program as line officers.) I did not have to attend this, as the Air Force accepted my previous officer training.

Consequently, I cannot provide advice on COT the same way that I was able to for DCC.

I do wish the Air Force JAG Corps would have sent me to COT. Not attending initial training created a strange transition for me. The week before I reported to my duty station, I went to the local Air Force base and bought uniforms on my own. Then, the next week, I got in my car and drove from Arkansas to Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida.

On the day I was to report, I put on the uniform for the first time. It was like someone waved a magic wand over me. One day I was an Army officer, then next an Air Force officer.

You should have more guidance than I had if you go the usual route through Officer Training School.

The Air Force JAG Corps and JASOC

The Air Force JAG Corps’ Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course—or JASCOC—is the training program for new Air Force JAG officers. It’s the Air Force’s version of the Army’s Officer Basic Course in Charlottesville, Virginia about which I previously wrote. While I did not have to attend COT, I did have to attend JASOC.

In future posts, I will describe my experience at JASOC in greater detail. It provides the foundational knowledge for your career in the Air Force JAG Corps.[1]

My Time in the Air Force JAG Corps

I spent four years in the Air Force JAG Corps. From 2015 to 2017, I was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida. I loved it there. The area was beautiful, and there was a beach right on the base.

F-22s flew there during my time but dispersed to other bases after Hurricane Michael. The latest news is that the Air Force will move F-35s there once they finish rebuilding the base.

After Tyndall, the Air Force JAG Corps sent me to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. While known as one of the worst assignments in the Air Force, I didn’t think it was that bad. I was two hours from both Oklahoma City and Dallas, and the traffic was almost nonexistent.

The Base Legal Office

I worked in the base legal office during both my assignments in the Air Force JAG Corps. The base legal office handles most legal issues that arise on the base. This includes military justice, contracts, claims, and various other miscellaneous matters.

Everyone spends their first assignment at a base legal office. Later assignments may be elsewhere and can include such jobs as an Area Defense Counsel and Special Victims Counsel.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) gives the Judge Advocate General (TJAG) of each branch the authority to certify counsel as competent to try courts-martial without supervision. Every other branch provides this certification upon graduation from initial training. So, the Army TJAG certified me after I graduated from the Army JAG School.

The Air Force, however, requires experience serving as second-chair before certification. While there is no hard and fast rule, the general guideline is that you must try three courts-martial.

This creates a lot of extra stress and hoops through which to jump because you cannot get an assignment outside of the legal office until you are certified. If you’re assigned to a slow base without a lot of courts-martial, this can create a significant problem.

(This also creates the perverse incentive of bringing cases to courts-martial that might more appropriately be disposed of through lesser action. I have heard the need to get counsel certified as a motivation in recommending court-martial, so this does happen.)

Air Force JAG Corps

Photo by JoshuaDavisPhotography is licensed under CC 2.0.

The Military in the News

I have occasionally received questions about the military environment. Some have expressed concern about the attention the military has received for incidents of sexual assault and the existence of otherwise hostile work environments.

Concerning that, I can only speak to what I have personally observed. Admittedly, it may not align with available research and data and is likely disimilar from the experience of others. My experiences are only my own.

I would not discourage anyone to join the military based upon such news reports. I would feel comfortable with my daughter’s joining the military. But I wouldn’t discount these concerns, either.

Ignored Complaints

Congress and the media have scrutinized the military for alleged instances of commanders ignoring reports of sexual assault or even retaliating against victims for reporting. I never saw any of that for actual sexual assault reports. The vast majority of the commanders I encountered were trying to do the right thing and took these allegations seriously.

I am, however, not at all skeptical of reports of such injustices. I came in after sexual assault in the military began receiving extraordinary scrutiny by Congress and very senior civilian leadership, and I have, in fact, seen such unscrupulous command behavior involving lesser allegations.

For example, I have witnessed cries of harassment and hostile work environment ignored or even yield reprisal against the claimant. This creates a terrible situation for the military member. A civilian facing these circumstances is free to quit. Though he or she may face financial hardships for doing so, it is nonetheless an available option.

A military member, however, does not have that option. This leaves the member with the choice of suffering in silence or risking making things worse by filing a report. (Given the extremely low number of reprisal claims that are substantiated and the apparent attitude of the military toward such complaints, there is little recourse for someone claiming reprisal absent a smoking gun proving it.)

It can be a no-win situation. I would be dishonest were I to say I don’t believe such miscarriages of justices occur.

Unjust Prosecutions

On the other hand, I have seen prosecutorial decision-making that would make Mike Nifong blush. I have seen many cases proceed to court-martial, where the weight of the evidence strongly suggested the Accused’s innocence.

This can be frustrating, as you may find yourself having to choose between fighting your superiors, with all the terrible consequences that can bring, and violating your bar’s rules of ethics.[2]

General Thoughts

A frustrating part of the job is that you will see injustice. You will see the guilty go free, and you will see the innocent suffer. Both can take a terrible psychological toll.

The majority of commanders are seeking to do the right thing. Because, in the military, however, so much power is often concentrated in one person, if that one person is not one of the majority, terrible injustices can result.

I write this not to discourage anyone who wants to join. Rather, I want to give a realistic description of the things for which you should be prepared in the Air Force JAG Corps. Every job comes with good and bad. You should prepare yourself for both.

Closing Thoughts about the Air Force JAG Corps

In closing, I’d say that the Air Force JAG Corps—indeed, all the JAG Corps—will provide a different experience for different people. If the television show JAG is inspiring you to join, you will be sorely disappointed. I never flew in a jet the entire time I was in the Air Force.

The Work

I’d recommend gathering as much information as you can before joining because once you’re in, you’re in. They have you.[3] On the one hand, you’ll get to do a lot of things early in your career. You may also get into the courtroom at an earlier phase in your career than you otherwise would.

On the other hand, I’d say a small percentage of the work you do actually requires a law degree. The original creators of the military justice system designed it to be done by non-attorneys. This reality is still ever-present. A large amount of the type of work you will do would be done by a legal assistant—not even a paralegal—at a large law firm. So, these are all things to keep in mind.

Importance of Service Before Self

Unless you really want to serve your country in uniform, I’d recommend against joining. Frankly, these four years were the worst of my life, but, if given a choice, I would do it all again. Most people who have served, even if they don’t agree, will know what I mean.

I am glad that I joined the Air Force, even if I did not enjoy the work. And I would encourage anyone with any desire to serve their country to do so. It is an experience worth having. To give something back to this country, to be part of something greater than yourself, is always worth doing. If these things do not motivate you, however, you will probably be miserable.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Air Force. If put in a room with other veterans, I’ll bellyache and complain about the toxic leaders, senseless bureaucracy, and meaningless work. (I love the Duffle Blog and find its satire a little too close to reality for comfort.) But if someone who never served expresses hatred toward the military, I feel little sympathy for their position.[4]

The views and opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force JAG Corps, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


Footnotes

[1] During my time in the Air Force, I had some leaders who treated JASOC like the be-all-end-all of legal education. Some would not allow new JAGs—even those with extensive prior legal experiencer—to give legal assistance without having first attended JASOC. So, an individual who had graduated law school, passed the bar, and received a license to practice law was disallowed from providing basic legal advice on civilian matters—leases, estate planning, etc.—because he or she had not yet attended the death-by-PowerPoint that is JASOC. You will find this type of bureaucratic nonsense to be widespread, and it’s best just to accept it. There’s no challenging or changing it. You will find that many of your leaders in the Air Force JAG Corps, who are ostensibly attorneys, stopped thinking like attorneys a long time ago. And, in their defense, the system does not really encourage indepth legal thinking and analysis as you progress in rank, except in a few fields (appellate counsel, military judge, etc.) Don’t let this discourage you. Just accept it, and you’ll be fine.

[2] A previous Judge Advocate General of the Air Force is alleged to have said that all sexual assault allegations are to proceed to court-martial, absent a “smoking gun” proving the Accused’s innocence. See United States v. Wright, 75 M.J. 501 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 2015). He did not say all such allegations are to receive a full and thorough investigation—which absolutely should happen—but proceed to court-martial, no matter the evidence. This prejudgement and strong presumption of guilt is a far cry from the Supreme Court’s admonition that prosecutors must ensure that the guilty not escape and the innocent not suffer. See generally Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935). In my opinion, pressuring prosecution of a case, regardless of the evidence, unless the Accused can definitively prove his or her innocence on the front-end is unethical behavior meriting disbarment. Indeed, I encountered several attorneys during my time in the Air Force JAG Corps that I believe should have been disbarred for “engag[ing] in conduct that [wa]s prejudicial to the administration of justice.” American Bar Association Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d).

[3] If they have to threaten you with jail time for quitting, perhaps healthy skepticism about the job is in order.

[4] I liken the Air Force to the proverbial loose sister. To other members of the family, you may complain about her sleeping around, but if an outsider calls her a “whore,” you’re apt to punch them in the mouth.


See Also:

Welcome to the (Army) JAG Corps

Week 1 of the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course


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