In this post, I discuss my first week at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course.
The Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course is the foundational course for all new Air Force JAG officers. Like most Air Force JAG Corps training, it is held at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course is typically nine-weeks long. My class, however, was small. Thus, the mock court exercises took fewer days. The faculty also eliminated a trip to an operating base due to budget cuts. So, the school experimented with shortening our class to just seven weeks.
Despite having less time, however, we covered the same amount of material. Consequently, my posts will not match up exactly to what you might experience at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course week-by-week. The subject matter should nonetheless be about the same. (Keep in mind, however, that my notes are four years old, and there may have been some changes to the curriculum in that timeframe.)
Beginning the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course
Hours of orientation consumed my first day at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course. After sitting through hours of briefings, the class broke out into our flights. The faculty then tasked us with writing an introductory skit. We were then to present this to the rest of the faculty and class.
I’m not a big fan of these types of team building activities. There’s a lot to be said for maintaining one’s dignity, and it’s all the more important for military officers. (If you admire men like Douglas MacArthur or George Patton, you will probably be uncomfortable in the JAG Corps.)
Fortunately, there were only two flights in my class, meaning there was only one other such skit. Typical class sizes are between forty and seventy. Ours was only eighteen. So, all the student competitions consisted of one flight competing against another. (Our flight’s motto—another goofy thing the faculty forced us to create—was “If you’re not first, you’re last,” which, in this case, was literally true.)
Most new JAG officers are First Lieutenants. (You’re given constructive credit for your three years in law school, allowing you to skip Second Lieutenant and the first year as a First Lieutenant.)
Prior service members, however, can enter as Captains. (Occasionally, there will be a Major from the National Guard. The active and reserve components, however, generally do not allow field grade officers to transfer to another career field.)
Of the eighteen in our class, ten were guard or reserves, and eight were active duty. As with the Army, the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course mixes active and reserve components together for training.
Because of my prior service in the Army, I entered the Air Force as a Captain. I was one of three Captains in my class. Both of the other Captains also came from different branches: one from the Marines and the other from the Army.
After class one day this week, we had a meet-and-greet with the faculty. I understand that this is a tradition at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course. The faculty brought in Chipotle and some beers, and we sat around talking for an hour and a half. It was an excellent opportunity to get advice about the JAG Corps from more experienced officers.
There were a handful of such opportunities during the course of training. I always found these valuable. Learning from someone who has gone before is usually the best way to prepare.
Lectures at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course
The Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course is death by PowerPoint. This week, we sat through several lectures, and every one incorporated PowerPoint. You will find this to be the case throughout your time in the military.
(I once heard a joke that, during the Cold War, the Soviets planned to attack on a Monday morning when all the staff officers at the Pentagon were preparing their PowerPoints for the week. I wonder how much of that was really a joke.)
The lectures this week addressed general topics about the Air Force and the JAG Corps. So, for example, we had lectures on the structure of the JAG Corps, the history of the JAG Corps, the nature and inner workings of a legal office, and things like that.
We also had a lecture about legal research. The quality of the lectures vary, and this was one of the more painful ones. The rest, however, was very interesting.
After lectures, we broke out into our seminar groups. Seminars were flight-specific. So, our flight room doubled as our seminar room.
I understand that they were experimenting with making the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course curriculum more seminar and less lecture-based. I’m not sure if they ever moved in that direction, but I thought it was a good idea.
When you first arrive, you will be asked to pay “social fees.” Mine was about $200. Most of the fees were optional, but, like most “optional” expenses, it’s usually a good idea to pay them.
The fee provided unlimited access to the snack bar in the lounge. There were no real snacks, but there were coffee, cokes, and cappuccinos. So, by paying this one fee, I had unlimited access.
I got my money’s worth. I drank four or five cups of coffee a day, plus cappuccinos and cokes. (While perhaps not very healthy, I felt the need to turn this into a value proposition.) I’d recommend taking advantage of it.
PT Tests at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course
We took two PT tests at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course. We took a diagnostic test the first week, and a final one at the end. (None of them were official, so they didn’t count for anything. I’m not sure what happened to those who failed it.)
I had a tradition when I was in the military of always ordering a Domino’s bread bowl the night before a PT test. I did this every single time I had to take a PT test. I doubt it was good for me, but I had it in my mind that the carbohydrates would get me ready to go.
So, the night before this PT test, I did the same thing. I couldn’t find a Domino’s that would deliver on base—though I am confident I missed it—so I had to go out to get it.
This Domino’s, however, was quite interesting. I could not go in to get my order. Instead, it was set up like a bank without a lobby. The worker spoke to me from behind class. There was a drawer below him through which he could pass the order.
Montgomery has a reputation for being a high-crime area, and perhaps this was a bad part of town. I had never seen a Domino’s set up like that before.
Anyway, the next day, we took our diagnostic PT test on the track behind OTS. The test-taking is a lot less formal than in the Army. We just paired off and counted each other’s pushups and situps. In the Army, only official test administrators could count your repetitions. So, the Air Force’s lax attitude toward physical fitness, while exaggerated, nonetheless contains some truth.
The curriculum at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course kicked off with military justice. This week, we had one lecture on military justice in the main auditorium. We then broke out into our seminar groups for further discussion.
The seminar group activities also consisted of lectures—with accompanying PowerPoints—but with a smaller group. But, our instructor was pretty good, and I found it enjoyable.
I have always found military justice interesting—though I later became convinced of its unconstitutionality in its current form, a topic for another day. So, I enjoyed learning about it.
Most of it was review for me, but it was good to get the refresher. I went through this class without having to drink from a firehose, which was a blessing. Still, I question the value that the taxpayers received for retraining me.
Later in the week, we continued to spend a lot of time in our seminars. We covered such things as Article 15s, proof analysis, and charge sheets.
Air Force v. Army JAG Schools
Having attended both the Army’s Officer Basic Course and the Air Force’s Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course, I am in a unique position to compare the two. There are some significant differences.
The Air Force Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course focused more on the granularities of military justice than the Army School. I suspect this is because all new Air Force JAGs work military justice. Even if their initial assignment is to a civil law section, they will work courts from the beginning.
In the Army, new Army JAGs are often assigned to shops focusing on one area of the law. This allows for much more significant on the job training, reducing the need for the JAG School to cover details.
The Army School, therefore, felt more like law school, covering large concepts with the goal of conveying the rationale underlying why the military system operates the way it does. The Air Force School felt more like a trade school, attempting to teach the mechanics more than anything else.
Perhaps this is inaccurate, but it makes the most sense of my different experiences in the two schools.
Different Focus on Military Justice
As an example of the additional emphasis on military justice in the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course, we did two mock courts compared to the Army’s one. Our first mock court was a guilty plea.
Guilty pleas in the military are extremely involved. They require the accused to give an extended allocation, and the military judge conducts an extensive inquiry of the accused’s statements. This is to ensure that the accused is, in fact, guilty and not merely taking a deal. I was a prosecutor in my civilian life, and guilty pleas took all of five minutes. Guilty pleas in the military can take a day or more. So, this was a good exercise.
Often a pretrial agreement is part of a guilty plea. A pretrial agreement occurs where the convening authority—not the prosecution, as in the civilian world—agrees to a maximum punishment in exchange for a guilty plea. The panel imposing sentence, however, is unaware of any pretrial agreement. It will impose whatever punishment it sees fit.
The punishment could be less than provided by the pretrial agreement. In that case, the accused would get the lesser sentence. (Though recent changes to the law allow for floors as well as caps. See the footnotes below.) It could also be more, but in that case, the sentence would be capped.
Since most courts-martial end with guilty pleas, it is good to learn how to do these and get the practice early on. So, I thought this exercise was valuable.
On Friday, the faculty performed their own mock court to show us how a guilty plea should work. So, this gave us an idea of how things should go when we do our mock trial.
I noticed a few other differences between the Officer Basic Course and the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course.
First, there is no group PT at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course. At the Army School, we formed up at 0615 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for PT. The PT was intense and did an exceptional job preparing us for the Army Physical Fitness Test.
There is no morning PT at JASOC. As at the Army School, however, there are group sporting events, which occurred every Wednesday.
The group PT at JAOBC also ensured that class did not start until 0900. At the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course, class always started at 0730. So, there was more class time at JASOC than there was at JAOBC. This made the days seem much longer.
The environments between the two also felt different. OBC felt like military training. Class blocks lasted precisely 50 minutes. While some instructors ran over time, this was rare. Class tended to start and stop exactly on time.
Here, the schedule is more lackadaisical. Classes frequently go over time, and keeping the schedule with military precision does not have the same emphasis. The atmosphere is more relaxed than it was at the Army School.
The Army School is also larger. There appear to be more classes and more going on. While paralegal training also happens here, as it did at the Army JAG School, the halls do not seem as busy as they did in Charlottesville.
There is no master’s program here, and there seem to be much fewer courses. In addition, the commandant of the Air Force JAG School is a Colonel. A Brigadier General leads the Army School.
Finally, the atmosphere is much less inter-service than it was in Charlottesville. All the instructors at the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course were Air Force officers, except for one Army JAG. In Charlottesville, we had instructors from every branch of the military. So, the feel is different.
Closing Comments on Week One
The first week was busy, but the environment is enjoyable and relatively relaxed here. There is little pressure. Passing is easy. Our rooms are nice and spacious and include a large refrigerator and a stovetop. It’s just nice.
I found week one a pleasant reprieve from the actual work of the office.
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.
 I harbor a cautious hatred for proof analyses. (They’re essentially a grid that lists each element of an offense that you fill in with applicable law, evidence, and potential defense counters.) On the one hand, I understand their purpose. On the other, it reflects a bureaucratization of the law, reducing prosecutorial determinations to a checklist. It also sucks up a lot of time to outline what competent attorneys should simply know. Someone who passes the bar should be able to look at the evidence and the elements of the offense and determine whether there is enough evidence to move forward. Spending hours putting things into neat boxes is a waste of time, but it makes it easier for many different layers of authority to review your work. (It’s difficult to do anything in the JAG Corps without a myriad of people signing off. And, as I discussed in a previous post, sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter what evidence exists. The case is going to court regardless.) I’m inclined to think it takes less paperwork to launch nuclear weapons than to get a case prepared for court-martial. Still, some people seem to find them useful, so to each their own.
 The military calls the person on trial the “accused,” rather than the “defendant.”
 In my opinion, this format made sense in the context of the original purpose and structure of courts-martial. It has, however, devolved into an absurdity encouraging needless inefficiency. Recent legislative changes have allowed for traditional plea deals—deals that provide a floor as well as a ceiling on sentences. The Air Force, however, has disallowed making the floor and ceiling the same. Plea deals similar to what you might commonly see in the civilian world, therefore, remain impermissible.
 Other than the Coast Guard, if you count that as a branch. There were, however, many Coast Guard JAG students in the hall.