In this post, I discuss my fifth week in JASOC and some of the regret I still have about joining the Air Force.
Please note that I am posting this article after completing my service. Therefore, I blend the notes I took contemporaneously to my time at JASOC with my reflections from four years on active duty.
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
After the military justice block came to a close, things began to wind down. We’re still busy, but the schedule and pace of assignments do not feel nearly as hectic as they did before. In fact, after military justice, it seems like the remainder of the course is just a tack on, secondary information the instructors felt obligated to cover.
This week was, therefore, largely uneventful, so I don’t have nearly as much to write about. I’ll just hit the highlights of this week’s events and briefly discuss the regret I have about joining the Air Force.
This week, we had a two-hour lecture on fiscal law. I recall fiscal law’s being an entire week at the Army JAG School, with a significant number of exercises and a brief the commander simulation.
JASOC, however, squeezed it into one two-hour lecture. I’m not sure why they did this. I suppose they assume we won’t need to know it the way that Army judge advocates do.
After four years on active duty, I discovered that was mostly the case. Civilian attorneys or more senior JAGs generally handled fiscal law issues.
Fiscal law issues seem to have the greatest tendency to get commanders in trouble, and I got the impression that the Air Force JAG Corps doesn’t trust its captains to handle such issues as much as the Army does.
On top of that, a lot of young Army JAGs were tasked with settling claims with the local populace for property damage caused by military operations. So, fiscal law was an essential part of what they did. While I understand deployed Air Force JAGs received this assignment from time to time, I don’t think it was nearly as common as it was in the Army.
Ironically, however, the two-hour block on contract law we received at JASOC felt like more than what we got at the Army JAG School. So, I guess each service decides what their new judge advocates need to know starting out.
During my time in the Air Force, I saw that more senior captains or civilian attorneys were assigned responsibility for contract law issues that came with some more advanced training. So, I don’t think anyone feels like it’s that important for new JAGs to have this information.
Contract law is something in which some JAGs later specialized, and many go on to do an LLM later on before being assigned to more advanced responsibilities in the area.
The Military Evaluation System
We spent one afternoon this week practicing writing award packages and enlisted evaluation reports. This block of instruction mostly revolved around writing performance bullets, one-line descriptions of a person’s accomplishments that need to take up all the white space on the form without going onto the next line.
A Backward System
I found it quite disturbing that the career success of airmen largely depends on the ability of their supervisors to write good evaluations. And writing good evaluations largely depends on the ability to speak the secret language associated with writing such reports.
Because the military seems to write these things like passive-aggressive adolescent girls and nobody wants to say what they mean, there is a whole secret language for degrading someone without doing so obviously.
As a result, those who don’t know what they’re doing could accidentally use words that are indicators of a poor review, even if the writer did not intend it.
It’s a glaring indictment of the system and suggests how far the military has wandered from the real purpose of its mission.
The military is, at its core, a political institution, and advancing is not wholly dependent on merit. (I doubt that it’s even majority merit-based.) Instead, it depends on politics and dumb luck.
If you’re good and get lousy leadership, you’re handicapped and may never recover. If you’re mediocre and have great leadership—at least great in the sense that they know how to go to bat for you and will—you’ll do better than the superior attorney and officer. That’s just the way it is.
In addition, as a new captain, while your first rater will be an attorney, your next rater will not be. So, you’re dependent on a pilot to write a review for you that gets you where you need to go. (As you advance, your first rater may be a pilot.)
Awards packages are also a bit bizarre. The military has bought into the participation trophy mentality, and people get medals for everything. It seems like it would be a lot easier to make decorations rare, rather than ubiquitous. It would lend respect to those who receive them.
In my opinion, the only medals should be the Medal of Honor, the Air Force Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Valor, and the Purple Heart. Making field grade officers who’ve never seen combat look like North Korean generals seems a bit absurd.
The current system also creates two classes within the military: the warriors and the office personnel.
One of my JASOC classmates was a former Marine infantry platoon commander who deployed to Iraq. He showed me some of the award nominations he wrote, and it looked nothing like what we were writing in class. But he was writing awards for valor in combat. It’s just a different world.
It is during this block of instruction that I began to reflect upon my regrets associated with joining the JAG Corps.
I often regret that I did not volunteer for a combat role. I graduated high school in 2003, and I regret not answering the call at that time. Even if it would have cost me my life, at least I could have done something significant with my time on earth.
A Missed Opportunity
I have had enough friends who saw combat, and I knew how it affected my grandfather, that I know enough not to romanticize war. The desire for glory on the battlefield is foolish.
Still, I nonetheless envy my friends who fought. They put themselves out there for something bigger than themselves, demonstrating a willingness to die for a cause. After all, what is life if you do not have something worth dying for?
There is also something disheartening about serving in a support role in the military, and I regret going this route. It’s a difficult feeling to explain and even to understand. Perhaps other people see things differently, but I always felt like I was on the outside looking in.
Consider Your Options
For those who are specifically interested in military law or for those attorneys who want to serve their country, the JAG Corps is a great opportunity. (It also provides a good paycheck for those who cannot find success in the civilian world.)
Those, however, who want to be in the military, who want to serve, and for whom everything else is secondary, my advice is to join the military but not the JAG Corps. Serve in a field that works in the primary function of the mission of that branch.
If you want to join the Air Force, be a pilot. If you want to join the Army or Marine Corps, join a combat branch, particularly infantry. If you want to join the Navy, be a surface warfare officer. (If you want to join the Coast Guard, this advice doesn’t apply to you because you don’t really want to join the military.)
Push yourself fully into the culture of your branch. Give all of yourself to serving your country and don’t settle for a facsimile of military service. If your job has a civilian counterpart, you’ll have many days where you don’t feel like you’re in the military at all. I rarely did.
That does not mean support work is not essential. But you should go in with the appropriate expectations and self-awareness.
You’ll sound stupid if you talk about “mission first,” or “fulfilling the mission,” when you’re discussing getting a PowerPoint presentation done, while your brethren at the tip of the spear are risking their lives to fight the enemy. The chair force ranger thing a lot of JAGs have going is just asinine and insulting.
Regret and Importance of Attitude
In light of what I wrote about above, I would like to give just a little bit of advice about the importance of maintaining a good attitude. That makes all the difference.
Many people who join the JAG Corps are miserable. I think I could count on one hand the number of captains I encountered in the JAG Corps who didn’t hate their jobs. Most people I encountered were miserable and full of regret.
That’s the reality. Whatever the Air Force tells you in the recruiting brochures, it’s a tough, menial, and generally unrewarding job.
The people in the higher ranks that talk to you would probably dispute this, but they are by and large the small number of captains who actually liked their jobs and stayed or the people too incompetent to do well in the civilian world. (There are also some who are trying to stick it out to ten years to get their student loan debt forgiven.)
You won’t hear from the miserable ones who left, and it’s an open secret that the JAG Corps has a huge retention issue.
Nonetheless, knowing everything I know now, I would have still joined. I’m glad that I did, and, if you feel the need to serve your country, I think you’ll be happy you did too.
Even though most other captains with whom I spoke hated being in the JAG Corps, few said they regret joining. And even those who said they regret joining regretted only joining the JAG Corps, not the military.
If, however, you keep a good attitude, remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, it will be ok. You’ll make it through and be glad that you did.
And who knows? You could be one of the few who love the job. In which case, the potential for a rewarding career is great.