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Why We Stay

 

Three JAs and Their Commitment to the Corps

 
 
   
   
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(Credit: istockphoto.com/porcorex)

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Editor’s note: Three judge advocates in different stages of their careers were asked recently to share why they chose to and continue to serve in the Corps. What follows are their thoughts.

First Lieuntenant Laura D. Jungreis

First Lieutenant Laura D. Jungreis

When applying to the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, I did my homework: researched online, read all the material I could find, and spoke with current and former judge advocates (JAs). Those JAs provided valuable feedback about what it was like to practice military law and be an officer and Soldier in the Army. When I started at the Direct Commissioned Officers’ Course (DCC), though, I realized that, despite my research, I really had no idea what the next few months of my life would look like as I went through initial entry training. My commissioning class completed DCC at Fort Benning, Georgia, in mid-February. As I write this, we are now just over half-way through the Office Basic Course (OBC) in Charlottesville, Virginia. So, while it is as fresh as it could be, this is one OBC student’s on-the-ground view of the initial entry training experience. Perhaps these anecdotes will allow more senior JAs to both reminisce and better relate to their new lieutenants. For those considering this profession, this is much of the information I would have wanted to know while I was applying to the JAG Corps and while I was anxiously awaiting my DCC “go time,” as well as some things I never would have thought to ask or consider.

Easy Runs Are a Lie

As of this moment, one of the most memorable takeaways I have from my as-yet brief stint in the Army is that whenever someone says that they are taking you on a “nice, easy run,” they are lying to your face. On my first group run at DCC, our cadre run leader said that we would be running at an eight-minutes-and-thirty-seconds-per-mile pace, and then sped away at a seven-minute pace. My hopes of easier runs at OBC were destroyed on our first group run, when my group zoomed out to and back from the famous Rotunda on the University of Virginia grounds. I have never run so fast, so frequently. While I often find myself running much faster and farther than I would like, I cannot deny that my running has improved. Although they are not certified coaches, the professors who serve as fitness group leaders have an ability to recognize when we have more to give and when we need recovery. All this is to say that you cannot improve without making yourself uncomfortable, and while you may have some trouble pushing yourself far enough, the Army has no problem doing that for you.

Hello and Thank You for Your Service

During our first few days at DCC, everyone who came and spoke to us thanked us for our service. This included all of our instructors, the Fort Benning Staff Judge Advocate (SJA), Brigadier General (BG) Joseph Berger, the Commanding General of The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (TJAGLCS), and others. While it may have just been lip service, it struck me as genuine, because they were the ones in the best position to understand what we were doing and why. I, and others in my class, had people in my life who could not understand why I was joining the military. Like in law school, when the only people who could really understand what you were going through were other law students and lawyers, the people who guided us through our first few days at DCC were some of the first people I met who truly understood why I had joined the military.

Battle Buddies

Your first day at DCC, when you are sitting in a room surrounded by strangers, look around you. These people are your battle buddies. For every time I have been able to assist a buddy, someone else has helped me figure out how to find a point during a land navigation practice test, shared a tarp during a downpour, or made a joke when I needed one. They will share the same experiences with you, and they will probably share in some of your struggles. Take solace in the fact that if you are getting rained on, so are all your battle buddies. In misery, there is solidarity.

Stay Grounded

Although they may not totally understand why you chose this path, make sure to stay in touch with your friends and family (especially while at Fort Benning). When surrounded by the same hundred or so people all day, every day, your world becomes very small. Calls with my loved ones reminded me that there was a world beyond Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Benning.

Patience (Hurry Up and Wait for Yourself)

If you are not a patient person, now is an excellent time to learn that trait. As someone with no prior military experience—and who has been out of law school for almost four years—there are some things that I find difficult to master. Type-A person that I am, being bad at something, even something I have no familiarity with like land navigation, is endlessly frustrating. I realized that I achieve the best results when I step back and remain patient with myself. If you do not have a military background, there will be things (like land navigation) that take some time to get used to. Be patient with yourself, and give yourself time to get better—because you will.

Bring Your Grown-Up-Lieutenant Pants

There is a strange dichotomy in our training, especially at DCC. It was assumed that we knew nothing, yet we were told to “act like officers.” It is a strange feeling to be held to a high standard while you are also expected to know nothing. Bottom line is that while you may not know much about being an officer, you know how to be a professional. Accept that you know very little about this new world, be kind, courteous, professional, and humble, and you will be A-Okay.

Drinking from the Firehose

You will hear the phrase “drinking from the firehose” a lot, and for good reason. If you are like me, you will be thrown into and completely immersed in a new culture all at once, learning things integral to that culture that you have no familiarity with, such as land navigation, orders, marksmanship, and drill and ceremony (to name but a few). Stick with it, remain calm, and drink water.

Nothing (Much) Sticks

As previously mentioned, if you have no military experience, this might not be the easiest transition. I have had more than one person tell me that my mistakes at DCC or OBC (of which there have been a few) will not follow me the rest of my military career. While I do not think that is entirely true, I do think that the effort you put in during training matters more than what you produce. No one should arrive expecting to be perfect; you can get everything you need from this course by showing up, trying hard, and passing the tests (because those do actually matter).

Reputations Matter

That being said, while the innocent mistakes you will inevitably make as you transition into this new and different lifestyle do not matter, the way you treat people actually does matter. Whether or not you are planning to serve on active duty, in the reserve, or for the National Guard, you will see many of these people again. Your reputation matters, and first impressions are lasting. As we are frequently reminded: the JAG Corps world is a small one.

Everyone Wants You to Succeed

The Army has spent too much money on you now to let you fail. Really though, ask for help if you need it. One of the best things I have discovered during DCC and OBC is the camaraderie. Our instructors are very aware that they are training their own future colleagues (well, subordinates), so they want us to be as competent as possible from the beginning. Your classmates are also your teammates; this is not like law school, where everyone was fighting to be at the top of the curve. My classmates have saved me more than once by reminding me about due dates or serving as a sounding board, and I try to return the favor when I can.

Don’t Take It Too Seriously

Okay, so do take it a little seriously. This is your job now. But if you ever feel overwhelmed or anxious, remind yourself to keep things in perspective—this is probably the least amount of responsibility you will have for the rest of your life. Work hard, do what you can, but make sure to enjoy it! The memories of the more senior JAs I spoke to did not revolve around the stress of failing land navigation or the dread of waking up early for a hard run. Instead, they remembered those events with a laugh, and they had plenty more stories to tell about the relatively carefree time they spent getting to know and love their classmates.

Ask Questions!

One of the best things I did for myself was reaching out to current and former JAs to discuss their careers and their experiences in the JAG Corps. Their overwhelmingly positive responses are part of the reason I went through with my applications. Talk to as many people as you can, because everyone is or will be doing something different, and they can all tell you something new. At the very least, you will meet some interesting people and gather a few cool stories.

Be Flexible

I started my training in January 2020, right before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak. While DCC was unaffected by it, things really hit the fan in our fourth week at OBC. There are some things over which you will have zero control, like when there is a viral pandemic and you have to do everything via internet conferencing in your increasingly smaller and more claustrophobic hotel room. One of BG Berger’s recurring reminders during this time was “remain flexible, and keep your sense of humor.” I am working my way through this stay-at-home order by staying active and staying connected with my classmates and my loved ones. It is certainly frustrating, but I know that the way a person reacts to the unexpected is a better reflection of who they are than whatever it is that has been thrown at them.

Enjoy This Time

This is a brand new experience! Attending DCC, and to a lesser extent OBC, is a journey unlike any I have experienced before, and one I will not likely have again. I am a reserve officer, and while I am very happy with that, it does mean that I will not return to TJAGLCS for an LL.M., unlike many of my active duty counterparts. In addition, this is the least amount of responsibility I have had in years. I cannot speak for my other classmates, some of whom have families and jobs that require them to work even during training, but I enjoy the simplicity of the wakeup-physical training-school-homework (sometimes)-eat-sleep routine. Charlottesville is a beautiful city to explore, and the surrounding areas are filled with wineries and mountains (assuming that they are not all shut down due to a pandemic).

You Are Making the Right Choice

When I started filling out the application for the JAG Corps, it was an abstract concept. It seemed cool and interesting, but I figured that my chances of selection were slim and that I was unlikely to ever actually be accepted. Even after the happy surprise of selection, it was still two years until I left for DCC. Once I finally got the go-ahead, I was excited and nervous. How was this going to affect my life and career? Picking up and leaving for four months is not too difficult when you have a flexible job and no kids, but there were parts of me that questioned my choice. After only three-ish months, I cannot tell you what the rest of my Army career is going to look like, but I can say that I made the right choice—and you are, too. Whether you are just thinking about starting your application or if you have already been selected, choosing to serve in the JAG Corps is the right choice. You are doing or contemplating something that few people have the skills or inclination to do, which is impressive in its own right.

While there are one or two things I hope to never experience again (hello, 0300 wakeups), this time has been a genuinely enjoyable experience. That was something I had heard from others prior to DCC, and it is a sentiment that I want to repeat. Current circumstances make OBC more challenging than it might otherwise be, but they have not taken away my happiness at being here. For anyone considering applying, awaiting results, or preparing for DCC—good luck, and I look forward to seeing you around!

Major Elizabeth W. Boggs

Major Elizabeth W. Boggs

Over the past ten years, people have asked, “Why did you join the Army?” Whenever this occurs, I instantly fill with joy, pride, and excitement. The reasons I joined are the very reasons I choose to stay. On paper, my military career began on 4 July 2010 at Fort Lee, Virginia, when I commissioned as a first lieutenant with my classmates from the 182d Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course. In all actuality, my career of servanthood began long before that.

Memories of Those Before Me

This summer marks my tenth year of active duty service in the United States (U.S.) Army, but the “whys” started their service decades before me. It began with my grandparents. My grandfather, Elmer, served in World War II (WWII) in the Army Air Corps. Growing up, over countless holiday dinners and family gatherings, my grandfather enlightened me with stories of his time in the Philippines and Guam. He tested parachutes in the Pacific for an extra $20 a month, was a machine gunner on a B-29 Super Fortress, and even drove Jeeps in the Philippines jungle with a monkey! He quickly earned the rank of staff sergeant during his six years of service. Elmer’s brother Bill, my great uncle, was one of the first Underwater Demolition Team sailors—the predecessors to the Navy SEALs. He was also featured in the book Naked Warriors and performed the underwater scenes in the movie Frogmen.1 My other grandfather, Roger, served for three years during WWII as an aerial electronic engineer in the Navy. He flew numerous combat missions in some of the most horrendous campaigns the Pacific ever saw. All of these men who came before me provided examples of selfless servanthood. They paved the way for me to follow.

The Life I Lived and the Life I Learned I Wanted

In law school, I quickly learned that I wanted a job where I could help others and make a difference in the community. After I passed the Michigan bar exam in 2006, I immediately took a dream job with the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Under the leadership of Mr. William “Bill” Forsyth—who retired as the Kent County Prosecutor after forty years of service and was recently appointed as the special prosecutor to investigate Michigan State’s handling of sexual abuse claims—I excelled as a young assistant prosecuting attorney. The pace of district court energized me as I worked closely with top-notch law enforcement officers and attorneys. This drove home the idea that I should continue to serve this nation.

In February 2009, I took the Florida bar exam and reconnected with my college boyfriend, James. At the time, he was stationed at Fort Rucker, Alabama, finishing up initial entry rotary wing flight training. Awaiting my Florida bar exam results, I returned to Michigan and my job at the prosecutor’s office. James and I spoke daily. Those talks made me fall in love with him and the idea of joining the military. I asked thousands of questions about the military and became a part of such an amazing family. I was won over by his stories of camaraderie with fellow Soldiers, pushing himself both physically and mentally, and the hunger to protect our freedom at all costs. The discipline, commitment, and close relationships reminded me of my collegiate basketball days. James had, and still has, tremendous love for our country, his fellow Americans, and the military. I wanted to be a part of that. But, first, I needed to learn more about joining the military and if I was a good fit for “JAG.” Fortunately, I knew a few defense attorneys who were reserve judge advocates and had clerked for a reserve O-6 Navy judge advocate in Kent County during law school. Their advice and guidance truly helped me realize I was a competitive candidate and confirmed military service was the right career path.

One of the Happiest Days

After James and I married in July 2009, I left my job in Michigan to be with him in Alabama. While he finished flight school, I used my time to get everything together to apply for a direct commission. I set up a field screening interview in early fall 2009 in Hawaii. The timing was insane—we had just permanently changed stations to Hawaii, where James was gearing up for his second deployment to Iraq, and I was adjusting to life as an Army dependent. In other words, we had a lot going on.

I went in to the field screening interview with confidence. After all, serving my country was a family trait. It was in my blood. I was married to a Blackhawk pilot who was deploying soon, my grandfathers served, and I enjoyed serving my community—I belonged here. The adventure and variety of legal work, coupled with military service, was what I wanted.

In January 2011, I cried when my field screening officer called to tell me that I received an offer of a direct commission to the world’s largest law firm. I was going to be a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. I immediately sent a downrange Skype message to James. We celebrated, cried, and laughed; all the emotions of what had been in the works behind the scenes for years spilled out.

The Rest Is in the Making

I share this story because it’s the reason, background, and foundation on why I choose to stay in the JAG Corps. I stay for the service, my grandfathers, my husband, and our two children. I stay for the people, the relationships, and the camaraderie. I have served with some of the fiercest, yet most humble, leaders on this planet—including commanders, officers, noncommissioned officers, warrant officers, enlisted Soldiers, and Department of Defense Civilians. I am honored to be on their team, to wear this uniform, and to serve with them to accomplish our mission. I admire my teammates, peers, and colleagues in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. And, from deep down in my heart, I can say that I look forward to another decade of service alongside the very best legal professionals. The rest is in the making.

Colonel Nicholas F. Lancaster

Colonel Nicholas F. Lancaster

I stayed in the Army for twenty-eight years for three main reasons: the people, the opportunity to serve my country, and the incredible variety of assignments and opportunities found in our branch. As a matter of fact, I doubt that anyone was surprised when I went to college on a scholarship from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and became a second lieutenant. After all, I grew up as an Army brat in a military family.

I was born in an Army hospital at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana and moved around with my family. We lived in Texas, Indiana, Hawaii, Virginia, and Germany. In 1988, I graduated from high school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania—the same year that my dad was a student at the Army War College. I attended Xavier University on an ROTC scholarship, and, in May 1992, I commissioned as an infantry lieutenant. As the son of an Army judge advocate (JA), I was vaguely aware of the educational delay program, and, as a political science major, I probably could have pursued that opportunity. But, I was tired of going to school and wanted to be a part of the “real Army.” And that’s exactly what I did.

I spent a year at Fort Benning, Georgia, learning to be an infantry officer. After that, I spent the following three years in an infantry battalion as a rifle platoon leader, mortar platoon leader, and an assistant operations officer at Fort Carson, Colorado. I enjoyed being an infantry officer; however, if I decided to stay in for twenty years, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend 200 days out of the year sleeping on the ground in a field. It was the mid-nineties, and we trained constantly for our annual “super bowl,” otherwise known as the National Training Center. Little did I know that I would spend two and a half years deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq after 9-11. Eventually, I realized two things. First, I wanted to go to law school. Second, it was a tremendous opportunity to have the Army pay for school. Once these two things were clear, I applied for the Funded Legal Education Program (FLEP) while still serving on active duty as an officer. Lucky for me, I was selected for the program and went to Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law.

I would venture to say that almost everyone who stays in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps past their initial commitment would say it was because of the people, and I am no different. I have met so many fantastic people in the Corps that it would take the whole Army Lawyer just to list them. Instead of listing individuals, I will try to describe why I think our people are amazing. It ultimately comes down to a group of talented people who love serving their country and whose diverse backgrounds and experiences are nothing short of incredible.

I know many JAs that are just like me; in other words, they love national security law and deployments. Fortunately, though, I know just as many great JAs who are experts in criminal law or contracts, or who know how to operate in the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency (USALSA) or the Pentagon. There are people I consider close friends from my Officer Basic Course (OBC) and my first assignment. But, even better, every assignment has fantastic people of equal value. Every time I move to a new assignment, I connect with stunning people. When you spend years in the Army JAG Corps, you develop a vast network of contacts—mainly because Army lawyering is a team sport that not only allows, but actually demands, that you call on your brothers and sisters for assistance. I may not know every officer in the JAG Corps, and it is a good bet that I do not know many younger captains and majors, but I can guarantee I know somebody that knows every single JA. If a name comes up, I simply reach out to my network and I will get a response—often within hours. That is why we tell every basic course their JAG Corps reputation begins in OBC and follows them throughout their careers and beyond.

On a personal level, and beyond the professional competence we take for granted, people in the JAG Corps tend to be renaissance men and women. It is rare to meet somebody in our corps who does not have a secret skill or talent. We have tremendous musicians, craftsmen, athletes, and volunteer leaders. Even if one allows for the fact that lawyers can be difficult, opinionated people who all think they are the smartest person in the room, something about serving as JAs turns them into people you want to spend time with.

I stayed in the JAG Corps because I like that, rather than simply a job, we have a mission. Being an Army officer is a significant part of my identity. As a kid growing up in an Army family, I knew that my dad—and even our family—was serving our country. As an Army officer myself, I take tremendous pride in being part of the Army team. Every member of the JAG Corps is working to accomplish the mission; nobody in the Army is in it to simply draw a paycheck. The pay and benefits are good, but not good enough to motivate twenty-plus years of service on their own. People in the JAG Corps serve because they believe in our mission and enjoy working as part of a team committed to serving our country.

Finally, I stayed in the Army JAG Corps for twenty-eight years because of the personal and professional opportunities. The range of opportunities found in the Army are difficult to find in many other organizations, particularly as a lawyer. I know some judge advocates wish for more opportunities to, like civilian lawyers and their niche practices, specialize; but, I am the opposite. I love the fact that I get to change jobs every two to three years or even more often. When I first came in the JAG Corps, I was desperate to avoid any hint of operational law because I believed that my infantry background might pigeonhole me. I already knew about operations; I wanted to learn how to be a lawyer. To this end, the majority of my pre-graduate course time was spent in criminal law, and I was fortunate to be selected to teach in the criminal law department at the school for three years after the grad course.

At seventeen years of service, I was promoted to lieutenant colonel and finished my time on faculty. Regardless of where I was assigned next, my family planned to remain in Charlottesville. I tried to figure out what I could do for three more years so that I could retire at twenty years of service. To be honest, due to a torn ACL from soccer, I could not exercise the way that I wanted to. In conjunction with the surgery and the long recovery, I was depressed; so, a lot of my time at that point was spent sitting around, drinking beer, and feeling sorry for myself. Right in the middle of that, I got a call from my former Staff Judge Advocate (SJA)—then-Colonel Rich Whitaker—asking if I wanted to compete for a job as command judge advocate for a special operations forces (SOF) unit. I did not know anything about it and had never been assigned to a SOF unit, but it sounded interesting. I ended up getting that job, and it changed the direction of my JAG Corps career. I spent three years immersed in intelligence and national security law (NSL) and loved every minute of it.

The opportunity to serve in SOF changed the course of my career and opened doors I did not know existed. Without that NSL experience, I would not have been considered qualified to be the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) SJA and probably would not have been the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan SJA a few years later. In the time that civilian lawyers complete half of their careers, few—if any—have the chance to change their area of expertise as I did in the Army JAG Corps. I am grateful for that.

After all is said and done, in the end, I stayed in the Army JAG Corps because of the people, the mission, and the opportunities for personal and professional growth that is only found in our great Corps. After a bit over twenty-eight years, I will retire this Fall. But I am proud that I will remain a Soldier for life. TAL

 


1LT Jungreis graduated from OBC in May 2020 and currently serves in the 6th Legal Operations Detachment, Anchorage, Alaska.

MAJ Boggs is currently a strategic initiatives officer, Office of the Judge Advocate General, Washington, D.C.

COL Lancaster is currently the Director, The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center, Charlottesville, Virginia.



Notes

1. Francis Douglas Fane and Don Moore, Naked Warriors: The Story of the U.S. Navy’s Frogmen (1995); Lloyd Bacon, The Frogmen (1951).