Career Paths: UF Law JAGs in Iraq
I am a captain in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps (JAGC), and serve as chief of military justice for LSA Anaconda, Balad, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. My current position is akin to being a small town district attorney, except that the pinstripes are replaced with a desert camouflage uniform, and the PDA is exchanged for a 9mm Beretta.
My main responsibility is to manage the flow of courts-martial in my jurisdiction, which includes more than 20,000 soldiers in Balad, Baghdad, Tikrit, and Taji, Iraq. I have four subordinate trial counsel and several paralegals working with me in this effort. I first or second chair all courts-martial that go to trial in the monthly trial terms docketed in my jurisdiction.
In addition to the inherent responsibilities associated with trying cases, I provide probable cause determinations and advice to the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), teach classes, and promulgate a host of other adverse administrative actions, such as letters of reprimand, non-judicial punishment and pre-trial confinement.
The logistical challenges of being in Iraq make this job a little trickier than the same position back in the U.S. For example, if I have to attend an evidentiary hearing in Baghdad, I cannot just hop in my car and drive to the courthouse. Rather, I have to either find or create a convoy of at least four military vehicles to drive down, or attempt to find a helicopter flight there. As you may suspect, Travelocity can’t book me on a Blackhawk. And, of course, what goes with convoys is exposure to common Iraqi road hazards, such as small arms fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Consider as well that if we need original signatures on court documents, “FED EX” means carrying it myself on a Blackhawk, and “messenger service” means carrying it myself in a HMMWV.
Add to the confusion the difficulty of trying to arrange for civilian defense counsel or witnesses to appear in Iraq from the U.S. for a hearing or trial. We do not have facsimile capabilities, though we do have scanners and e-mail; however, the powder-fine sand that permeates most of Iraq breaks down electronic equipment quickly.
We are fortunate that LSA Anaconda is one of the more developed bases in Iraq. I live in a single- wide trailer, cut into thirds, and share my third with another captain. Showers, latrines and running water are about 50 meters away.
We do receive daily mortar or rocket attacks, but the threat to soldiers who work in the JAG shop cannot compare to our brothers patrolling outside the wire. Our accommodations relative to the rest of the theater do cause us some pause.
I believe most soldiers are a guilty sort. We feel guilty here that we are in such a developed base as opposed to — for example — Forward Operating Base Speicher; soldiers at FOB Speicher feel guilty they are not Marines patrolling in Fallujah; and Marines in Fallujah feel guilty they are not landing on the beaches in Normandy.
Probably the greatest distinction of practicing here is the additional responsibility we have as solders. The JAGC motto, “Soldier First, Lawyer Always,” has proven true for me. I served as one of our convoy commanders for our initial threeday tactical convoy from Kuwait to Balad, responsible for a “chalk” of around 30 vehicles and 110 soldiers. I have drafted rules of engagement many times before, but I have never applied them myself while in possession of a full combat load of 210 live rounds and while responsible for the lives of other soldiers.
All told, I still believe the biggest challenge most soldiers face is the separation from family and friends for at least a year. Though the potential of not having television coverage of the Gator football games this fall may come close…