UF Law grads as JAGS: Battling sex crime in the military

Published: April 14th, 2014

Category: News

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Fabienne Suter (JD 12), currently based in Hawaii, began her career as a U.S. Army JAG right out of law school, knowing she could take on the responsibility of making major decisions and advising commanders and generals. (Photo courtesy of Fabienne Suter)

By Jenna Box (4JM) and Kelcee Griffis (4JM)

When Elvis Santiago (JD 09) began work as a Judge Advocate General at the Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, he was fresh out of law school and had no idea he’d be dealing with some of the most high-profile sex-crime cases in military history.

Within a few months of graduating his Judge Advocate General class, he was assigned to his first general court-martial, the highest court level, for a case in which a father was accused of raping his daughter.

“The one thing I wasn’t ready to deal with — and nothing that any school would teach you — is to deal with the victim, and to deal with the family,” Santiago said. “And then to look at someone in the eye knowing that, ‘You’re about to go to jail for a very long time, and I’m the reason you are going to jail, and then seeing them in shackles and taken away.’”

He eventually learned to accept that aspect of the job and was given the title of United States Air Force Deputy Staff Judge Advocate for the 902 Mission Support Group at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. In this position, he continues to deal with one of the most controversial headlining issues affecting the military — sexual assault.

This ongoing scandal has stemmed from the widespread abuse of authority by Military Training Instructors at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Santiago said. There he and his wife, Nicole Mouakar (JD 09), have prosecuted a number of those high-profile cases.

Most notably, Mouakar prosecuted Technical Sergeant Jaime Rodriguez, who received a 27-year sentence for forcible sodomy, adultery and rape.

UF Law helped prepare the pair for their arduous tasks.

Santiago recalled pulling out notes from evidence class when the team was trying to figure out how to exclude certain evidence in the Rodriguez trial, in which a recruiter was charged with forcing inappropriate sexual relationships upon cadets. Rodriguez said the fact that he and Mouaker kept the notes about four years after graduating and referred to them in real-life cases is a testament to the practicality of UF Law teaching.

“That speaks volumes to the quality of education,” he said.

Cases like the Rodriguez case are difficult because they involve the military’s relationship with often-vulnerable members of the public: potential recruits.

“The public has lost a lot of trust in the military’s ability to create those barriers between the trainees,” he said. “That’s what makes those cases so challenging.”

But with teams of legal professionals willing to aggressively investigate misconduct issues, Santiago said the problem is on the way to being solved.

“There has not been a stone the military has not been willing to uncover and look into,” Santiago said.

The husband wife-duo aren’t the only Gators at the forefront of combating ethical issues in the military. Fabienne Suter (JD 12) also began her career as a U.S. Army JAG right out of law school, knowing she could take on the responsibility of making major decisions and advising commanders and generals.

“The generals rely so heavily upon their JAGS to be at their side because they’re constantly making decisions that have legal implications — even something as small as searching the barracks to being able to prosecute a soldier for sexual harassment,” Suter said in a phone interview from her base in Hawaii.

She noted that April is Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Month, or SHARP, and that across the Army activists are working to raise awareness about sexual violence and educate individuals on how to prevent it. JAGS are among those who are aggressively addressing military sex crimes by encouraging all servicemen and women to report incidents. According to the Army’s SHARP website, the message leaders are conveying is: “Speak Up! A Voice Unheard is an Army Defeated.”

Suter said her job as one that requires the utmost loyalty and integrity, because it is she who is expected to highlight issues like sexual assault to the forefront and deal with them.

“It’s just a job that you really are proud of, and you have to be proud to wear the uniform” she said.

Suter encourages law students who think this might be a path for them, to apply early and keep applying “It’s extremely competitive,” she said. “The acceptance rate when I applied was 10 percent.”

Her love for her title as JAG is evident, despite the 5:30 a.m. mornings, physical training and deployments — things that don’t often come with most other entry-level law jobs.

“I could not be happier,” she said. “My colleagues are amazing — they’re just such quality people. They know the value of life and they just live it and they’re fun and they work hard. It’s a pretty sweet deal.”