What are JAGs (with Duke Law connections!) doing in Afghanistan? Reviewing $1 billion in requirements and much more

What sort of legal work are military lawyers (called judge advocates or “JAGs”) doing in deployed areas like Afghanistan?  Actually, lots of different things, and two terrific Air Force JAGs with Duke Law connections recently updated me on their activities there.  If you want a glimpse of the interesting kinds of things talented young military lawyers get to do early in their careers, read on.

Capt Pilch, 2018

Captain Chris Pilch is a 2014 Duke Law grad who is currently deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.  Of particular note is that while in law school Chris also earned his commission through participation in the Graduate Law program as part of Duke’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

Capt Pilch: I’m primarily working fiscal law issues at the United States Forces-Afghanistan [USFOR-A] level. I’m part of the USFOR-A’s Joint Requirement Review Board and Joint Facility Utilization Board. In the last three months, I reviewed over $1 billion in requirements, most of which are service contracts for the ever-increasing army of contractors we have out here.  

The picture of me in my gear is …after a day of interviewing about 10 Afghans. I am responsible for Bagram’s Foreign Claims Mission. One day per week I go to Entry Control Point 1 and interview local Afghans who submit claims for damages allegedly caused by U.S. Forces.   Most of the claims we receive are either claims that a flare from an aircraft touched ground and burned their house or claims that a military convoy hit the wall of their house or compound. It’s the highlight of my week!  

So were there any experiences at Duke Law that he is finding especially helpful?

with Capt Pilch, 2015

Capt Pilch: At Duke I learned to keep my composure while being cold-called and how to question a witness. I use both skills on a regular basis here. Colonels regularly call on me to provide on-the-spot analysis to fiscal law issues. If they don’t like the answer, they often follow up with hypotheticals to test the rules I cited. During the claims missions, the claimant is almost always a key witness. When I interview claimants, I have to craft questions that will help me verify whether or not their claim is valid. My 1L contracts course provided a solid foundation for the contract issues I work with. And while I don’t get to practice operations law here, your LOAC course has helped me understand what the operations law attorneys on the other side of our office are talking about.

Captain Logan Myrick is actually a graduate of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) School of Law, but took his national security law-related classes at Duke under the Interinstitutional Program.  Here’s his description of his duties:

Capt Myrick with an Afghan tank

Capt Myrick: Here at Bagram, I’m working as one of the Operational Law Attorneys for U.S. Forces – Afghanistan within an office primarily made up of 101st Airborne Division Judge Advocates. My job is awesome, and a really interesting application of the National Security Law and Use of Force in International Law courses that I attended at Duke Law. Up here at BAF, we serve as the higher headquarters for the various Train Advise Assist Commands (TAACs) and Task Forces spread throughout the country. We’re essentially the help desk for some really interesting legal issues coming to us from across the country. 

One of the opportunities I’ve had while here was the chance to serve on a Resolute Support Expeditionary Advisory Package (EAP) in support of a larger operation. EAPs allow Resolute Support forces to provide concentrated Train, Advise, Assist (TAA) support to Afghan forces at the tactical level. As part of the planning for the EAP, I worked with the Italian LEGAD to understand the differences between how our respective countries approach LOAC considerations and interpret ROE {Rules of Engagement]. 

I couldn’t have asked for a better foundation for my time here than the educational opportunities I received at Duke Law. The courses I took, specifically Use of Force in International Law, gave me an excellent framework for the practical application of LOAC [Law of Armed Conflict] principles in conjunction with issues ranging from individual escalation of force procedures to advice on targeting. I feel that your courses at Duke provided me a sizeable head start in developing my understanding of operational law, flattening out what can be quite a steep learning curve.

with JAGs in Iraq, 2009

with Col Jim Russell and Lt Gen Hal Hornburg in Saudi Arabia (Operation Desert Fox, 1998)

These two JAGs give you a snapshot of what some lawyers-in-uniform do in forward areas (and here’s a short essay I wrote years ago that might add a bit more).   Other JAGs help servicemembers with their personal legal issues, and some prosecute and defend criminal cases.  Still others work in command centers and elsewhere reviewing targets and providing real-time advice for combat operations.

More broadly, in the Air Force both here and overseas, JAGs have a very general practice handling everything from legal issues arising in the fiscal, contracts, and claims arena as Capt Pilch does, to operational law matters as Captain Myrick’s duties involve. Additionally, you’ll find uniformed lawyers practicing in such legal disciplines as criminal, labor, environmental, family, consumer, administrative, intelligence, and cyber law.

And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the many civilian lawyers who work for the Department of Defense (DoD). Counting full and part-time military and civilian lawyers, DoD has over 10,000 attorneys worldwide.  (And, yes, some civilian lawyers who volunteer can and do deploy.)

Of course, we are enormously proud of Chris and Logan and what they are doing for the country!  If I say so myself, Duke Law has been rather successful getting grads (and those from NCCU and North Carolina School of Law who take courses here) into the military and the intelligence agencies, including six in 2017 and four in 2018 – no small accomplishment given a selection rate for JAG commissions that hovers around 10%.  (I don’t know what the rate is for the intelligence agencies, but my bet is that it’s at least just as low.)

Somalia, circa 1993 (Operation Provide Relief/Restore Hope)

Why do people want to join?  There is something special about being part of an organization larger than yourself which is more admired than any other institution in American society.  I’ve always believed that to find happiness in life, you have to find a way to serve others, and military service is one way of doing so. Patriotism is also a very real motivator for those who come into the military, to include JAGs.

There are practical incentives as well: lots of JAGs like having the chance to try a variety of practice areas, and for those interested in certain specialties – environmental law for example – the military may provide the best avenue for an entry-level position.  And the military funds selected JAGs for LLMs at civilian institutions, as well as at the Army JAG School adjacent to the University of Virginia School of Law.

Additionally, there more than a few JAGs who relish the opportunity to live in various parts of the country, not to mention overseas.  Travel seems to be in their blood!  I’ve found that there is a substantial cohort of JAGs who want to have an adventure in their life in order to challenge themselves and to deliberately get out their comfort zone.  They realize they ought to have that adventure while they’re young, as their lives (and responsibilities) may get more complicated as each year passes.  I agree, and I’d add that the fewer “what ifs” that haunt one’s life, the better.

Sure, the majority of JAGs do not make the military a career.  Though they may not want a career they nevertheless join because they want the special experience of serving their country in uniform before settling into civilian life.  While the military certainly isn’t for everybody, I’m honestly hard-pressed to name anyone who served as a JAG and who now regrets it.  Even those who went on to have fantastic (and quite remunerative!) practices in the “civilian world” often look back on their time in the service as the highlight of their careers.

Air National Guard JAG Tyler White authored two articles that are a few years old but are balanced and worth reading if you are thinking about becoming a military lawyer (see here and here).  A couple of his key (and unvarnished!) observations about deployments:

Yes. You are going to deploy if you join the JAG Corps. For some JAGs, this is an insanely stressful but incomparably rewarding experience. For others, it’s just insanely stressful. Deployments can cause divorces, missed births of first-born children, missed NFL seasons, and just an overall miserable six months to a year of your life. And oh yeah, almost forgot, you are sleeping, working and eating IN A FREAKING COMBAT ZONE. 

But nearly every person I have deployed with, and nearly every JAG I have spoken to wouldn’t trade that experience for any other professional achievement. You get to provide legal counsel, represent service members and advise commanders in a hostile part of the world. If you can do that and do it well, then you have a hardening experience that can prepare you for nearly anything that the legal profession can throw at you. Also, name another occasion where you can sit down with a client while wearing a sidearm (put your hands down, Texas attorneys).

BTW, info on Air Force JAG is found here; Army JAG is found here; Navy JAG is here; Marine Corps JAG is here; and Coast Guard JAG is here.

As we like to say on Lawfire®, gather the facts, consider the pros and cons, and decide for yourself!

USFOR-A legal team obviously has substantial representation from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division!




You may also like...