Shortburst: Air Force JAG – Connections and Conversations

Lawfire® readers know “Shortbursts” is an occasional feature that aims to bring you bursts of information on a variety of happenings you may find of interest. Today’s compilation includes a couple of recent events in which I was honored to participate.

The conversations and connections experienced in these reminded me of some of the many benefits of serving in uniform and in public service. 


On 17 August I was privileged to commission Duke Law grad Isabella Shelton, class of 2021, as an Air Force second lieutenant. 

How extraordinary is she?  A summa cum laude graduate of the University of Florida, she simultaneously completed law school at one of the toughest instutions in the nation, while also fulfilling the demanding requirements of a Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) cadet.

I had her as a student in multiple courses and her drive, determination, and work ethic will surely make her a success as an Air Force lawyer (called a judge advocate or “JAG”). 

While the commissioning ceremony had to be via Zoom, it was a wonderful ceremony with family and friends tuning in.  Per military custom, she gave a silver dollar to the first servicemember who saluted her – which in this case, was her husband who is also in the Air Force!


On 19 August I had the terrific opportunity to visit the Air Force Judge Advocate General School in Montgomery, Alabama, to deliver the 11th Annual Morehouse Lecture.   It is named in honor of the late Maj. Gen. David C. Morehouse, a truly legendary JAG Corps leader.  I was especially thrilled to give this presentation because General Morehouse had been a mentor to me and so many others.

The lecture is sponsored by the Air Force JAG School Foundation, and it gave me the opportunity to see many old friends as the eve of the Foundation’s board meeting coincided with the lecture date. 

Returning to the JAG School was something of a homecoming.  I served there in the early 1980s, first as a civil law instructor and later as chief of the military justice division.  In many ways that teaching experience, which I really enjoyed, set in motion a chain of events that eventually led me to my current position at Duke Law.

On this trip I was met at the airport by a long-time friend, retired Air Force colonel Tonya Hagmaier, now the Chief Deputy Clerk of the Federal Bankruptcy court in Montgomery, but formerly the Commandant of the JAG School.  I was also delighted to see my former executive officer, Brian Suckman, now the IT manager for the court.

My lecture topic was “lawfare,” a concept I have been talking about since 2001 when I presented a paper, Law and Military Operations: Preserving Humanitarian Values in 21st Conflicts, to a conference hosted by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

I wanted to talk about lawfare, which essentially is the use of the law to accomplish what might otherwise require military means, because we are increasingly seeing adversaries employing it to the disadvantage of the U.S. and our allies.

For example, in a recent essay in Forbes (“The U.S. Is Losing the Legal War Against China) Marine Corps University professor (and LENS conference speaker) Jill Goldenziel warned that “U.S. adversaries—especially China—have long understood something the U.S. national security community is only starting to learn: how to use ‘lawfare,’ or law as a weapon of war.”

I explained my view of lawfare, and how it’s developed, and offered some ideas as to the way ahead so as to meet tomorrow’s lawfare challenges.  Among other things, I believe the U.S. needs to develop a lawfare doctrine and strategy – as our adversaries are doing.

Among the dignitaries whom I was pleased to see at the presentation were the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General, Lt Gen. Jeff Rockwell, the Deputy Judge Advocate General, Maj Gen. Chuck Plummer, retired Maj Gen. Bob Kenny, who is president of the JAG School Foundation, and Colonel Sheri Jones, the current Commandant of the school. These are all friends of many years, and people who have demonstrated – often under intense pressure – what real military leadership is supposed to look like.

Additionally, the audience included the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course (JASOC), which all lawyers new to the Air Force must attend to become a JAG (Isabella is heading there soon!).  I very much enjoyed having the opportunity to speak with these very talented young officers just starting out on what will surely be an amazing career of adventure and service – and, wow, are they ever impressive!

Additionally, I shared with them (and the others in attendance) copies of an extract of an earlier article which has some of my key recommendations for JAGs drawn from my military career, as well as favorite quotes.  (If you’d like to see the handout, it is found here.)

Also in the audience were officers attending the mid-career Air Force JAG “Gateway” course which “is designed to prepare students for the challenges and leadership requirements of being a judge advocate at the field-grade officer level.”  Again, I could not help but to be ‘wowed” by the obvious talent in the group.

The addition to the JAG School 

My visit to the JAG School included being an official guest at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new addition to the compound.  The sophistication of the communication and audiovisual capabilities in the new facility (to include the ability to handle classified material) is stunning.  Frankly, I doubt any law school anywhere has anything on this level.

The addition will also house the Air Force’s Legal Information Systems Directorate, which supports “a widely diverse array of information technology solutions and capabilities to the Air Force and Department of Defense legal communities [in more than] 60 applications [that foster] either case, knowledge or content management that enables responsive and professional legal counsel to commanders and warfighters across a full-spectrum of topics”.

Again, the level of the capabilities is phenomenal.  Matched elsewhere?  I really doubt it.


Shortly after returning from Montgomery, my wife (Joy) and I were delighted to have brunch with two, now-married-to-each-other Duke Law class of 2018 grads, Kara Iskenderian and William May.  They are both enjoying stellar Air Force JAG careers.

It’s quite a treat when former students such as Kara and William make time to connect and visit when they’re in town!  And, it’s exciting to cheer their career development and hear about their experiences. 

Lawfire® readers may remember them from this 2019 post, Despite turbulent times, they’ve said “Send me”: meet the Air Force’s newest LieutenantsI urge you to take (another) look at it as they explain why they decided upon an Air Force JAG career. 

Here’s what’s happening with them now:  Kara has just become the Area Defense Counsel (think public defender) for Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland, while William is Chief of Litigation in the installation legal office there (and he’s preparing to deploy to the installation legal office at Guantanamo for six months).

Concluding thoughts

It is certainly true that a career as a military lawyer isn’t for everyone, but I wouldn’t trade the adventure – and, most of all, the chance to meet so many awesome people – for anything. 

The good news is there are super-talented young people willing to step forward to serve.  Their reward will include unique – and wonderful – memories of connctions and conversations you simply can’t get anywhere else. We wish them all the best and pray for their safety as they so unselfishly serve to protect the freedoms we all enjoy.

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