Veterans Day 2021: Great memories of wonderful vets

Veterans Day this year has special meaning to the thousands who served in Afghanistan.  The wisdom (or not) of how the war was conducted and how withdrawal was handled is a discussion for another time, but today let’s focus on veterans who, as Douglas McArthur might say, “tried to do [their] duty as God gave [them] the light to see that duty.”  I also want to share with you some memories about a few of the many wonderful veterans who made my own career so meaningful to me.

The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day  

Let’s recall the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.  As I’ve written beforeMemorial Day is intended to commemorate those who have died in the service, while Veterans Day (Nov 11) is intended to honor all veterans.  It originated as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I, but – as reported here – “on June 1, 1954, Congress amended the Act of 1938, officially renaming ‘Armistice Day’ as ‘Veterans Day’ and thereby expanding the recognition of the holiday to include veterans of all American wars.”

An interesting aspect of this year’s Veterans Day is that it is the centennial commemoration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  I encourage you to read its fascinating history, as it has several I-didn’t-know-that moments.  I really do hope you visit it the next time you are in DC and watch the changing of the guard.  Soldiers from the Third Infantry Regiment – the “Old Guard” stand watch 24/7 in all weather (click here for fascinating video about this ultra-elite unit and the Tomb).  Just so you know, their guns are real, and the sentinels (as they are called), do not brook noise or disrespect at the Tomb.

Some of the special people who are our veterans

One of things that makes a military career so special is the people with whom you have the honor to serve.  Of the thousands of terrific military members I was privileged to work with, two very special people are retired Air Force colonels Kate and Adam Oler. 

Kate was my executive officer when I was Deputy Judge Advocate General.  We worked through many Pentagon crises and we also travelled the world visiting JAG offices.    She later went on to be an outstanding military judge, and was the Air Force’s chief prosecutor before retiring to become a special master with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.  When I think of her, the word “brilliant’ always comes to mind.

I had a chance to have dinner with her last week and today, to honor to Veterans Day, she posted a special photo on her Facebook profile (left) from her time as the Air Force’s top prosecutor (and, no, you wouldn’t want to be prosecuted by her!).  The photo to your right is from 2007 when we were en route to a short visit to Iraq.  (She was so calm during the nap-of-the-earth flight tactic, you really wouldn’t know it was her first helicopter ride!)

Adam became my executive officer after Kate and we also did quite a bit of adventurous travelling.  Adam was a calm counter to my occasionally (?) mercurial personality, and a most trusted confidant.  A quick story: during a visit to Iraq I was to speak to a group of officers, and the session began with everyone introducing themselves.  When it was Adam’s turn, he said “I’m Lt Col Adam Oler, and I’m General Dunlap’s executive officer.” 

I interrupted him to say, “yeah, I made him be my exec because he got the last one pregnant.”  But before I could explain that it was just some humor as my last exec was Kate, his wife, there was a rocket attack and alarms blared and radios squawked in controlled chaos.  By the time things settled down and we re-assembled, I had forgotten to tell the group the proverbial ‘rest of the story’.  Adam reports getting some very odd looks as we left!  (They now have two beautiful children.)

After a fantastic military career (which included multiple wartime tours to the Middle East), Adam retired to become a professor at the National War College.  LENS Conference participants will recognize Adam as a frequent speaker and panelist (Kate also spoke at the conference – see here).  The photo to your left is from 2009 during another visit to Iraq, and the one on the right is from his current professorship.  I could not be prouder to have served with this extraordinary couple. 

Some more great Americans who served

The Olers are also close friends with other now retired JAG officers with whom I’ve stayed connected.  Two are Shannon McGuire and Michele Pearce, both of whom are pictured on the left.  Both of these vets went on to serve in civilian positions that are considered the equivalent to general officer billets.

You really need to read the bios of these amazing lawyers.  Among other things, their careers are models for anyone aspiring to public service.  I will always remember Shannon as an incredibly hard – and unflappable – worker.  She continues to serve as a senior official in the Air Force general counsel office (see her awesome bio here).

Michele recently left government to join Covington, one of Washington’s most prestigious law firms.  Her bio is a stunning record of service to her country.  I am especially grateful for a scrapbook of my career she assembled for my retirement (with Kate and some others helping).  It is a treasured possession that means more to me than perhaps even she knows.

As it happens, we all spent part of our careers working in the Pentagon at the same time as the legendary Lt Gen Jack Rives, who is now Executive Director of the American Association.  Lawfire readers may recall that I’ve written about him before, but I invite you to take another look at the post found here.  It highlights some of the ways General Rives navigated the JAG Corps through a very difficult period.  Prospective leaders, take notes.

I also want to tell you about another JAG with whom I recently re-connected:  Wendy Kosek Buckingham.  Wendy is the officer in the red circle in the photo at the left from Iraq.  Shortly after it was taken, the vehicle she and another JAG were riding was attacked by an enemy IED. 

Her leg was seriously injured (and the other JAG suffered a bad shrapnel cut to her face).  As I said in a Foreign Policy article more than a decade ago:

She showed enormous courage both at the time of the attack and subsequently. I was in the AOR that day, and spoke to her shortly after she arrived at the evac hospital at Balad. Despite her injuries, all she wanted to do is give me a MISREP (mission report), and tell me about the courage of others.


Wendy spent months in rehab as doctors successfully fought to save her leg.  (An Air Force press release described her ‘extensive” injuries this way: “the blast shattered a portion of her tibia and part of her femur. Three plates and screws now piece the fragments back together. During her time at Brooke Army Medical Center, she has received three surgeries to repair her leg.”)

Wendy is a strong and determined person.  She even delayed her wedding until she was physically able to walk down the aisle.  Last summer I caught up with her at the Air Force JAG School.  I’m grateful to God to tell you that she has fully recovered!  She is a practicing lawyer, wife, and mother – and her Air Force career continues! .  

Allow me to mention two more vets you will see at Duke’s 27th Annual National Security Law Conference set for (in-person) on 25 and 26 February 2022.  One is General Larry Spencer, USAF (Ret.); he and I overlapped on two assignments (Air Combat Command and the Pentagon) – and we were neighbors.   The really exciting news is that he’ll talk about his new book: Dark Horse: Gen. Larry O. Spencer and His Journey from the Horseshow to the Pentagon.  I can promise you this: you’ll hear from a man of real character, perseverance, and patriotism.

Another Air Force JAG vet and great friend who will be returning to the conference is Erin Wirtanen (also friends with the Olers, et al.!).  After serving as a JAG officer (and deploying to the Middle East) she eventually joined the Central Intelligence Agency where she serves as Chief Counsel for its Center for Cyber Intelligence.  Conference attendees may remember her presentation on “Deep Fakes where she electronically turned me into a singer (which is why you know it’s a ‘deep fake’!)   I’m not sure what she’ll do this year, but I know you’ll want to see it.

There are so many more!

In truth, the military is filled with special people, and I wish i could tell you about all of them.   A decade ago the late Colin Powell penned a wonderful piece in Parade Magazine, Why We Serve, in which he explained that people serve in the military out of a fierce allegiance “to their buddies.”  It is, he says, “a form of bonding you can’t find anywhere else.”

He’s right.  As I tried to explain here (Salute all who benefit the public, but recognize the uniqueness of military service), there are many vitally important forms of public service, but being in the military can make demands without counterpart in civilian life…but rewards with experiences and friendships that make it all worthwhile.

Don’t forget the families who also serve!

This year the President has gone out of his way to cite the sacrifice that the families of veterans have made in his Proclamation on National Veterans and Military Families Month, 2021Everyone who served knows the sacrifice that families make (and I am proud that the Air Force JAG Corps has established the “Joy Dunlap Family Service Award” to recognize family members who have gone ‘above and beyond.’ as she did during my 34+ years in the military).

In fact, a new poll shows that an overwhelming number of veterans want to public to know about the service of their families:

Finally, a Lawfire reader forwarded a note with a link that said “this video will hopefully cause everyone that watches to take a few minutes to reflect on what people who serve in the military endure”   Take a look: Sounds of Silence Military Tribute

Below is a collage that I received when I retired…it is filled with many reminders of great places and, most importantly, outstanding people.  I am so fortunate to have these memories!  Military service isn’t for everyone, but I know I wouldn’t trade mine for anything!


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