Guest Post: Major Dedra Campbell, USAF, on “Why I became a JAG…and why I stayed”
Today’s post is another in our series for law students and new lawyers who have an interest in national (and, really, global) security matters, and who are thinking about how best to get involved with those issues. We’ve featured various civilians attorneys who have done it (see e.g., here, here, and here), and now we’ll hear from an attorney practicing law in uniform.
I think this post will be of much interest to others as well, particularly those who may be curious as to not only what motivates lawyers to join the military, but also why they to continue to serve – even in turbulent times. (See also the posts found here, here and here.)
Maj M. Dedra Campbell, USAF, very kindly agreed to share some of the highlights of her ongoing journey as an Air Force military lawyer (called a judge advocate or “JAG”). As you’ll read below, we have some connections: she attended college in Delaware (where I went to high school!), and we both went to Villanova Law. But, yes, we were (more than) a few years apart!!!
The diverse practice
There are many paths to a rewarding life in the law, but what I think you’ll see in Dedra’s story is what I hear from many law students: a passion for a career with real meaning. Moreover, everyone who serves in uniform deeply appreciates being part of something larger than themselves.
What especially resonated as I read her wonderful essay and reflected on my own career was Dedra’s discussion of the range of challenges with which military lawyers engage. There are very few places outside of the military that gives lawyers the opportunity to practice in so many different areas. As she says:
“I also love our diversity of legal practice and the ability to serve in different assignments throughout our careers. Our legal practice areas include criminal law, legal assistance, civil and administrative law, labor and employment law, international and operational law, space and cyber law, contract and fiscal law, claims and tort litigation, and environmental law.
Like all new Air Force JAGs, I started as a prosecutor, while simultaneously advising commanders on various legal issues and providing legal assistance to service members and their families. I went on to serve two years as a defense counsel and then two years as an appellate defense counsel.”
Even those military lawyers who later served in specialized assignments value highly the diversity of practice they experienced as new JAGs. In fact, many appreciated the chance to work in different areas before focusing on a particular legal discipline (and, for some, enjoying the opportunity to get an advanced degree in a selected legal specialty). Others, like myself, spend most of their careers in a rather general practice – and relish it. Being military lawyer is living “in the arena“ in a way few attorneys ever can.
Still, it is really the people with whom one serves that makes the military life so unique and so worthwhile. In his famous “Why We Serve” essay, Colin Powell observed that in so many ways the military is a family, and provides a “form of bonding you can’t find anywhere else.”
This is also true of the spouses and children of those who wear the uniform. (BTW, check out this story from last Tuesday about military children: “Students’ scores in DoD schools among highest in the nation, report says“). Notably, Maj. Campbell was a “military kid” and, wow, what a fabulous career she’s having!
It is hard to explain exactly what all this means to those who haven’t had the privilege of experiencing military life. Dedra puts it simply and directly: “I love the people and the camaraderie in the JAG Corps. I get to meet and work with so many amazing people with diverse backgrounds.” For those who have served in any branch of the military her words ring so true! Read more from this super-talented officer!
Why I became a JAG…and why I stayed
Maj. M. Dedra Campbell, USAF
My dad’s service as a 30-year Marine and Vietnam War veteran inspired my patriotism and desire to serve others. As a military kid, I had so many unique experiences, including living in Okinawa, Japan for six years. My upbringing cultivated an appreciation for different cultures and instilled values in me, such as integrity, adaptability, and self-discipline.
A first-generation college student, I obtained my undergraduate degree in Political Science and Spanish from the University of Delaware in 2007. Studying abroad in Spain for a semester was an incredible experience. But, it was my college externship that had the biggest impact on me because it sparked my passion for law.
During my college externship at the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware, I worked closely with an attorney who was the epitome of selfless service through her advocacy on behalf of Latin American victims of domestic violence. She relentlessly navigated complex legal issues to help and empower her clients.
After my externship, I set on a path to become a lawyer. I attended Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law in Pennsylvania. I received hands-on legal experience through the Civil Justice Clinic by advocating for low-income clients in a variety of civil disputes. It was one of my most rewarding experiences at Villanova Law.
While in law school, I served as the Vice President of the Black Law Students Association, and was a member of the International Law Society and an associate editor for the Environmental Law Journal. I also volunteered at the Community Legal Aid Society in Dover, Delaware and completed summer internships with Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After graduating law school in 2010, I embraced my new role as a military spouse, and moved to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. There, I started my legal career as a civilian in the base legal office. Working closely with Air Force JAGs (active duty attorneys) made it abundantly clear to me that being a lawyer while serving my country was the perfect career for me because it aligned my values with my passion for law.
I watched JAGs handle criminal cases from cradle to grave. First, by working closely with investigators to discover all the facts and evidence, including visiting crime scenes and tracking down additional witnesses. Then, meticulously prepping their cases through motions, interviews, and reviewing the evidence.
What impressed me the most about seeing JAGs in their roles as prosecutors, was seeing the culmination of months of trial prep in the courtroom. Their oral advocacy skills were on a whole other level.
I’m now almost eight years into my career, and joining the JAG Corps was the best decision I could have ever made. I have a genuine sense of purpose and fulfillment in the work that I do. It’s challenging, exciting, and I get to make a meaningful difference on a daily basis.
I love the people and the camaraderie in the JAG Corps. I get to meet and work with so many amazing people with diverse backgrounds.
I also love our diversity of legal practice and the ability to serve in different assignments throughout our careers. Our legal practice areas include criminal law, legal assistance, civil and administrative law, labor and employment law, international and operational law, space and cyber law, contract and fiscal law, claims and tort litigation, and environmental law.
Like all new Air Force JAGs, I started as a prosecutor, while simultaneously advising commanders on various legal issues and providing legal assistance to service members and their families. I went on to serve two years as a defense counsel and then two years as an appellate defense counsel.
Like the JAGs I looked up to during my time as a civilian in the legal office, I too had the chance to pour my heart and soul into my cases. On both sides, prosecution and defense, I was able to make a difference.
In my current role as the Chief of Recruiting, I’m responsible for managing the outreach and recruiting efforts for the Air Force JAG Corps. In sharing my story with law students and attorneys, I’m constantly reminded about how much I love this career path. I also embrace the opportunity to play such a crucial role in recruiting high-quality, talented, and diverse individuals to join the JAG Corps.
Life has come full circle, and I’m now raising two military kids. Although there are certain sacrifices that come with the military lifestyle, I’m incredibly grateful that my kids will grow up learning similar values and experiencing opportunities like traveling and living abroad.
As we like to say on Lawfire®, gather the facts, consider the pros and cons, and decide for yourself!