Laying down the law in theater: Deployed lawyers carry heavy plate

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Victoria Brayton
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This article is the second in a series to help prepare Team Hurlburt for the operational readiness inspection in February 2010. The goal of the series is to educate and inform the base populace of the roles and responsibilities of some of the hard-working support elements that make up a base whether deployed or at home station.

Briefing commanders on rules of engagement, advising servicemembers on their wills, processing detainees and working directly with foreign judges are just a few examples of the everyday duties of deployed judge advocates.

"Pretty much anywhere you deploy, there's going to be a JAG," said Capt. Matthew James, assistant staff judge advocate from the 1st Special Operations Wing legal office. "A lot of people don't know about us or our role because we're behind the scenes. We go where anyone else goes."

Captain James said JAs typically deploy as individual augmentees, work at least 12-hour shifts and typically fill any of the Air Force billets in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the JAs assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command will only deploy in support of special forces, so they tend to deploy more frequently than JAs from other bases.

When they deploy, JAs can fulfill a number of roles including legal assistance, operations law, detainee operations and rule of law development.

JAs providing legal assistance function similarly when deployed and at home. Captain James said they help with wills, powers of attorney and any other legal advice a servicemember might need while deployed.

Operations law focuses more on giving legal advice to commanders and mission planners about running military operations.

"We have to make sure they comply with the Law of Armed Conflict," Captain James said. "We have to make sure the right targets are being selected and the right weapons are being used."

When JAs are responsible for processing and prosecuting detainees, Captain James said they collect evidence and prepare witnesses for court. In this role, JAs often work directly with Iraqi judges as they bring in Iraqi civilian witnesses to testify.

Lastly, deployed JAs fulfill the unique job of rule of law development.

"This is an area where JAs are a key part of developing a military justice system, not for the United States, but for the foreign forces," said Lt. Col. Michael Tomatz, 1st Special Operations Wing staff judge advocate.

JAs who work in rule of law development are tasked with helping their host countries develop a legal system using cadres of military and civilian lawyers, Colonel Tomatz said.

"It's important because we've got to help countries develop a viable legal system that's free of corruption, where judges have the authority and ability to maintain law and order and to ensure there's some mechanism for resolving disputes in society," Colonel Tomatz said.

When it comes to the hardest part of their deployments, he pointed to the pressure on JAs to get it right, all the time.

"There's such a complex series of rules, and there is an absolute operational need to get it right," Colonel Tomatz said. "You have commanders that rely on timely expert legal advice on a range of operational issues to get it right, and making sure you help advance the mission is critical."