Memorial Day – Attorneys Also Served

Graveyard with American flag

We picture attorneys battling in court, not dying in combat. But our country’s military graveyards hold the remains of those who served dual roles as both attorneys and soldiers. According to the website, members of the Judge Advocate General, or JAG Corps, have died in major US conflicts from WWII through the Iraqi War.

 In the 2000s, the deceased included 6 JAG officers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officers Sharon Swartworth and Cornell Gilmore died when enemy fire shot down the Black Hawk helicopter they were riding in. Military attorney, Michael Martinez, was killed when his helicopter crashed. Paralegals Sascha Struble, Michael Merila and Coty Phelps died in separate incidents. Stuble was killed in a helicopter crash. Both Merila and Phelps died when roadside bombs blew up their vehicles.

In this age of high-tech battles, cultural sensitivities and complex laws, JAG officers and their legal staff are increasingly deployed to war zones to advise commanders on combat decisions. The job requires a nuanced understanding of military law. For example, say a drone spies 3 men digging holes by the road. Are they just innocent Iraqis digging irrigation ditches or are they insurgents planting IEDs? Is it lawful to attack these men under the Rules of Engagement? It’s a hypothetical posed in a military law publication to show the legal complexity facing Army lawyers charged with giving on-scene guidance. In the end, the lawyer’s advice can depend on variables including location, time of day and the presence of civilians. The soldier-attorney may have just moments to reach a conclusion.

Each military branch has a JAG Corps where attorneys, skilled at using words as weapons, have also trained for combat. It’s apparent they are driven by both devotion to country and love of the law. As Army Reserve JAG, Bruce Ellis Fein, told the Washington Post, “Our motto is ‘Soldiers first, lawyers always.’

The JAG Corps is, as the Army’s website notes, “America’s Oldest and Largest Law Firm.” It was born at the start of our country’s first war. George Washington founded the Corps when he took command of the Continental Army in 1775.

On Memorial Day, we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Let’s not forget the uniformed lawyers who also gave their lives.