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An Army JAGs Experience in the Trenches

John Charles Tramazzo

An Army JAGs Experience in the Trenches
flySnow via iStock

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I never dreamt of being a soldier.

Growing up in the Washington, DC, suburbs, I often observed military men and women around town, driving to work at Walter Reed, and riding the Metro to the Pentagon. I benefited from proximity to military monuments and historic installations that host air shows, displays, and summer concerts. I was raised with a deep respect for military service, but I never envisioned a life in uniform. I wanted to be a lawyer.

As a Gonzaga College High School student on Capitol Hill, I rode the Metro from Rockville, Maryland to Union Station each day and was impressed by the smartly dressed attorneys moving about the city. With drive and purpose, they buzzed around the courthouse in my hometown and the federal Judiciary Square. They were in the newspaper, on television, and in my life. Many of my friends’ parents are legal professionals as is my grandfather, a long-time Bronx, New York, defense attorney with the wildest stories and sharpest wit I have ever encountered. I enjoyed studying political science and government, and I could talk my way through most adolescent predicaments. I made up my mind as a sophomore in high school. I would do well in school, attend a well-respected college, ace the LSAT, and practice law in DC. It was 2001.

That September, I was sitting in a morning American History class, listening to a teacher discuss US Army skirmishes with Native Americans when the headmaster informed us of a suspected terrorist attack in New York City. Moments later, we watched in real time as an airliner struck the Pentagon, causing black smoke to rise on the horizon. Federal employees rushed out of their office buildings along North Capitol Street and ran by our school. One of my classmates lost his mother that morning.

Two years later, as an idealistic college freshman, I walked into the ROTC office at the University of Richmond and declared my interest in joining the military. A week later, I signed a contract, agreeing to serve in the Army for four years after college in exchange for a scholarship. I quickly learned how to march, salute, address senior military officers, and shoot a rifle. I studied military science, strategy, and history. I learned how to rappel, jump out of airplanes, and navigate through the thick forests of Forts A.P. Hill and Lee in Virginia. I was encouraged to join the Infantry, Armor, or Field Artillery branches, but deep down, I still wanted to practice law.

Fortunately, a supportive professor of military science introduced me to a major in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, who explained the process for delaying my service obligation. I promptly applied for and received an educational delay, took the LSAT, and was accepted into several law schools. In 2007, when I commissioned as a second lieutenant, I packed my uniforms away and moved back to Maryland.

Three years later, I graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law, took and passed the Maryland Bar Exam, and applied for a regular army commission in the JAG Corps. In February 2011, I reported to the Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a 16-week course of instruction. That summer, I reported to my first assignment: the 10th Mountain Division headquarters at Fort Drum in Watertown, New York.

For the first 12 months of that assignment, I worked on a team of legal assistance attorneys. Each day, I met with between five and seven clients—soldiers, family members, and retirees—and advised them on whatever their legal problems demanded. Most of our work was in the realm of family law. I drafted hundreds of separation agreements and divorce complaints, but I also helped a young soldier adopt his stepson, worked with the New York State Attorney General’s Office to enforce tenants’ rights, and represented a junior officer during a bitter dispute over an antique he bought on eBay. Our office drafted and executed medical directives and wills for every deploying soldier who requested them, including several soldiers who were later killed in action. The work was diverse and challenging but genuinely meaningful.

After a year in general legal assistance, I was assigned to the division’s Third Brigade Combat Team as a trial counsel (TC). Commanders rely heavily on their TCs to develop measures for maintaining good order and discipline. In that role, I worked closely with law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute alleged crimes—from arson to sexual assault to murder. As lead counsel for several dozen courts-martial, I wrote and argued motions, directed and cross-examined witnesses, and presented arguments to panels of senior military officers. As a TC, I traveled everywhere the unit did. While at Fort Polk, Louisiana, for a month of difficult field training, I helped the command investigate and adjudicate a cruel hazing situation. When the unit deployed to eastern Afghanistan for nine months, I did too. While overseas, I worked several homicide and sexual assault cases to resolution—duty that required trips to small combat outposts to meet with witnesses and victims and examine crime scenes.

Currently, as the legal advisor to a special operations unit, I provide counsel regarding the authorities to engage in military operations. As a member of a battle staff, I advise other staff members and various commanders on a wide range of legal issues, ensuring that the principles of distinction and proportionality, along with other important legal considerations, are properly applied. In my current role, I have deployed to several overseas locations in support of the campaign to defeat ISIS.

As a young ROTC cadet, I would have never imagined that I would still be in the Army today. It has not always been fun and easy. Fort Drum is extremely cold. Fort Polk is oppressively hot. Afghanistan is dangerous and about as far away from home as you can go. Jumping out of airplanes (a requirement in my current job) is tough on the knees. Four moves and multiple deployments have challenged my wife and kids too. However, after seven years of service as an active duty Army attorney, I could not have dreamt up a more rewarding legal career.