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JAGs: Paper trails and trials

The seal of the Judge Advocate General Corps is displayed inside the 28th Bomb Wing courtroom at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 17, 2018. The Ellsworth Judge Advocate office serves as the legal advisor for the 28th Bomb Wing. They handle issues including administrative law, government contracting and military law. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

The seal of the Judge Advocate General Corps is displayed inside the 28th Bomb Wing courtroom at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 17, 2018. The Ellsworth Judge Advocate office serves as the legal advisor for the 28th Bomb Wing. They handle issues including administrative law, government contracting and military law. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

Airman 1st Class Mary Walsh, a 28th Bomb Wing general law paralegal, reads a book on prior military court cases at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 17, 2018. Most papers and documents pertaining to legal trials are found online for legal personnel, and the 28th Bomb Wing legal office has a library with over 300 volumes of different court proceedings. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

Airman 1st Class Mary Walsh, a 28th Bomb Wing general law paralegal, reads a book on prior military court cases at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 17, 2018. Most papers and documents pertaining to legal trials are found online for legal personnel, and the 28th Bomb Wing legal office has a library with over 300 volumes of different court proceedings. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

A gavel lays on the Uniform Code of Military Justice inside the 28th Bomb Wing courtroom at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 17, 2018. The UCMJ is the primary legal code that governs all internal military justice matters. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

A gavel lays on the Uniform Code of Military Justice inside the 28th Bomb Wing courtroom at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 17, 2018. The UCMJ is the primary legal code that governs all internal military justice matters. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- Military court: two images come to mind – either Jack Nicholson yelling “You can’t handle the truth!” or the thud of a gavel striking against wood when a verdict is delivered.

For the 28th Bomb Wing Legal Office, neither of those images accurately portray the legal office – an organization helping the Air Force and Airmen be ready – legally.

The legal office primarily serves as the legal advisor for the 28th Bomb Wing. They handle issues ranging from administrative law to government contracting and military operational law.

“We help commanders and first sergeants keep a level head,” said Senior Airman Elijah Wiegand, a 28th Bomb Wing military justice paralegal. “Without us, things could go awry. [The legal office] is more of a checks and balances system. We are the base mediators.”

A renowned portion of the legal office is the adverse actions division. This group may draw a misplaced reputation, as this section handles major disciplinary paperwork.

“We help commanders and [first sergeants] with lower-level discipline,” said Capt. Josiah Bragg, 28th Bomb Wing chief of adverse actions. “That can be Article 15s, sometimes figuring out if something is a [letter of reprimand] or an Article 15, and whether an Article 15 is potentially a [court-level hearing]. As the chief of adverse actions, I work close with our paralegals who work a lot with leadership teams around the base to ensure we have good order and discipline.”

Bragg explained that adverse actions means the legal office attorneys and paralegals look at the whole spectrum of disciplines. The spectrum of disciplines range from a general court-martial where life in prison can potentially be on the line to very lower level discipline which doesn’t have to be the end of someone’s career.

Another major part of what legal involves court-martials. In fact, most people, the thought of a group of 12 jurors adorned in their service uniforms deliberating about the sentence for a legal case is what springs to mind when they hear of a court-martial.

This image is one portion of the process in prosecuting an Airman. The process begins with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, 28th Security Forces Squadron or even the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator bringing the case to the legal office.

It takes a team to process these cases through the legal process smoothly and efficiently.

“I deal with the actual proceedings you really hear about on the news,” Wiegand said. “These are usually non-judicial punishments and court-martialing. We assist OSI and security forces when they need to know what legal options are available to the specific cases, and uphold the applicable laws when it comes to the manual for court-martials.”

From there, if deemed necessary, the legal office coordinates a pre-trial, a court-martial hearing and a sentencing. These can last one day or months depending on the amount of information and questions asked by legal counsel.

There may be misconceptions of what the legal office does. Paralegals mentioned whenever their peers found out their Air Force Specialty Code, they heard a whole host of comments. It all conveyed a single message: the legal office bears a stigma wherever it ventures.

Not only the fear of “what legal will do to an Airman’s career,” makes the JAGs and paralegals experience stress, their job is based on the unknown, unforeseen and the laws in-between.

“We work on a wide variety of legal issues every day,” Bragg described. “You never know what issues are going to come up. You have to be ready to answer any kind of question. That’s also what makes it enjoyable though. You are never doing the same thing too often. Every situation is going to be fact dependent, there’s always going to be lots of different laws that may apply.”

Not only do their legal cases never resemble one another due to diverse avenues available for the case, JAG and paralegal roles in cases also have a divergent path depending on where an Airman is stationed due to the need for area defense counsels and legal offices.

Like a fork in the road, the JAG career field works in two distinct sections: the base legal office and the ADC. These two entities are the “Ying and Yang” of legal trials.

“The legal office and the ADC have been clearly separated to ensure we don’t have any unlawful command influence on the decisions of the defense council,” Bragg explained. “The legal office has a lot of jobs from the commanders to help get the mission of the Air Force done. We are also the prosecutors for any crimes that are committed on base.”

He went on to say the defense council’s duty is to their clients. Their chain of command does not come from the legal office, because there shouldn’t be any commander bias swaying the trial’s direction. 

When it comes to discipline, the goals of the legal office aren’t to jeopardize an Airman’s career; their intent is to ensure the Air Force mission is completed justly and legally whether the result comes from a counseling or a court-martial.

“The JAG Corps is extremely important to make sure commanders can get the mission done,” Bragg said. “We are helping them provide good order and discipline and ensuring that we have a fighting force that is ready to be called upon to do the mission.”

It isn’t the sound of the gavel that decides the fate of the Airman looking at the podium. It is the 28th Bomb Wing legal officers and Airmen that complete the Air Force mission by providing sound legal counsel for any situation – anytime, anywhere.

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