High Rank: Retired major general earns distinguished alumni honor

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Even though he rose to the rank of major general and became the deputy judge advocate general, John D. Altenburg Jr. didn’t plan on making a career in the U.S. Army.

After graduating from Wayne State University in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in English and international studies, Altenburg became a high school teacher in Cincinnati.

“I essentially volunteered for the draft in January 1968. My draft board was in Detroit. I wrote the board and said I’m not going to teach the next year; I’m going to law school unless you draft me – and so they did,” recalled Altenburg, 67, who lives in northern Virginia with his wife of almost 41 years, Diane.  Recently, Altenburg was honored with the Wayne State University Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

“I was not expecting that,” admitted Altenburg, who has five children and eight grandchildren. “I was very honored.”

After two years in the Army — one of which was spent with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam — as an enlisted soldier, Altenburg attended the University of Cincinnati College of Law, graduating with his juris doctorate in law in 1973.

“I saw going to law school as a logical extension of a liberal arts education, whether one became an attorney and actually practiced law or not,” explained Altenburg. “A truly, well-informed citizen would benefit from having a legal education.”

Interested in trial work, he applied for various prosecutor jobs in Cincinnati when he happened to hear a speech from the Army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps.

“I had no intention of going back into the Army. For me, the Army was something I did. I paid my dues as a citizen and was I going to go on with my life — it didn’t mean any more to me than that, quite frankly,” he explained. “I suddenly realized that if I went back in the service for three years, I could get three years of trial experience and I would owe neither political party. The reason I say that is because getting jobs to prosecute for the government is very political for both sides. You have to belong to a political party oftentimes to get the job… Usually, there’s some kind of political affiliation to get the job, depending on who’s in charge at the time.”

He explained this to his wife, who wasn’t enchanted about his returning to the military.

“We went in for three years and stayed for 28,” said Altenburg. “That was not the intent at all. The intent was to get three years of experience and come back. We liked it. It just kept getting really interesting and enjoyable.”

When entered the JAG Corps in the mid-1970s, the caseloads were very high.

“They ended the draft in 1973 and started the volunteer army. The quality of people coming in the volunteer army from 1973 to 1980 weren’t the best people,” he said. “There were some good ones, but there were a lot of people who just did not belong in a military environment and they committed lots of crimes.”

Altenburg continued: “The laws changed because judges would tell someone — even if it was a serious case — before them, ‘I’ll tell you what, young man, you’re going to go to jail for this but I’ll give you the opportunity to sign up for one of the armed forces. If you’ll do that, this case won’t get prosecuted.’ Sometimes, that’s a good thing — a kid’s made a dumb mistake and he can turn his life around. But it also brought in some undesirables who weren’t going to be a good soldier either and didn’t take it as an opportunity to turn their lives around – they came in and kept committing crimes.”

During his time with the Army, Altenburg was stationed in North Carolina, Kansas, Germany, and Washington, D.C.

He prosecuted 15 soldiers who were accused of gang-raping a 14-year-old girl.

He also defended a captain accused of murdering his wife. He was a staff judge advocate in Germany during Operation: Desert Storm in 1991.

“I tried some horrible stuff as a defense lawyer and as a prosecutor. I was involved in a couple of capital cases. I prosecuted a tank murder case in Germany in 1981, where a U.S. soldier in a line of tanks had fired off a round that killed two other U.S. soldiers in the tank right next to him,” he said.

 Altenburg served for as a Deputy Judge Advocate General for four years. He retired from the Army on Jan. 1, 2002.

“I left because – bluntly – I had to; I’d gone as far as I could go. Statutorily, there’s a certain number of years an officer can stay. In the Army JAG Corps, once you’re the judge advocate general or the deputy judge advocate general, they don’t have another job for you – you’re supposed to move on and retire so that others can move on to those positions,” explained Altenburg. “I had served four years as a deputy judge advocate general. Based on Secretary of the Army policy, they had to pick somebody else to come in and do that job. Both the judge advocate general and the deputy judge advocate general take office at the same time and leave at the same time. The policy was designed to give people the opportunity to compete for those jobs.”

Although he retired from the Army, he did not retire from being an attorney — something he has done for 38 years.

In early 2002, Altenburg became a consultant for the president of the World Bank, where he designed and helped incorporate a reporting program for senior executives.

In late 2002, he joined the law firm of Greenburg Traurig LLP in Washington, D.C., which is one of the largest law firms in the United States with 33 offices worldwide.

A principal at Greenburg Traurig, Altenburg’s areas of specialty are government contracts and corporate investigations.

Even though he’s had a very successful career as an attorney and is proud of his accomplishments, he is prouder of his five children: Patrick, Bridget, Michael, Kathleen, and Molly. Patrick and Bridget are alumni of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Michael and Kathleen are alums of the University of North Carolina, and Molly is an alumna of Harvard University.

“I’m more proud of those five kids than anything I’ve accomplished in the Army or afterwards,” praised Altenburg. “All five of them are really solid citizens. They’re good people and good parents themselves.”

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