Lawyers Giving Back: Battlefield Barristers

Shooting rifles and scaling walls in military training exercises are some of the last places you might expect to see an attorney.

But when theyre not getting soldiers legal affairs like wills, trusts and powers of attorney in order before deployment and acting as general counsels for commanders while in the field, thats exactly where the 13 judge advocates general of Michigans Army National Guard can be found.

As military officers, JAGs have to go through the same training courses as soldiers and other officers, in addition to their legal responsibilities to the military and their civilian practices.

Technically, people think its one weekend a month, two weeks a year, and thats just not the case, says Carson Tucker, a Farmington Hills attorney and 14-year Navy vet who is the lead JAG and acting in-house counsel for Camp Grayling east of Traverse City.

Like Tucker, some JAGs come to the corps with extensive military experience. Others, like Michael Harry of Southfield, join the program as an opportunity to use their legal knowledge in a unique way. Recently deployed to Iraq on his second tour, Harry is currently serving as a prosecutor in cases of soldier misconduct.  In his last tour, with the 177th Military Police Brigade based in Taylor, Harry served as general counsel for a military prison, ensuring the rights of detainees were adhered to and the Geneva Conventions and American policies were followed.

There are parts that are scary, there are parts that are fairly routine and boring, Harry says of being stationed in a war zone. There are times when youre really proud to do it, there are times when youre sad, and there are times when youre just like, What a mess.

In the business that were in, you cant afford to make errors, says State Judge Advocate Ronnie Strong, who oversees Michigans JAGs. These guys are under pressure and obligation to get these things right the first time.

These things, when soldiers are in theater, are often matters of the operational law that governs the military, primarily in combat situations. JAGs have to be well versed in the Geneva Conventions, Army policies and rules governing issues like court martialing. When in-field commanders need an immediate answer to questions like, Can I kill this guy or cant I kill this guy? Can I or cant I blow this up? Can I or cant I detain this guy?, Strong says, the JAGs have to be ready to provide them.

If youre well-trained and youre proficient in it, you should make the right call, he adds.

Kevin Weise is the deputy general counsel for the Michigan Army National Guard in Lansing and has military experience in the Pennsylvania and Michigan National Guards and Marine Corps dating back to 1985. He also was deployed to Baghdad with Harry in July 2007, returning in May 2008.

I love this stuff. Theres just something that youve gotta give back at some point in time, Weise says. Somebodys gotta do this stuff, and I dont mind doing it. Theres people out there that protect this country, and Im proud to be one of them.

Says Tucker, Im not on the front lines and Im not fighting in the war, and I havent been deployed yet, but I feel like Im contributing something to these people who have a million other things to think about once they get on the ground.

By Taryn Hartman

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