In late June, the halls and classrooms of our Corps’ home at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia, filled with 132 soon-to-be Staff Judge Advocates (SJAs) and Deputy SJAs (DSJAs). But they were not the only future leaders in town. The Judge Advocate General (TJAG) invited the spouses of SJA Course attendees, specifically those spouses who’d indicated a willingness to provide volunteer service at their gaining installations, and to attend the Volunteer Leadership Course (VLC). Seventeen women and men accepted.
Taking care of our troops and their Families does not rest solely on the shoulders of senior leaders. As informal leaders, spouses frequently volunteer to share the critical role of Family support, morale, and the retention of Soldiers and their Families in our Offices of the Staff Judge Advocate (OSJA). The VLC signifies our Corps’ recognition of this often-shared responsibility. Further confirming the importance of training these informal leaders, the Army granted service-endorsement of the VLC for the first time since 2013. Endorsement provided attendees the option of government-funded travel, thus reducing the financial hurdle encountered in previous years while encouraging increased participation.
After traveling to Charlottesville from various installations around the world, the spouses began the five-day course by sitting in on some of the same classes as the SJAs and DSJAs. The message to attendees was clear from the beginning—inclusion is critical to mission success. Whether it be in Lieutenant Colonel Dan Kuecker’s Group Dynamics class, during TJAG and the Deputy Judge Advocate General’s lunchtime fielding of questions, or Brigadier General Pat Huston’s welcome address, inclusion was part of the conversation. In the spirit of this VLC theme, we felt it important for readers to receive the highlights from the capstone panel discussion on office social gatherings, entitled “Encouraging Volunteerism Within the Entire JAG Corps Family.”
The panel included the following representatives: a single judge advocate, dual military judge advocates, a judge advocate and spouse with civilian employment requiring geographical separation, and a judge advocate and spouse who is a stay-at-home-mom. Panel members represented both genders and every rank from captain to lieutenant colonel. The panel did not include an enlisted or warrant officer representative, the presence of which we hope to incorporate in the future.
Mrs. Cindy Risch served as the moderator and began with the topic of recommended social events for offices. The panel mentioned hails and farewells, holiday parties, picnics, office potlucks, family-friendly events (i.e., trunk or treat), and coffees. There were several suggestions to vary times, locations, meal cost, and whether children attend to capture wider participation. One panelist raised the unique idea of an office supper club, in which every month a member of the office or affiliated group selects a local restaurant and coordinates lunch or dinner. This type of event could also be held at a leader’s home or even utilizing space at the office. Another idea was to focus the gathering around an event, such as an escape room, yoga, art, or local tour. This could make attendance less intimidating for the more reserved members of the office.
The second question raised was, “Who should host these events?” The default is often the SJA, DSJA, or the group leader, but it does not have to be that way. A panelist recommended encouraging volunteers from varying ranks. At one of the panelist’s previous offices, hosting rotated from judge advocate to Civilian to paralegal to warrant officer, resulting in stronger attendance and excitement to hear the plan for the following month. For those of you not in a formal leadership role, this could be a great opportunity to widen the variety of activities for these social events.
The third topic covered the details of the invitation. Email seemed to be the preferred method of delivery with follow-up by word of mouth. One panelist suggested implementing a biographical data sheet for completion during in-processing at the OSJA, with the option to provide personal email addresses. Another option is an email sign-up sheet at larger events, such as an organization day. When drafting invitations, group leaders should be cautious in their use of titles and gender limitations. In one panelist’s example, an invitation referenced a “spouses’ coffee” and a service member’s significant other felt as though she was not permitted to attend. Another example was a spouse leader’s use of “ladies only” for an event, thus excluding male spouses, Family members, or significant others. As a voluntary event outside of duty hours, it is permissible to limit attendees, but panelists encouraged hosts to do so with awareness.
The fourth topic delved into whether these events created a feeling that the active duty service member’s career would be negatively impacted if they or their spouse did not attend. Only two of the panelists remembered feeling pressured to attend an event, but both indicated it was the result of assumptions and was not necessarily the view of the leadership. One panelist reiterated that these are “one hundred percent voluntary events, and it is the leadership’s responsibility to dispel these ideas early and often,” setting the tone for their subordinates. As another panelist put it, our leaders understand some of us have young children, spouses with full-time civilian employment, or the many other things that make life complicated.
The fifth question considered the frequency of these events. The panelists did not settle on a specific amount, but instead offered that leaders should take into consideration all the factors at their individual offices. Events should not be too frequent or infrequent, but, as one of the panelists put it, “the only bad idea is not doing anything.” Conflicts will occur that prevent service members and their Families from attending, but that does not mean leaders should avoid holding events entirely to prevent such conflicts. Panel members emphasized that some people will never be able to attend unless leaders vary times, locations, cost, and ability for children to participate.
The final question pertained to which JAG Corps traditions panelists saw consistently at their previous assignments. There was a consensus reached among panelists that Law Day was the most observed event. As if it was scripted, which it was not, another panel member thought the JAG Family and inclusivity were also our traditions. Several panelists commented that they thought highly of several location-specific traditions and hoped they continued.
The panel discussion during the VLC reiterated that, in comparison to a majority of the Army, our offices are small. Being small means there is greater opportunity for us to get to know and take care of one another. Voluntary events are a fantastic way to do that, along with building morale and fostering a healthy work environment. At a minimum, it is imperative to build networks so our service members and their Families have someone to turn to when needed. As one panelist stated, “If you see someone at these events that is not talking, strike up a conversation.” TAL
COL McConnell is the Chair, National Security Law Department at The Judge Advocate General Legal Center and School, Charlottesville, Virginia. MAJ Scheel is an associate professor in the National Security Law Department at The Judge Advocate General Legal Center and School, Charlottesville, Virginia.