Court Is Assembled
Building JAG Corps Friendships That Endure
On 24 July 2021, as the Honorary Regimental Colonel of the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, I will proudly drink a toast to the 40th anniversary of the men and women of the 96th Basic Course of the JAG School where I started my career as an Army lawyer. Over the years, and even now as a retired judge advocate (JA), I am constantly amazed at how service in the JAG Corps produces so many lifelong friendships that endure the test of time, professional association, and geography.
In July 1981, the legendary Major (MAJ) James H. “Rosey” Rosenblatt, Chief of Captains’ Assignments at the JAG Corps’s Office of Personnel, Plans, and Training, greeted our class as the “Fighting” 96th Basic Course. I did not realize at the time that MAJ Rosenblatt was subtly referencing the “Fighting 69th Irish Brigade” from New York City that fought in virtually every war since the Civil War (including Operation IRAQI FREEDOM). Major Rosenblatt helped bring 104 captains into the JAG Corps that month, and I saw him many times in Charlottesville or at the Pentagon. Major Rosenblatt served our Corps for thirty years and is now the Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at the Mississippi College of Law in Jackson, Mississippi.
The 96th Basic Course did not do any real fighting, but we bonded together playing a great deal of softball and basketball at the University of Virginia North Grounds athletic facilities. In addition, our class produced the first female active duty general officer in JAG Corps history, Brigadier General Melinda Dunn, as well as Immigration and Naturalization Judge, Dan Trimble.
I was approached by The Army Lawyer shortly after Thanksgiving 2020 to write this article focusing on how the JAG Corps produces lifelong relationships that endure the test of time, professional association, and geography. This includes both our active duty members and those who have moved on from service. Or, as one former mentor told me years ago, “Remember, everyone leaves the Army and the JAG Corps at some point. For many, it is after three years and, for others, thirty years.”
A couple of weeks later, my wife and I were writing our Christmas cards when it dawned on me how our lives for the past forty years have indeed been connected with those who we served with—some for three years and some for thirty. When we finished our ninety Christmas cards, I counted over forty that we sent to former JAs I had served with—including six members of my Basic Course.
Following Christmas, I reached out to active duty, retired, and former JAs I knew and asked them for assistance in writing this article. I hope their thoughts and memories can help explain why our shared relationships and values remain so strong over the years.
My former boss at Fort Drum, and longtime friend, Colonel (COL) (Retired) John Smith explained that former JAs have unique shared experiences. Many times, they are unique to their time in service. For instance, how many of our counterparts tried cases within months of passing the bar? How many argued appellate cases that really mattered, learned how to fire automatic weapons, or parachute as a part of a job? He even reminded me that we invented the unique game of snowshoe baseball at Fort Drum one winter. In John’s opinion, the hallmarks of military service include camaraderie, teamwork, and leadership at all levels of service. In many instances, we stand (or low crawl) with our future clients.
These shared experiences lead to unique—and often lifetime—friendships. John explained how, at Fort Bragg, one method to help integrate new JAs into the legal office—and also into Fort Bragg—was to break the monotony of daily 0600 physical training by bringing the newer JAs on “crime tours.” They ran around Fort Bragg and visited the crime scenes of recent or historical cases. Some locations included the home of then-Captain (CPT) Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted of killing his wife and two daughters; a phone booth where a multi-victim shooting occurred; and a drop zone where a paratrooper died because someone tampered with his parachutes. These experiences create vivid memories. The trial and conviction of CPT MacDonald, for example, was extremely controversial and was the subject of the book and TV miniseries entitled Fatal Vision.1
My friend COL Chuck Poché explained how he and then-CPT Mary Card became lifelong friends from their experience as captains in the 1st Armored Division. During a Division Warfighter/Mission Rehearsal Exercise at Hohenfels, Germany, both were on duty after midnight in separate locations and working the Stars and Stripes crossword puzzle. Apparently, CPT Card knew immediately the answer to a four-letter word ending in “U” for a shade of pantyhose. “Ecru” was the correct response.
It was Chuck’s first assignment as a JA, and he was able to share his operational knowledge as a former Armor officer with CPT Card’s legal experience during a deployment to Kosovo. Their friendship included asking CPT Card to serve as a proxy “godmother” at his daughter’s baptism. Another longtime friend, then-CPT Paula Schasberger, drove Chuck’s wife Renee to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for his daughter’s birth.
Colonel Poché’s relationship with CPT Card included assignments at Fort Hood, Texas, and Iraq. Their families bonded over Thai food and continue to remain close to this day. Chuck’s daughter, Madeleine, served as a flower girl at CPT Card’s wedding. When the time came for Chuck to transition to civilian life, Mary linked him up with a network of retired active duty and reserve JAs to help him adjust to post-Army life. Chuck believes in the wisdom of an old poem by Joseph Parry:
Make new friends, but keep the old;
Those are silver, these are gold.2
Chuck Poché’s experience with CPT Card is not singular or unusual. Numerous individuals have told me how they bonded with colleagues while assigned to Germany or Korea. Many lifelong friends served as stand-ins at baptisms, confirmations, and other similar events for relatives back in the states. More than one person told me their relationship with their Army proxy was actually better than with their actual relative. In addition, for good or bad reasons, we all remember our sponsors who were assigned to take care of us and our families until we integrated into our new units in Germany or Korea.
Shortly after we arrived in Germany in 1981, my sponsor told my wife and me to meet him at the Schweinfurt Bahnhof (train station) on a Saturday morning in early December because we were going to take the train to the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market). We didn’t know what a Christkindlesmarkt was, but, from what I recall, the experience certainly sparked a lifelong love of glühwein, Nuremberg brats, and German Christmas tree ornaments.
One recent avenue for retired JAs to stay engaged was initiated by retired Major General (MG) and former Deputy Judge Advocate General Butch Tate. He, General Dunn, and others have organized a monthly meeting on Zoom to celebrate “happy hour” and to stay abreast of current Corps events. Major General Stu Risch has briefed this group, as well as three former Regimental Colonels. General Tate usually selects discussion topics that have included 1) the latest book individuals have read, 2) famous, infamous, or humorous people, or 3) events from our careers.
Another organization that promotes continued JAG Corps fellowship after retirement is the Retired Army Judge Advocates Association (RAJA). It was formed in 1976 as a social organization for Army JAG retirees who wished to stay in contact with each other. The organization currently has over 300 members, and the current president is COL (Retired) Mike Chapman. Each year, RAJA holds membership meetings in various locations across the United States. At each meeting, The Judge Advocate General, Deputy Judge Advocate General, or other member of the JAG leadership team gives the members an update on current JAG issues. The Retired Army Judge Advocates Association has met every year since 1977—except for 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. The next membership meeting is scheduled for early June 2022 in Charlottesville, Virginia. If interested, there is more information about RAJA online.3
A smaller group of retired Army JAs from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area meets twice a year for an organized luncheon in downtown D.C. The group is affectionately called the “Old Fuds.” It started in the 1960s as an occasional luncheon of judges on the U.S. Army Court of Military Review. Later, in the 1990s, this informal gathering developed into the current biannual event. Each luncheon includes a guest speaker. Colonel (Retired) Don Deline and MG (Retired) Bill Suter became the president and treasurer. Major General (Retired) John Altenburg and COL (Retired) Mike Chapman are the current officers.
Today, you can see lifelong relationships being built—even with first-term captains. At Fort Benning, they call themselves the “Captains Mafia.”4 Until the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) moved to newer facilities, the Mafia would eat lunch every day together in the second floor administrative law classroom. I always found it amusing that they were discussing and complaining about subjects that young captains have complained about forever. Subjects like how jacked up the office physical training program is; how screwed up the assignments process is; how the office noncommissioned officer-in-charge ignores captains; and how the warrant officer tells the Deputy SJA or the SJA all the secrets of the office.
Finally, lifelong bonding and friendship with our former friends, superiors, and subordinates continues despite years—maybe decades—of physical separation. How many of our retired senior JAs are still asked for career advice by junior members, or for recommendations for individuals leaving military service? We all do it gladly.
I remember a captain who worked for me who was applying for a job with Highmark Health in Pittsburgh—one of the largest non-profit health care corporations in the country. He asked me to review his resume, and I noticed he omitted his assignment as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney. I remember telling him that the hiring team might not know what the position of Chief of Claims at Fort Benning entailed; but I was sure they knew what a U.S. Attorney was, even if it only involved prosecuting shoplifters at the on-post store and alcohol and drug offenses. He changed his resume and was hired. I am sure it helped that he had a Bachelor of Science Degree in Industrial Engineering and a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
And, sometimes, our advice to former subordinates can be hard. It is often difficult when asked to tell a friend, maybe someone you served in combat with, that promotion to a higher grade is probably not in the cards.
Former Regimental Colonel Gil Fegley told me that (in his opinion) lifelong relationships with JAs start with shared values. It also includes trust in a higher being, ethics, honesty, hard work, respect for others, and loyalty to our nation. He believes that people with these common values are naturally drawn to one another and to military service; he believes they want to stay engaged with one another.
Recently, Lieutenant General Charles N. Pede celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the founding of the Trial Defense Service (TDS) by providing comments to the JAG Corps. He recalled one event where he and three fellow TDS captains sang at the annual U.S. Army Europe JAG Corps Ball, which was held in Heidelberg every spring. He fondly remembered his singing group, the “Leavenworth Four,” a name coined from his own shared experiences in the Mannheim TDS Office in Germany. In conclusion, I am proud to say that in December—after more than thirty years—I received Christmas cards from two members of the Leavenworth Four who sang at that event. Relationships in the JAG Corps have the unique ability to endure well past a member’s re-entry into civilian life; it is these relationships that allow members of our Corps to help one another throughout our lives. I would not be who I am today without them. TAL
Captain Dick Gordon (left), Captain Jim Berl (center), and Captain Tom Kirwin (right) in Berlin, Germany, in 1983. (Photo courtesy of Dick Gordon)
1. See Joe McGinniss, Fatal Vision: A True Crime Classic (Signet 2012) (1983). See also Fatal Vision (NBC Studios Nov. 18–19, 1984) (This was a two-part miniseries.).
2. Joseph Parry, New Friends and Old Friends, PoetryNook, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/new-friends-and-old-friends (last visited June 25, 2021).
3. See RAJA: Retired Army Judge Advocates Association, RAJA, www.rajaassn.org (last visited June 25, 2021).
4. The author served as the Chief of Administrative and Civil Law at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Georgia for eleven years.