Practice Notes: Under a Future Shady Tree - The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center & School
On 1 June 2021, Colonel (COL) Luis O. Rodriguez assumed his current duties as interim director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI), Office of The Judge Advocate General (OTJAG). Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he has served in the Army for over forty years, in both the Reserve and Active Components, as an officer and noncommissioned officer. Previously, he served as an associate judge for the Army Court of Criminal Appeals and as the Staff Judge Advocate for the 3d Infantry Division, which included a one-year combat deployment to Afghanistan. Colonel Rodriguez also served as the Chair, Administrative and Civil Law Department, The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School; Staff Judge Advocate, U.S. Army South; and Deputy Staff Judge Advocate, 25th Infantry Division, which included a combat deployment to Iraq. One of his most memorable assignments was twenty years ago, while serving as the U.S. Southern Command's Legal Advisor and Liaison Officer in Colombia, establishing a Military Penal Justice Corps and military law school in that nation. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jessica Marrisette, a member of the JAG Corps Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEIC) interviewed COL Rodriguez.
Buenos días, señor. ¿Cómo estás?
Good morning, mi amiga Jefe.1
Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to sit with you today to discuss your appointment as the first Director of the Judge Advocate General's Corps ODEI.
What led to the creation of this new OTJAG directorate?
The short answer is that, while efforts in our military to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion are not new, ODEI is partly the result of the reckoning that has been affecting our republic since the murder of Mr. George Floyd. That murder, as we all know, caused a need to reexamine past behavior—a reckoning, to occur across our nation, a reckoning on racial equity, racial justice, bias, gender, and sexual orientation. That reckoning continues to reverberate and bitterly affect American society and government institutions to this day. It includes (among most in government or industry) a renewed desire to determine how inclusive our workplaces really are, and to assess how fairly we treat each other while at work.
As one of the government agencies affected by the Floyd murder's reckoning, last summer, our Army renewed diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that were already under way. The Army People Strategy's annex on diversity notes that the Army is a multiracial and multicultural force, and that the nation's “increasingly complex global responsibilities require” the Army to acquire “people with different experiences, values, and backgrounds.”2 In June 2020, the Army initiated an effort entitled “Project Inclusion” that is operationalizing The Army People Strategy's DEI goals and objectives.3
Meanwhile, in our Corps, The Judge Advocate General (TJAG) stood up the DEI Council (DEIC), which began meeting and conducting listening sessions across all the Judge Advocate Legal Services (JALS), and with retired and former JALS personnel by July 2020. Also, in October and November 2020, the Corps conducted a survey to elicit the views of JALS personnel on diversity and inclusion.
By the fall of 2020, a committee appointed by the DEIC began to look in earnest at what an office dedicated to DEI could accomplish for JALS. The work of that committee led the DEIC to brief and recommend to TJAG the creation of a full-time ODEI in JALS. By early 2021, and following a review of the survey's feedback, TJAG approved the concept of this office within OTJAG, working here in the Pentagon and reporting directly to TJAG.
As TJAG stated at the time ODEI was created, we are the nation's premiere law firm, and “we can and must be better” in becoming a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization.4 The ODEI's mission is to lead and guide in creating and managing practices that foster DEI consistent with JALS's core values. That is ultimately what ODEI is about—to try to do better for all our people in JALS.
As a starting point, how can people learn more about this topic?
Anyone in JALS who wants to learn more about DEI should review the many documentary sources the DEIC has been posting in its milSuitepage.5 Start by learning what is meant by the basic terms we use—by learning the Army's definitions of terms such as “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion.” Of course, like all good legal professionals, check out the law and, in particular, recent legislation on DEI contained in the National Defense Authorization Acts for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.6 Read some of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports on diversity and inclusion we have posted in milSuite,7 which provide a solid historical background on racial/ethnic inclusion issues in our military since the Civil War. Next, folks may need to understand what the Army is doing regarding its many DEI initiatives currently afoot. For this, I recommend reading The Army People Strategy and its DEI annex.8
Again, DEI efforts are not new. Take World War II: various committees, task forces, and commissions began to address desegregation and recommend equal treatment efforts of African-American military personnel through the 1960s. These efforts led to the eventual creation of the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute and the investigation of discrimination in the administration of military justice in the 1970s through the 1990s. The most cursory glance or superficial reading of the CRS reports or the many other documentary sources we've posted in milSuite reveals that, for many years and across many presidential administrations, our military has consistently sought to address and improve DEI concerns in our ranks. My opinion is that, overall, there has been progress, albeit slow progress. One of my favorite writers, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, had a saying about justice that now appears to me quite appropriate concerning DEI in our military: “Justice may limp along, but it gets there all the same.”9
What will a fully-staffed ODEI look like?
The goal is for ODEI to become a three-person office, and to adjust that footprint as the mission progresses. I began to work in the Pentagon in June 2021, and right now I'm just directing myself in carrying out ODEI's vision—which is to enable the transformation of policies, practices, programs, and systems that advance diversity, equity, and inclusion to the fullest extent possible across the breadth (functions) and depth (hierarchy) of JALS. However, soon the office will have a dedicated legal administrator, and I am also working hard on creating a civilian position for a professional to assume the duties of director of our office. Eventually, once a civilian director is ultimately hired, my successor or I will assume the duties of deputy director of ODEI.
How did you prepare for this new role?
When TJAG first approved the ODEI concept and notified me of my selection as the office's interim director, he told me to dedicate time to learning more about DEI and to network broadly. I immediately enrolled in a DEI certification course from the University of South Florida, alongside the executive officer of our DEIC, Lieutenant Colonel Paulette Burton, who also holds a similar certificate from Cornell University. I then began to read and learn all I could on the subject. I also began to contact DEI practitioners in government and industry, and to date I have met with many professionals who have readily shared with me the issues and challenges they faced in enabling DEI in their respective organizations. As a result, I now have a fairly-substantial directory of folks I can consult with concerning DEI and have a pretty good idea of the “what,” “how,” and “why” of DEI.
In speaking with many DEI experts, it became apparent that one of the main concerns they all had while attempting to further DEI in their organizations was in obtaining genuine “buy-in” for their diversity programs from their leaders. I don't have that problem. Our Corps's strategic leaders have consistently expressed in public and in private their unwavering desire, hope, and commitment to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in our organization.
Can you tell us a little bit about ODEI's relationship with other Services' legal departments?
The Army is certainly the only one right now with dedicated full-time support toward accomplishing DEI initiatives, but all the legal offices in the other military departments or Services (the Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard), have also stood up organizations similar to our DEI Council in scope and responsibility. The DEIC and I have met with the leaders of all these organizations quite frequently, and are coordinating with them “lessons learned” and best DEI practices for our common benefit.
What initiatives have you been working on? Perhaps more importantly, what ODEI-related decisions have been made?
After “liberating” an office and computer at the Pentagon, the first thing I did here a few weeks ago was to submit an office budget request for the next fiscal year. Further, and with the DEIC's help, much work has been done to flesh out the development of a civilian director's position, and I'm now putting some finishing touches on that. I have also begun to network with the various OTJAG divisions and organizations with whom ODEI will work closely in the months ahead, such as the Personnel, Plans, and Training Office, and Labor and Employment. Further, with the DEIC's help, we are looking at JALS policies and assessing further DEI training and education initiatives for our personnel.
Right now, my office's focus is internal to JALS, but I envision a point at which ODEI may help provide the Army with some level of legal support in implementing its Army-wide DEI initiatives. Mind you, the Army is moving fast in this regard. For instance, in the last three weeks, I helped coordinate the Corps's response to an Army “tasker” requiring the comprehensive revision of all published Army regulations, policy, field manuals, or published doctrinal guidance for any discriminatory bias, such as providing or allowing preferential treatment to Soldiers or civilian personnel based on race, color, sex (to include gender identity and pregnancy), national origin, religion, or sexual orientation, or other protected categories.
This is really good news, sir. It goes a long way to know that our Regimental leaders did not just give you a title and an office, but that their DEI efforts, our efforts, are in fact genuine and purposeful. We are not just “talking the talk” here, we are walking it!
Before this appointment, your assignment was as a member of the judiciary, and you served on the JAG Corps's Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. How has your relationship with the Council changed now that you have taken on this new, formal role?
One thing the Corps may want to know is that the Council is not going away just because Luis is now at the Pentagon doing DEI full-time. I remain a member of the Council and take part in its efforts, which will continue in the future. I have already made recommendations on DEI practices and initiatives for the DEIC to consider studying in-depth, developing appropriate courses of action for TJAG to consider so that he can make a well-informed decision regarding their implementation across JALS. Ultimately, I see the formal relationship between ODEI and DEIC as one of co-equals, given that both have direct reporting roles to TJAG on the same topic. I just happen to now have the ability to think about that DEI topic full-time.
What do you hope to accomplish in your time as ODEI Director?
Look, I'm fortunate in being able to talk with my mother daily. She is a truly courageous person, who literally put herself through school despite much adversity in the late 1950s in Puerto Rico, and was about to finish her law degree there when I was born and she had to assume what was deemed a more traditional woman's role in that deeply patriarchal society. I can go on and on about her, but one of the hallmark traits she has that I've tried to emulate is to have the courage to question the “why” of things. She taught me to always question myself, and to also have the wisdom to change my mind or position depending on the facts I uncover.
I realize that many people don't know what DEI is about or even care to understand the need for an office dedicated to this effort, and that there will be many more “long-term wins” for ODEI than “quick wins” ahead. What I hope is that ODEI will become a rich and ready resource for those in the Corps who have the courage to question things, who wish to act in good faith toward the diverse teams they now lead, who want to learn more about DEI, and who maintain a willingness to reexamine past behavior and aim to simply do better.
When I told my mother I was going to do this job instead of retiring from the Corps this summer as I had originally planned to do, she said to me that I was “planting trees whose shade” our young people in the Corps now would one day enjoy. I hope to get the help and advice of our folks in planting these trees. And, perhaps, one day our diverse legal teams will get to rest in their shade. TAL
COL Rodriguez is the Director, Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Office of The Judge Advocate General at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. New York.
CW3 Marrisette is a Strategic Communications Officer at the Strategic Initiatives Office, Office of The Judge Advocate General at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
1. “Jefe” means “chief” in Spanish. Jefe, Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english-spanish/chief (last visited Aug. 11, 2021).
2. U.S. Dept' of Army, The Army People Strategy: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Annex 1 (2020) [hereinafter DEI Annex].
3. See U.S. Army Project Inclusion, U.S. Army (June 29, 2020), https://www.army.mil/standto/archive/2020/06/29/.
4. The Judge Advoc. Gen. & Deputy Judge Advoc. Gen., U.S. Army, TJAG and DJAG Sends, Vol. 40-16—Establishment of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Office of The Judge Advocate General (25 Mar. 2021).
5. Council on Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, milSuite, https://www.milsuite.mil/book/community/spaces/armyjag/council-on-diversity-equity-inclusion (last visited Aug. 11, 2021).
6. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, Pub. L. 116-92, 133 Stat. 1198 (2019); William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, Pub. L. 116-283 (2020).
7. E.g., Kristy N. Kamarck, Cong. Rsch. Serv., R44321, Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity in the Armed Services: Background and Issues for Congress (June 5, 2019).
8. See U.S. Dep't of Army, The Army People Strategy (2019); DEI Annex, supra note 2.
9. Gabriel García Márquez, In Evil Hour (1962).