Thanks for checking in!

I started this blog to keep in touch with my family and friends during my time attending Commissioned Officer Training (COT) and the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course (JASOC) at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Now I'm done with training and back in the "real" world, but I'll keep updating this blog with any interesting developments from my JAG career.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Can we do that?

I am sitting on an unbelievably comfortable couch in beautiful Solvang, California, flipping between two NFL games, mentally transitioning from life on active duty back to my civilian world. But the constant reminders that today is the tenth anniversary of 9/11 won't let me slip so easily into my regular life. I keep thinking of a question the head of the Air Force JAG Corps, Lieutenant General Richard Harding, posed when he addressed us at graduation: Can we do that?

(Here is a picture of General Harding, the first three-star general to lead the Air Force JAG Corps.)

First, some background. After we flew out of Hurricane Irene and made it back to Maxwell AFB, we finished up our last moot court. I'd describe that in more detail but the entire class was sworn to secrecy about it. After that we moved into our last subject area, Operations and International Law (OIL). We had about four or five days of lectures on the law of armed conflict and the rules of engagement and use of force, and then we took our last exam.

The OIL exam was the last substantive part of the course. But it signified something more for me and the other members of Charlie Flight. Going into that test, we had a 4.5-point lead over the three other flights in the race for the Commandant's Cup, an award given to the flight that has the best combined academic and athletic performance over the entire course. Throughout JASOC, for each test and athletic competition (volleyball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, PT test, softball), three points were given to each first-place finisher, two for each second-place finisher, one for each third-place finisher, and zero for last place. Fueled largely by our athletic dominance, Charlie Flight had built up a good lead, but it wasn't insurmountable; we could give it all up with a bad OIL test and a poor finish in the last Commandant's Cup event, the Capstone Leadership Challenge, a kind of obstacle-course-slash-scavenger-hunt that involves running around the base and completing various challenges, Amazing-Race style.

We weren't informed of the OIL test results prior to the start of the Capstone Leadership challenge on Thursday morning, the day before graduation. So we figured we had to place well on that to ensure our victory. Our first task was to field strip and reassemble an M-16. They might as well have asked us to rebuild a car engine. But we struggled through and finally moved on to our second task. After that task we were running back to the JAG school through a field when I stepped in a hole, heard my left ankle pop a couple of times, and went down like a ton of bricks. I spent the rest of the morning at the med center, where a PA confirmed that nothing was broken, but I had a pretty bad sprain. I felt pretty stupid about it all. The last day before graduation! And worse yet, I later learned that Charlie Flight came in last in the Capstone Leadership Challenge, by less than a minute - which meant that the five or so minutes everyone spent hovering over my prone body after I fell might have cost us the Commandant's Cup.

(Here are some photos of my ankle taken today, a few days after the sprain, along with a picture of the boot I'm now sporting, courtesy of the Air Force.)

So fast-forward to graduation and me sitting in Kuhfeld auditorium, fearing I'd make a fool of myself as I hobble across the stage in my one ski boot and dreading the news that we've lost the Cup.

Those concerns faded away as I listened to General Harding speak. He worked his way through the first three of four "pillars" that reflect the foundations of and goals he has set for the corps - Teaming between paralegals and jags, Military Justice and Legal Assistance. He began discussing the fourth pillar, Training, with a story. One of his assignments was Staff Judge Advocate to U.S. Strategic Command, a joint-forces command staffed with personnel from all branches of the military that is responsible for overseeing the country's national defense. The command was in the middle of a comprehensive exercise when a photo came on their main screen.

It was a photo of the first tower of the World Trade Center hit on 9/11.

He assumed it was just a terrible accident, as did the others at Strategic Command, and the exercise continued. When reports of the second tower attack came in, they knew this was for real, and the exercise was cancelled at a cost of millions. And when they learned that the Pentagon had been hit and evacuated, the gravity of the situation truly hit them: with nobody in the Pentagon, Strategic Command was solely responsible for coordinating the country's defenses.

Minutes after the Pentagon was hit, Strategic Command received word that United 93 was believed hijacked and headed back towards the Capitol. The command then fielded a phone call informing them that the President had ordered that United 93 be shot down. One by one, the different units were asked for their assessment and agreement. When it finally got down to General Harding, the commander looked at him and said, "What do you think? Can we do that?"

As General Harding retold the story, you could hear a pin drop. The importance of that question was not lost on any of us. Can we do that? Can we legally use American forces to shoot down a plane full of U.S. Citizens? General Harding didn't tell us what his answer was, because the answer isn't important.  And it will never be important because of the courage of the passengers on that plane.  But the question is important.  It was important for us to understand is that these are the kinds of ultimate questions that JAGs may be called upon to answer, and that we may not be able to consult with others in answering them. That we may find ourselves faced with that question, with nothing but our judgment and our training to rely on.

That story, that thought, and that question are what keep me from transitioning quickly back to my civilian life today. They remind me why I applied for a commission almost four years ago, why I raised my hand and took that oath, and why, as crazy as it seems, I've spent over three months this year in Montgomery, Alabama.

(As for the Commandant's Cup, we won by a half a point. And I made it across the stage with minimal hobbling. I'll post some pictures from graduation as soon as I can.)

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Surviving JASOCalypse 2011

I'm now in the last few days of JASOC and I have to acknowledge my epic failure to keep this blog updated over the past seven weeks. Here is what happened in a nutshell since our trip to Florida in week 2: We finished our civil law section, which I really enjoyed (especially the administrative discharge topic). We then went on to military justice, which was really interesting, given the nuanced differences between military and civilian criminal systems. The highlights of military justice were the two mock courts-martial, which I can't say too much about because we we all sworn to secrecy so that future JASOC classes aren't tipped off. We then moved on to operations and international law (affectionately called OIL law), which is at the law that we apply in a deployed environment, including the law of armed conflict and the rules of engagement. That part of the course was fascinating because it really is the one area where JAGs do legal work that nobody else does. We took our OIL test this morning, so we are pretty much done with the class from a substantive standpoint. My next post will likely have to do with our dining-out, graduation, and our trip back to California (which all of us - Susan and Joaquin especially) are really looking forward to. These nine weeks have felt like a year.

So that's the quick update. Now for the meaty part. The highlight (or lowlight) of this past seven-week period was our our class trip to DC, which started with an earthquake and ended with a hurricane, prompting us to coin the term "JASOCalypse 2011" to refer to our class.

The earthquake didn't really faze us because we were in Atlanta on a stopover (but Susan and Joaquin got to experience it; who would have guessed Joaquin's first earthquake would be in DC?). But we had a few drinks while watching the news at the Atlanta airport and laughed at the pictures of the destruction that later flooded the Internet, like this:

Despite this ominous warning from Mother Nature, we stayed the course and landed in DC on a Tuesday night. The next few days we spent seeing some of the sights, getting sworn in to military appellate courts, and sitting through briefings from JAG corps leadership, including Lieutenant General Richard Harding, The Judge Advocate General of the Air Force (TJAG).

This is me and some of my buddies from class near the front steps of the Supreme Court. The Capitol is behind us.

On the steps of the Supreme Court. I should have fixed my right pant leg.

We stopped by the Air Force Memorial, the walls of which are engraved with famous quotations about the importance of air power. This one from Billy Mitchell is one of my favorites.

Ten-foot tall permanent honor guard at the Air Force memorial.

We toured the Capitol building, which I had never done before. One thing I loved was the statues; there are 100 in the building - two from each state. DC just got the right to put in two of it's own, and there is a debate going on about who it's two representatives should be. One of California's statues is this one of Ronald Reagan. The coolest thing about this is that there are crushed bits of the Berlin Wall in the base. California's other native son represented at the Capitol is Father Junipero Serra, considered by many to be the "father" of our state.

This is a small memorial at the Capitol bearing the names of the passengers and crew of United 93, the plane that was headed for the Capitol on September 11 until the patriots inside, already aware of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, overwhelmed the terrorists in control of the plane and forced them to take the plane down in a Pennsylvania field.

We saw a lot of other cool things in our time in DC; I'll try to post more pictures later. As for that hurricane, the story goes like this:

We were at the Pentagon all day on Friday, and about noon we were told that our instructors were working to get all 50+ of us on a flight out that night because Hurricane Irene was working it's way up the coast and the weather in DC would be at it's worst at around 5:00 pm on Saturday (and our flight was scheduled for 4:00 pm). When we all checked the weather during a break we saw this:

But by the end of the day, it became clear that we wouldn't be leaving DC early. Finding 50+ seats on short notice proved to be an impossible task. So we all settled in for the long haul, thinking that there was no way our plane would take off. Well, all of us except for two people in class. By the end of the night on Friday we heard of thousands of flights being cancelled up and down the coast, and most of us figured that it was just a matter of time before we got the call saying we'd be stuck in DC until Monday. But by late morning on Saturday, our flight was still on schedule, so we packed up all our stuff and headed for the airport. I said goodbye to Susan and Joaquin, who were with me in DC all week, and who were staying in DC with friends to ride out the storm. It was raining pretty fiercely as we left for the airport.

Reagan International was eerily deserted. Nobody was checking in for flights, shops were closed, restaurants were in the process of closing down. Not only were thousands of flights cancelled, but the airport itself was shutting down at 6 pm. Over the PA system we heard that all flights after 5 pm were grounded. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 4:40. Those of us convinced we'd end up staying in DC got some food and settled in at the lone bar still open to wait for the announcement that our flight was cancelled.

At about 4:15 I checked this Tagus of our flight and saw that it was now delayed 14 minutes - from 4:40 to 4:54. We would be beating the 5:00 deadline by 6 minutes. Someone asked a gate attendant why we were delayed and she was told that the plane reported some mechanical issues. After a few beers and that news, most of us were feeling pretty confident that we'd be stuck in DC. But the few holdouts were still taking bets that we would be taking off.

Even as boarded the plane, I was thinking we would have to deplane. There was no way we would take off. Through the tiny airplane windows you could see the rain coming down in waves, driven by fierce gusts of wind that slammed the water droplets into the ground. The airplane's shell seemed like little protection against this onslaught. Nervous smiles, raised eyebrows and incredulous looks passed from one person to the other like a contagious yawn. My neighbor passed out airplane-size bottles of vodka that she had thoughtfully stocked up on.

The pilot's voice cut through the tension. "Thanks for joining us, ladies and gentlemen. We know there's some weather out there but we'll be up and out of it in about ten to fifteen minutes. Just sit tight." Those ten to fifteen minutes felt like hours as the plane was buffeted back and forth by the wind. I was thankful that Susan wasn't on the plane, because she clamps down on my hand or arm with an iron grip and squeezes like she's having a contraction when there's just a little bit of turbulence. She would have broken something, no doubt. But God bless that pilot, we made it up and out, and as soon as we got above the clouds, it was like the hurricane never even existed. We had survived the JASOCalypse.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

The FGT-BLT - or, quite possibly the best sandwich in the world

Since Susan arrived in Montgomery in early August, we've been searching for the best food in town. Guided by Yelp, we ended up at Filet & Vine, a deli and bottleshop in the Old Cloverdale neighborhood. When I go to new places, I like to order whatever the special is or whatever the place is famous for, figuring that will be the most likely to bowl me over. So I asked the guy working the deli counter whether there was anything like that, and he suggested a sandwich made of shaved ham, coleslaw, and some kind of peppers, all on a baguette. I ordered it with a side of fried okra.

It was, quite possibly, the best sandwich I've ever had. The fried okra was okay, but that sandwich was incredible. Despite that, I did have some regret about ordering it, because as I moseyed down the line I came across this sign for an FGT-BLT:

If you know me, you know I love bacon. I also love tomatoes and mayo, so the BLT has always kind of been my go-to sandwich. I have even been known to get that BLT pizza from CPK. Bacon is GOOD. So I knew that I'd have to come back for that FGT-BLT.

A couple of weeks later, I got my chance. Susan picked me up at school and I suggested we head back to Filet & Vine so that I could scratch that FGT-BLT itch. All I can say is if you ever get to Montgomery, you should try it. The fried green tomatoes add another layer to this sandwich standard that is unexpected and delicious! I'll never look at a regular BLT the same way again. Here's a photo of this sandwich sensation:

And here's a picture of Joaquin enjoying his grilled-cheese sandwich:

More updates soon - I have some catching up to do!

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Joining the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces

I owe this blog a lot of updates, so my apologies to those of you (if any) who have been waiting with bated breath to hear the latest. Here's a quick rundown: we finished our military justice section and are now on the traditional JAG School trip to Washington, DC. Today was our sightseeing day; we started out at the Air Force Memorial, then went to the Supreme Court and the Capitol. This afternoon we were sworn into the Court of Appeal for the Armed Forces. Below is a picture of me with two of my good buddies from the class (both of whom make me feel incredibly short). More updates soon, I promise!

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Monday, August 15, 2011

The Best Hello

I have to post these blurry pictures from Joaquin and Susan's arrival. They got here the day before my birthday at about 11pm. I was waiting for them at the airport, blackberry in hand, poised to catch Joaquin's reaction. Unfortunately, I should have had my phone set to video instead of camera, as you can see.

Things were going really well. He ran to me with this huge smile on his face. But then he stopped right in front of me, held out a shiny quarter clutched in his hand, and said "look, daddy, I found some money!". Not quite the greeting I was hoping for, but I'll take it.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Tuskegee Airmen and (gasp!) Toomer's Corner

The weekend after our Florida trip, I decided to head up to the Tuskegee Airmen memorial at Moton Field, a short 20-minute drive from Montgomery.  Moton Field is where the Tusekgee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots in U.S. history, trained before deploying to Europe, where they became famous for their success escorting Allied bombers. 

View of Moton Field from the sign in the picture above.

This is the real flight simulator they used back in WWII.  Compare this to the $7M AC-130 simulator that we all flew At Hurlburt Field!

This is the training plane that the Tuskegee Airmen flew.

This is a model of the P-51 Mustang with a red paint scheme on the tail -- known as a "Red Tail" -- that the Tuskegee Airmen flew in their missions over Europe.

I thought this old Gulf Oil sign was cool.

The Tuskegee Airmen were led by Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who I had learned about during COT.  General Davis was only a Captain when he was put in command of the Tuskegee Airmen.  He had graduated from West Point (there was no Air Force Academy back then), where he was given the silent treatment by his classmates the entire four years.  He never had a roommate, and nobody dared to be perceived as his friend.  At the time he graduated and was given his commission as a second lieutenant, he was one of only two black line officers in the Army; the other was his father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.  There was so much incredible history at Moton Field.  I couldn't help but feel moved.

From Moton Field we went up the 85 about thirty minutes to Auburn.  I'm no Auburn fan (my uncle, Tom, is a big Alabama fan so he'd kill me if ever I decided to root for the Tigers), but Auburn is the closest big university to Montgomery, and we wanted to see the campus.  I also wanted to see the famous trees at Toomer's Corner, which Auburn fans traditionally cover in toilet paper after a win.  Some crazy Alabama fan poisoned the trees earlier this year, and I'd heard about that on ESPN.  I had to take this opportunity to see the famous trees for myself.

View of the famous trees from Toomer's Drugstore, across the intersection.

Yup, that tree is dying. 
I have to admit that I did have some of the famous lemonade at Toomer's Drugstore, and it was pretty much the best lemonade I've had in my life.  I also may have bought a Toomer's Drgustore t-shirt, but I made sure to stay away from everything directly associated with Auburn University, lest my uncle Tom disown me.

On our way out of town, I noticed this graffiti.  For those who don't know, "War Eagle" is Auburn University's catch phrase.  And Cam Newton is the Heisman-winning quarterback who led them to the national championship last year.  It struck me as odd that someone would graffiti the word "Cam" over the phrase "War Eagle."  That's like defacing the Staples Center by spray-painting "Kobe" on the wall.  But it also strikes me as odd that someone would risk jail time to poison some trees.  There's no explaining the depths of football mania in the SEC, I guess.

Friday, August 5, 2011

JASOC Week 2, Part 4: C-130s, Flight Simulators, Special Operations, and The Worst Mexican Food Ever

After our first day at Eglin we had dinner in Destin, an awesome little beach town about twenty minutes from Eglin AFB.  A group of us decided we wanted margaritas and Mexican food, so we ended up at a place called the Dancing Iguana.  It was right on the beach and we were treated to an air show and fireworks, which we had no idea about.  Unfortunately the margaritas were basically lime-green kool-aid with a spash of tequila and the food was just about the most inauthentic I've ever had.  Mark my words: never try to get Mexican food in the Florida panhandle.  You'll be disappointed.
Does that look like carnitas to you?
This mariachi, with his Salvador Dali moustache and his dizzying array of dance moves, was the best part about the Dancing Iguana.

The next day we went to Hurlburt Field, which houses the Air Force's Special Operations Command.  These are the real badasses:  Pararescuemen, Tactical Air Control Party (TACP), Combat Control Team (CCT), and Weathermen.  These are the elite Airmen who operate in small teams to provide close combat support to other Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps units.  The Pararescuemen (or PJs, and abbreviation of Pararescue Jumpers) are the Air Force equivalent of Navy Seals; they are the only members of the Department of Defense specifically organized, trained and equipped to conduct personnel recovery operations in hostile or denied areas as a primary mission.

Our day at Hurlburt started with a history lesson.  We walked through the base air park, which houses retired aircraft used in special operations missions.  (As far as I can tell, each Air Force Base has a form of air park, with cool old planes and memorials describing how the planes were used.) 

The C-130 plane, modified to be an AC-130 gunship, was first used for special operations in Vietnam and is still the standard plane for all special operations missions.

This plane was used during the Vietnam war in our operations in Laos and Cambodia.  The teeth were painted on there at the request of our Laotian allies as a symbolic defense against evil spirits.

After our tour we got another hands-on treat.  We went into a training center where C-130 crew members are trained and got to pretend we were pilots and gunners.  The best part was the hydraulic flight simulator.  You sit in a real C-130 cockpit and operate it just like a real plane while it reacts just like a normal plane would, but the whole thing is on hydraulics and the front windows display a virtual image.  We all took turns trying our hand at aviation.  I was in about ten plane crashes (including my own) before one guy in my group brought us safely down on a virtual runway.

This is the 105mm gun on an AC-130 - the biggest gun on the plane (the others are 40mm and 22mm, I think).

The rounds for the 105mm gun are each about 32 pounds.

This is how the AC-130 guns are fired.  It's really like playing a video game.

From there we hopped back into our bus for the 4-hour drive back to Maxwell AFB.  I'll write more soon!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

JASOC Week 2, Part 3: The McKinley Anti-Climatic Lab and the DOMINATOR

After the exciting morning spent with working dogs, tasers and shooting simulators, we headed to the largest indoor weather-testing facility in the US -- the McKinley Climatic Laboratory.  The lab is basically a huge hangar souped up with all kinds of fancy equipment that lets the operators replicate any weather condition, from blizzards and freezing rain to blistering desert heat and sandstorms.  The size of the lab allows the military to test huge planes, but it's also available for private companies to test their cars and planes (for a fee ranging from about  $10,000 to $40,000 per day, depending on how complex a testing process they require).  There is a huge dial on the outside of the lab that shows what the temperature is inside; as we drove up, it was set at 32 degrees.  We all were salivating at the thought of escaping the nasty Florida heat and stepping into a huge freezer.  As we stepped off the bus, we all imagined we'd see something like this: 

Unfortunately, we didn't get that.  There was not only no plane, but the temperature felt like a mildly pleasant 75 degrees instead of the freezer we were all expecting.  Apparently, the lab was doing some freezing rain tests on a private jet engine, but the tests were not going on that day.  And apparently the big temperature dial on the outside of the lab doesn't actually reflect the temperature inside the lab; it is set by hand and it isn't always accurate.  As we walked around the hangar, we took to calling the lab the "McKinley Anti-Climatic Laboratory."  That said, it was still pretty cool.

Those huge yellow fans behind me are used to blow the freezing rain into the jet engine.

From the McKinley lab we went to the Taconi Room, which houses a lot of specialized weapons, including some that are in development.  Our tour guide explained how smart bombs were developed, discussed the different kind of penetrating bombs dropped by Air Force planes, and gave us details about some unmanned aerial vehicles in the works, one of which is awesomely called The Dominator.


Some smart engineers built this jamming signal with $40 worth of equipment from Radio Shack and a Coke can.   It has a reach of 1 nautical mile.  Terrorists often have much more sophisticated equipment - underscoring the importance of having smart bombs.

The white bulb-like part at the end of this tail contains the "smart" technology that allows bombs to avoid jamming signals.

This bomb is used to attack chemical plants and other facilities that we may not want to completely destroy because of the chance of putting harmful pollutants into the atmisphere.  It splits up in the air and shoots hundreds of darts through the target.
More from Florida later.  Tomorrow we go to Hurlburt Field, where Air Force Special Operations Command (the command overseeing the elite special ops Air Force personnel) is located!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Latest photos of Joaquin!

Here are the latest photos of Joaquin.  My favorite is the one of him running through the misters at Solvang Park with his mouth open.  Susan snapped that with her iPhone using the hipstamatic app.