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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