Soldier's heart, lawyer's mind

By Capt. Gurney F. Pearsall III | May 1, 2020

This story by Capt. Gurney F. Pearsall III was first published in April/May 2020 issue of The Docket, published by the Denver Bar Association.  It was written with a civilian audience of law professionals in mind. This article is republished here with their permission.

JOINT-BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Earlier this year, I had the honor of participating in the U.S. Army JAG Corps’ latest legal training initiative. Known as the Total Force Readiness Exercise (TFRX), it combines legal education with military exercises and offers an interesting window into the world of the judge advocate. Judge advocates are equal parts lawyers and soldiers (“Soldier’s heart, lawyer’s mind!” as my class’ motto goes), so they must maintain a high level of proficiency in both legal and martial skill sets. To deliver training that better reflects this dual identity, Brigadier General Marilyn Chiafullo recently re- organized our annual training into the TFRX, a combination of legal education with field exercises.

My unit was one of four that were selected to participate in the first large- scale TFRX. For context, the U.S. Army JAG Corps has about 1,800 members split into 28 Legal Operations Detachments (LODs). I serve the 87th LOD as a captain. Its soldiers work as attorneys or paralegals in civilian practices across a wide spectrum of legal fields in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, including as private practitioners, state legislators, prosecutors, judges, and federal or state agency attorneys. In their military roles, these soldiers have served in combat and non-combat roles across the U.S. and the world, everywhere from Fort Carson and the Pentagon to Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, on January 9, 2020, ready to prove myself at this new event, I boarded an Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle. At Fort Lewis-McChord, TFRX launched with two days of legal education courses covering recent updates to the military justice sys- tem, the Geneva conventions, the federal protections to deployed soldiers, and national security law. The classes were taught in small groups and split their time between lectures and group discussions about hypothetical scenarios. To prevent birds of a feather from flocking together, each assigned group integrated soldiers of all ranks and components.

Our classes were followed by the Warrior Task and Battle Drill. The drill took place in a mock village, complete with dozens of homes and buildings, as well as colorful graffiti spray painted in Arabic on the walls. We learned how to evaluate combat casualties, transport those casualties off the field, call in medical air support, and then pick up our rifles and fight back the ambush that caused the casualties.

Following this, we headed to a weapons range, with senior officers qualifying on M9 pistols and the rest of us qualifying on M4 rifles. To qualify with the M4, you must hit your targets while prone and then while kneeling on one knee. Your targets pop up for the shortest three seconds you have ever experienced. Keeping steady under the weight of the armor and your helmet, carefully controlling your breath and your aim, and squeezing the trigger in a way that does not cause even the slightest movement in your aim has a way of compressing time. Complicating matters is the fact that many of your targets are about 300 meters (1,000 feet) away, a distance at which their movement is barely noticeable, and they appear as mere dots in your crosshairs.

Lastly, TFRX reached a crescendo with its combat immersion exercise, the Staff Exercise (STAFFEX). For the STAFFEX, we drove to an austere command center in a forest and spent the next 24 hours on call. We were now in an active war zone with a near-peer competitor just over the horizon. At any time, sometimes with hours of time in between, runners dashed into the command center with urgent messages from commanders, requesting guidance on anything from lawful targeting, detainee operations, noncombatant evacuation operations, military justice issues, or all of the above, all at once.

While I was on call, at 0300 my team grappled with some of the toughest questions of the night. For instance, under the law of armed conflict you are expected to disarm and release prisoners of war if you have captured more of them than you can properly detain.

However, what do you advise your commander to do if allied forces are rounding up and executing these released POWs? Should you unlawfully detain these prisoners for their own protection, or comply strictly with the laws of armed conflict even if your compliance enables allied forces to commit war crimes? If enemy forces are using a farm to stage long-range rocket attacks on U.S. forces and are holding its civilian occupants as human shields, is the farm a lawful military target? What if some of the rockets may have chemical warheads?

All of this took place under the back- drop of escalating international tensions between the U.S., Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Iran had recently launched dozens of missiles against U.S. forces in Iraq. Our TRFX opponent was a hypothetical enemy force, but the context was lost on no one.

With each question, the judge advocate and his or her team of paralegals had to quickly analyze and apply the appropriate laws to the scenario, then brief their guidance to the commander. The briefing was often comparable to an oral argument on appeal, with the commander or her staff grilling the briefer with hypothetical questions and clarifying questions to test the outermost limits of our guidance and knowledge. The questions are not merely meant to grill, of course; they are typically the same questions that commanders around the world are asking their judge advocates.

This TFRX saw about 300 participants from the Army, Army Reserves, and National Guard. Highlighting the importance of this event to the JAG Corps, the deputy judge advocate general, Major General Stuart W. Risch, delivered the event’s opening ceremony with an update on the state of the corps and Brigadier General Marilyn Chiafullo observed each day’s events unfold in real time. In the end, this TFRX exceeded all expectations while safely and successfully accomplishing its objective of building readiness today for the battlefield of tomorrow.

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