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We are not the bad guys

Col. Julie Rutherford, 60th Air Mobility Wing Staff Judge Advocate, shares some thoughts on the impact the legal office has. (Courtesy Photo)

Col. Julie Rutherford, 60th Air Mobility Wing Staff Judge Advocate, shares some thoughts on the impact the legal office has. (Courtesy Photo)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – A couple days ago, a paralegal told me that a senior noncommissioned officer told her that she tells Airmen only to come to the legal office if they need their deployment checklist signed off. According to this SNCO, nothing good happens at the legal office.

Furthermore, when I meet a new commander, I often hear something like, “It’s great to meet you and I’m sure you’re cool, but I hope we never have to talk again.” I am pretty cool, but I get it. The legal office looks like the hammer when someone gets in trouble, we are often looked at as the bad guy. 

These comments miss the point of discipline entirely.  When the legal office, working on behalf of the commander, is the bad guy, it takes the individual responsibility off of the Airman.   It seems as though disciplinary action is something happening to the Airman that they had no part in or control over. In reality, discipline is the result of actions taken by an Airman. We don’t make up crimes, we react to misconduct as it occurs and assist the commander with the proper legal response. 

Instead of the legal office being the bad guy, we need to push the responsibility back on the Airman and the actions that created the need for disciplinary action. Personal responsibility is critical if the goal is to rehabilitate an Airman. Allowing for an Airman to believe the discipline they faced was because of command or the legal office takes away from the impact of the discipline. It is no longer an opportunity to learn and grow, but an injustice imposed on the Airman. We owe it to our Airmen and future leaders to put responsibility squarely in the right place. As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month.”  

I remember very clearly standing in the courtroom as a young judge advocate conducting the direct examination of a witness in one of my first trials. The problem was, the witness didn’t say what I expected and the members of the court heard testimony that was inadmissible. There was no doubt the testimony was against the rules of the court. The judge didn’t hesitate to yell at me from the bench about the improper testimony either. I was horrified. It would have been easy for me to focus on the mean judge and I am sure I would have gotten some sympathy. But I chose to take that moment to learn and become a better trial attorney. That decision made me a better Airman.  

Whether the result of the conduct is discipline or something smaller, like getting yelled at by a judge, every time we teach our Airmen to take personal responsibility for their actions we make the Air Force and its future leaders stronger.

The legal office is much more than military justice services. If you need legal assistance, don’t hesitate to give us a call.