Capt. Brady Vannoy, left, and Maj. Chris Barton are lawyers who serve in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the S.C. Army National Guard. (Photo/Provided)
By Chuck Crumbo
Published Sept. 3, 2012
Whether they wear the uniform of the U.S. military or suit-and-tie of the civilian world, they use many of the skills needed to function on the battlefield as well as in the courtroom, say attorneys who work in both sides of the business.
They are members of the armed services’ Judge Advocate General's Corps — commonly referred to as JAGs.
Most, like S.C. Army National Guard Capt. R. Brady Vannoy, who owns a solo law practice in Moncks Corner, consider the military good experience for the civilian world.
“Once you've learned to address or brief a military commander, addressing a court and/or jury is much easier,” Vannoy said in an email to the Columbia Regional Business Report.
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JAGs are legal advisers to their unit commander, handling issues that range from administrative law to government contracts to the law of war.
“I have served as an in-house attorney for a few organizations and the skill set of advising my civilian organization’s leaders is very similar to advising my military commanders,” said Geoff Penland, 41, a major in the S.C. Army National Guard and manager of state government relations for Santee Cooper.
JAGs may serve as prosecutors when conducting courts-martial as well as military defense lawyers. Some of the more experienced officers of the JAG Corps often serve as military judges.
Some, like Dan Johnson, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, have applied lessons learned on the military side of the profession to his civilian job as Fifth Circuit Solicitor.
“In the Fifth Judicial Circuit, we have started a veterans’ court to assist veterans who have pending charges in Richland and Kershaw counties,” Johnson said.
Veterans’ courts handle cases involving veterans of the U.S. military who’ve been diagnosed with service-related illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injury, memory loss and substance abuse.
The concept aims to provide treatment and rehabilitation, and ultimately help veterans rebuild their lives. More than 90 veterans’ courts have been established across the country.
Vannoy, 30, presently is on active duty at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, which is across the border from Iraq. He’s the officer in charge of legal assistance, and most of his caseload involves domestic problems such as divorces, custody issues and child support. Legal assistance in the military “is very similar to the general practice of law," Vannoy said.
Also at Camp Arifjan is Chris Barton, 48, a JAG in the S.C. National Guard. In his civilian life, Barton is a solicitor in the city of Rock Hill’s Solicitor’s Office.
Barton agrees that legal skills developed in the civilian world translate to the military and vice versa.
“The major difference between the civilian criminal practice and the military practice is that military justice is a command function and commanders are responsible for both enforcing the law and protecting soldiers' rights,” Barton said. “In the civilian setting the local solicitor acts on behalf of the community and the individual defendant either represents themselves or is represented by an attorney, while the presiding judge ensures that both sides play fair.”
Barton added that legal assistance in the military is “probably the closest to the civilian setting along with criminal law, in that you see a wide variety of bread-and-butter legal issues. Divorce, wills and powers of attorney, landlord tenant, consumer and contract law issues, along with taxes make up the majority of the legal assistance caseload.”
Michael Ross, 32, a prosecutor for the 11th Circuit Solicitor's Office, said civilian skills are a bonus for military commanders.
“Civilian attorneys bring some unique analytical skills to a commander's staff that other branches do not,” said Ross, a captain assigned to the S.C. Army National Guard’s 59th Troop Command. “We look at problems differently than your traditional, professional military officer. If there are more options on the table, then the commander is more likely to find one that works.”
Experience gained in the military can make a difference in the civilian side of the legal business, Ross added.
“The Army, particularly in a deployed environment, teaches one how to respond to challenges and adversity. The Army develops the ability to stay calm, cool and collected when plans fall apart. This skill makes a civilian attorney better at his job,” he said.
Learning how to deal with the stress of being deployed to a combat zone can be helpful in the civilian practice of law, said Lawrence Wedekind, 49, a major, who’s on active-duty deployment to Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, Wedekind is assigned as trial counsel to an infantry brigade attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, primarily acting as a prosecutor for the Army and an adviser on military justice matters to Afghan officials.
“Dealing with the unexpected and chaotic situations has given me the ability to respond in a calm manner,” said Wedekind, who’s the senior assistant solicitor in the 11th Judicial Circuit.