Your Last RankSteven Lieberman
Your Last Rank
Our Colonel walked into the JAG office, and was met by the anonymous, “Attention on deck!”
All of our conversations ceased, and we rose to attention.
“As you were.”
We all returned to our seats, and watched in silence as the physically imposing COL (CA) Bollinger made his way to the center of the conference table.
We were assembled for drill in our “JAG Shop” at JFTB Los Alamitos.
There were roughly 20 commissioned officers (and two PFCs) for our monthly drill. We all serve in the California Military Reserve as Judge Advocate General Officers. For those of you who have never heard of this division (or missed the TV show), we are military lawyers.
“Today’s drill is going to be a little long, I warn you.”
“We are going to be going over some internal cases and discussing some philosophical issues associated with your military service.”
Hmmm… this cannot possibly be a good thing.
“Before we begin, I want to implore all of you: Wear your rank, as though it is the last one you will ever have.”
This opening statement from COL (CA) Bollinger, who, in his civilian life, is a brilliant defense attorney, left me honestly confused. Most of us in the room are Majors or LTCs. I am one of a handful of Captains. Was he suggesting that we should look at promotion as irrelevant?
As he continued, the brilliance of that statement began to make sense.
(If you have arrived here from our newsletter, continue reading here…)
“You have a singular mission. Your job is to advise commanders of the legality of their actions. Many will not be particularly thrilled with your advice. Many will seek to ignore your advice. You must strive to ensure that your advice is both accurate and followed. Your client is not the commanding officer; your client is the California and the Army National Guard. You might be called upon to provide legal advice to a soldier who is about to be deployed, or you might need to run interference for a soldier who is deployed. You must ensure that that soldier is given the best legal representation he or she can get… because, ultimately, their mission is dependent on their being able to execute it. You are serving the soldier… but, ultimately, you are serving the mission of the U.S. Army.”
“Some might be upset at your insistence to legal protocols. Some may even seek to have you transferred, or your promotions stalled, as retribution for your dedication to military justice. They may be successful, for a time. You must find their actions and schemes to your personal ambitions irrelevant. Justice and honor must take precedence over your own advancement. Do what is right…. wear that rank as though it is the last you will ever have, and provide counsel accordingly.”
Motivational speech notwithstanding, the Colonel had a valid point.
We swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. We accepted billets in the Legal Services Division of the California State Military Reserves. Our mission is to defend soldiers and offer advice. Those that would stand in our way must be brushed aside as we move forward. As the war correspondent, Alex Quade, stated so eloquently when reporting on her time with the Green Berets, “They have a constant phrase, ‘Charlie Mike’…. continue the mission.”
Someone asked me once… a cop… what it is like to successfully argue a motion for the suppression of evidence that lets a known criminal out of incarceration. He was not asking me specifically, it was more of a general question. As an attorney, how could you do such a thing?
My law partner, Cosmo Taormina (A Major in the same unit that I serve), once told me that defense attorneys sit at the right hand of God. “We are the last line of defense against the unlimited powers of the State. We are what makes the government act with legitimacy. Without us, the forces of tyranny have no road blocks.”
He is right.
I responded to the law enforcement officer with my own version.
“I do not defend criminals. I defend the Constitution. When the State has violated the Constitution, I call them on it. The criminal is simply an unintended beneficiary.”
I have sworn three oaths to the public in my life.
The most recent one took place in that JAG shop at Los Alamitos when I became a commissioned officer.
Before that, I swore an oath when I became an officer of the California Supreme Court. (Incidentally, that oath, which all lawyers take upon passing the bar, is decidedly similar to the military oath.)
Before that, I took an oath, five days a week for twelve years. Most of you took that oath along with me.
Each morning I would stand at my desk and take an oath pledging allegiance to the United States of America, One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
That was not a short-term oath.
It does not dilute with the passage of time.
All of us are duty bound to follow the pledge that we all have taken. There are times when we might be disparaged for our actions in support of that oath. We might suffer personal retribution as we pursue justice and fight against tyranny. Yet, we must know that our cause is just and guided by divine providence. We must take solace in the knowledge that our generation stands as guardians to the next of the blessings of liberty. We must always be ready, even in the face of insurmountable odds, to “Charlie Mike.” There is no greater struggle than the fight against tyranny. We must all wear our rank as though it is the last we will ever have.