As one of more than 1,700 married alumni couples, Flora Darpino and Christopher O'Brien embody a quintessential Gettysburg story. But the war stories that the 1983 grads can tell as military lawyers put them in a class all their own - she as a brigadier general, he as a colonel, both serving in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps.
Throughout their careers, they hit just about every promotion in tandem - from captain to major to lieutenant colonel to colonel - until Darpino's promotion to one-star general this past February.
As commanding general of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency (USALSA), Darpino oversees more than 20 offices, divisions, and activities worldwide and close to 500 personnel. She also serves as the chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, the first stop for soldiers appealing court-martial convictions.
Promotions at this level come only once every four years, with a handful of individuals chosen from about 140 colonels. Darpino's selection sets an inspiring example for female junior officers, said O'Brien, now chief of personnel management for the JAG Corps. More importantly, he said, "regardless of gender, she was the best person for the job."
In separate interviews conducted in person and via e-mail this past spring, Darpino and O'Brien discussed their careers, Army life, and their passion for military justice.
Legal experts, military style
Founded by George Washington in 1775, the JAG Corps is the nation's oldest law firm and one of the largest, with more than 3,400 full- and part-time attorneys. Because the Army frequently rotates assignments, JAG Corps lawyers, known as judge advocates, typically build expertise in many types of law. Senior officers like Darpino and O'Brien are as conversant with combat claims and the legality of detention operations as they are with criminal, fiscal, and labor law.
Judge advocates not only advise commanders on operational law, they also provide legal assistance to service members and overseas civilians. Darpino offered examples: "We're in a Humvee and we hit your sheep - do we pay for that or do we not?" Or where does a U.S. soldier in Iraq turn after being served with divorce papers from a stateside spouse?
Judge advocates also serve as defense, prosecution, and judges for courts-martial, with "stovepipe" chains of command to preserve the independence of defenders and judges. On U.S. military installations around the world, "you're basically dealing with huge towns or cities and you have to figure out how to keep good order and discipline," said Darpino.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice, which the JAG Corps wrote in 1951, provides the code of conduct for the entire U.S. Armed Forces. "We provide the support and structure to Army commanders for them to maintain discipline," said O'Brien, "so when a soldier does something wrong, it's important that they be held accountable for it in a fair way."
Learning from Iraq
Through their assignments, Darpino and O'Brien have had close-up views of history in the making. O'Brien, who witnessed Iraq's first democratic elections in January 2005, landed in Iraq shortly after the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal broke in 2004.
"What that led to [in Iraq] was great command emphasis at all echelons to ensure that soldiers who played a role in the detention process understood what their left and right limits were, and that message was reinforced on a daily basis," said O'Brien.
Darpino's two tours in Iraq - in 2003 and seven years later - gave her a firsthand look at the country's progress. "We're now working in and by and through the Iraqi government," she said. "Toward the end, we weren't even doing the arrests. It was the Iraqis doing the arrest," with Iraqi judges issuing warrants - a far different situation than "the fluid and ill-defined environment" of 2003.
Seven years made a big difference in Darpino's career as well. As a lieutenant colonel in 2003, she went to Iraq as staff judge advocate for the 4th Infantry Division, operating out of Fort Hood, Texas. This past February, she returned to the U.S. after 10 months as the staff judge advocate for U.S. Forces - Iraq. As the top lawyer there, she served as the legal advisor to the four-star general in charge of U.S. operations in Iraq.
Judge advocates typically hold a lower rank than the commanders they advise. "People are accustomed to that rank difference," said O'Brien. "That's just kind of how the Army operates. I don't view it as a constraint on our delivery of legal advice."
Darpino pointed to the success of the relatively inexperienced captains under her command in Iraq in 2003. Most "had only been in maybe two jobs and then I had to push them out ... with that brigade commander," typically a highly experienced colonel, she said. "There were times when they couldn't talk to me because the phones weren't working or email was down for days at a time."
In addition, her young officers often had to "work without a body of law, which is the way lawyers work," said Darpino. For example, determining "who's the bad guy and who's the civilian" wasn't straightforward, "and so your normal POW construct for detention operations did not work."
Instead, "we had to deal with a construct where we have to determine if the folks we were holding were the enemy, or if they're civilians, or if they're [people] maybe we need to hold to gather information and, if we do, how long can we hold them for that purpose?" said Darpino. "It was the first time on this scale that we really dealt with the Geneva Conventions and the treatment of civilians."
In this environment, her officers "weren't afraid to say, ‘Sir, I think you need to let that guy go,'" and they succeeded in "building that credibility with the commander where he would say, ‘You're right,'" said Darpino.
Given the Army's penchant for self-evaluation - "after-action reports" are routine "even after a big picnic," Darpino said - the lessons learned from Iraq in 2003 mean that judge advocates now assigned to specific brigades are majors "or at least senior captains."
Judge advocates also have a lot more documentation to study before deployment to Iraq. "With all of this now in doctrine as we call it," said Darpino, "now we know how to do this, but back then it was brand new."