Why am I here? Part 1 (Military Criminal Defender)

I’ve been asked this a couple of times since starting this blog. Why am I doing this job?

The short answer is that it is the most rewarding professional endeavor I have ever undertaken.  But, this does not really answer your question. You want to know what caused me to find it rewarding.

Fair enough, but don’t expect the explanation to be easy or quick. I labeled this as “Part 1” because I do not anticipate finishing my thought today.

In the courtroom during my previous life

People ask me the question often because of my background. I appear to be the ultimate in modern conservative values. I was raised a Methodist in Kansas (Bob Dole country). I did well in school, excelled in sports, and earned a slot at the United States Military Academy despite growing-up in a lower-middleclass family. From college, I entered the Army Infantry where I earned the Ranger Tab and Expert Infantryman Badge. From outward appearances, I am a poster child for WASP conservatives. That’s why people are a bit perplexed.

The answer is not simple, nor can it be traced to one single event or isolated chain of events. Instead, it comes from a history of random events dating back to my adolescence.  Don’t worry, I won’t give you the full 25 year history from that point forward. Rather, I’ll take the key events one at a time, and in no particular order.

Go to the year 2005. Consider a young Army Private named Boudreaux.

I was a military prosecutor (called a Trial Counsel) for the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division at Ft. Polk, Louisiana. It was a job I wanted since joining the Army JAG Corps, and I felt honored to be put into an Infantry Brigade. Through law school and early JAG years, I was repeatedly told that I wanted to be a Trial Counsel–that nothing was more rewarding than putting bad guys in jail.

In the job, my goals were twofold. First, get all the bad guys out of the Army. Preferably, ensure that they all receive a Bad-Conduct Discharge or worse. Second, on top of the discharge, get as much punishment as possible. I took to the job like a rabid dog on a wounded rabbit. I wanted blood (figuratively), and I worked extremely hard to spill as much as possible from those at the other table in the courtroom. I had no problem describing them as cancers upon the ass of the Army.

Let me pause for a second and say that I do not believe I was ever unethical. My files were always available to defense attorneys, and I worked diligently to ensure that my office was as transparent as possible. Nonetheless, I still worked hard to perfect my arguments in a way that would result in the harshest possible punishment. Back to the story…

At the time, my brigade (approximately 3000 Soldiers) was relatively new, and it had been infused with whole classes of basic trainees. For the most part, we were exceptionally inexperienced. As a result, many of the younger Soldiers decided that they did not want to be in the Army, and their answer was to go AWOL (Absent WithOut Leave). That is, they decided to stop coming to work and go home (or somewhere arbitrary).

In the military, it is illegal to stop coming to work, that is why AWOL is a crime (under Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice). After all, imagine what our military would be like if we had no such rule.

Many Soldiers went AWOL. Literally, about 40 would be absent at any given time. Most of them are caught or surrender and are punished in some way. The shorter AWOLs are punished using nonjudicial forms of punishment where the servicemember loses rank, maybe pay, and maybe some freedom for about a month. The longer absences (4 or more months) were considered for court-martial.

The most used form of court-martial for these cases is the Special Court-Martial (empowered to adjudge a Bad-Conduct Discharge). This is roughly equivalent to a misdemeanor court. The servicemember faces losing all rank along with up to a year in prison and a Bad-Conduct Discharge.

One of my first long AWOL cases was a kid named Boudreaux. This is not his actual name. For the purposes of this story, I changed the name. Besides, the name isn’t important. It could have been any name. He was just one of the masses in my eyes. A Private who went AWOL for approximately 18 months. I found his crime to be disgusting, prejudicial to Soldierly values, and unpatriotic. I hated him.

The facts were pretty simple. He left work. He was gone for approximately 18 months. Then, he was apprehended in his hometown by the Louisiana Highway Patrol during a routine traffic stop. Easy.

He had no legitimate reason for the absence. His parents were still alive and not dying from cancer. He had no children. He was not married. He had no ailment or serious mental disease. In my eyes, he had no defense.

The case was boring. Nothing exciting happened in the courtroom, and the entire process was fairly simple. He plead guilty. He admitted his guilt and explained to the judge why he was guilty. I presented evidence to show that his military unit could have used his help. The Defense Counsel presented evidence to show that he was a young kid, grew up in poverty, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t listen. To me, it wasn’t an excuse for being AWOL.

The judge returned to the courtroom after thinking for an hour and sentenced him to 9 months in jail and a Bad-Conduct Discharge.

Success! I felt so proud. I’m sure the air pressure in the courtroom increased as my ego swelled.

Then, I looked at him. I looked at his parents. For the first time, I really looked at them. What I saw haunts me to this day.

Boudreaux was thin–too thin. His eyes were ringed by dark circles. They looked blankly at some spot on the floor. They didn’t look sad or angry. They just looked blank. His skin looked flaky and unclean. His lower lip drooped to show horribly crooked teeth. The teeth were not white. They were either stained, or rotten, or both. He hunched, such that his uniform hung awkwardly on his body. Skinny, cracked, dirty hands protruded from the polyester sleeves.

He was pathetic.

His parents sat behind him in the first row of the gallery. They didn’t hold hands or touch each other, but they sat close enough that you knew they were a couple. They looked to have made an effort to dress-up for the occasion. Mom was wearing a pastel outfit that reminded me of something my English teacher wore back in the 80s. It was stained. Her look imitated that of her son, and I could tell she had lost several teeth. Ruddy skin hung from her face. The years had been anything but kind.

Dad had a stern look on his face, but it was not angry. In many ways, it looked more puzzled. Life, too, had not been kind to him. He looked like a coal-worker, or a swamp logger, or both. His dark features appeared to be the result of a hard life and inadequate nutrition.

They suffered. Only 2 years before, they watched their son graduate from basic training. Undoubtedly proud of his accomplishment, they saw him breaking the cycle and achieving something more than a trailer near a Louisiana swamp. He was in the Army. He was going to succeed.

All hope was gone now. Their son was going to jail. I made sure of that.

And, what would the punishment do for him? Whatever ego he possessed (probably very little) was destroyed after marinating in a jail for the better part of 9 months. Even worse, the Bad-Conduct Discharge serves as a lifelong stigma–his very own scarlet letter courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Because of me, he was remanded to the Louisiana swamp, returning to the cycle his parents prayed he would not continue. Within two years, those parents’ greatest achievement morphed into their greatest failure. After dropping out of high school and taking the GED, the light at the end of Boudreaux’s tunnel was dim, and after I prosecuted him, the light was completely extinguished.

Who was helped by 9 months and a Bad-Conduct Discharge? How was society benefitted by the sentence? How was justice served? I challenge anyone to show me how my brigade and the Army improved because of the sentence. Show me how our world is a better place because of his 9 months and Bad-Conduct Discharge.

Say what you want, but I was there to see those three, pathetic human beings. Their image is indelibly preserved in my mind.

Boudreaux deserved zealous advocacy, and his attorney provided him with a good defense. In that respect, the process was fair. But, it does not change the effect those images have upon me.

He deserved a voice. He deserved to have his story told. He deserved less than the harsh punishment given to him–all for not showing-up to work. He deserved a light, even a small light, at the end of his tunnel.

It is said that America is the Land of Opportunity.

But not for Boudreaux. Not anymore.

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