Lessons from the Field: My Life-Changing Law Practice as an Air Force JAG

By Katie Illingworth

When I walked off the C-130, exhausted, loaded with flak vest and helmet, blinked into the bright mountain sun and looked out over the stark beauty of the Hindu Kush mountains, I marveled at the turns my life had taken that had landed me literally in the middle of the war in Afghanistan.

The “diversity” theme of this month’s Oklahoma Bar Journal intrigued me. There are countless different contexts around and meanings to the word “diversity.” There is diversity of culture, race, gender, viewpoints and experience, just to name a few. For attorneys, diversity can mean diversity of practice, which perfectly sums up the beginning of my legal career as an Air Force judge advocate (JAG).

Like many of us, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, deeply affected me. I remember standing in my college apartment that morning at OU, watching the live images on my television screen of planes slamming into the twin towers as deep grey smoke billowed forth from the points of impact. I was shaken to my core, and the world as I knew it felt darker and more disordered than I had ever known before. The events of that day changed me, and began a long period of reflection as I tried to decide how I was going to contribute to the world after having this experience as part of my history.

Two years later, I moved to Washington, D.C. for law school. I was drawn to the national political scene, and knew a legal career would fit well with my interest in problem-solving and my love of debate. It turns out I was correct, as I loved law school (as much as one can love law school). In my second year, I began to consider what path in the law I would choose to practice in. During that same year, a question started popping up in all my conversations at school—“What are you going to specialize in?” I felt as if I barely knew enough about the law at that point to really specialize in anything, and was often perplexed by the question. For me, because there were so many areas of the law I enjoyed, including contracts, labor law, criminal law and procedure, constitutional law, trusts and estates and others, it felt like I shouldn’t have to just pick one or two areas of specialization.

I knew there was really one choice for me out of law school, as I contemplated my desire to serve and my love for so many areas of the law — I decided to be a JAG. When I told my family, to say they were shocked is putting it mildly, as I don’t think anyone would peg me the “outdoorsy” type. When I told my father I was joining the military, it was like a scene from a movie as I watched the humor, then concern, pass across his face as he realized I was not joking. I think the entire family was afraid I wouldn’t even survive officer training school, and if I look back now, I was a little afraid myself.

So I applied, interviewed with a full bird colonel at Andrews Air Force Base, and was accepted (contingent upon bar passage), following a military tradition in my family that includes a Lady Marine grandmother, a Marine grandfather who served in World War II, and another grandfather who flew as a bomber pilot for the Army Air Corps in WWII. So I set to work that summer, following a highly regimented schedule of intense running and other physical training in preparation for officer training school alternating with my bar studies.

A few months later, during the week of Thanksgiving, I had passed the bar, had passed Officer Training School with flying colors and received the phone call that I was on my way to my first assignment — in Hawaii! When I drove through the front gates for the first time of the 15th Airlift Wing at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, a base whose old buildings still bear gunpowder scars from the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, I knew I had become part of living history. I loved it. I thrived. I ran every morning along Pearl Harbor, watching the submarines float in, and thanked my lucky stars for such an opportunity.

I began to realize that in choosing to become a JAG, I had chosen not just a particular legal career path, but a way of life. The Air Force Officer Training and JAG school cadre had already drummed into my head that I was an officer first, a lawyer second. Despite my luck and good fortune at living in Hawaii, along with the commitment came hardships. My husband (a fellow JAG) and I were separated from each other for nearly two years of marriage. He deployed two weeks after we were married in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and I deployed within a month of his return. I didn’t come home for two Christmases in a row, one of which I spent in harm’s way. But even though I endured hardship and sacrifice as part of this JAG life I had chosen, I also knew I was part of something bigger than myself and I had the opportunity to practice alongside incredibly gifted and talented attorneys who were not only top notch practitioners, but lived and embodied values of integrity, honor and sacrifice, values so often dismissed in today’s society as outdated and overly idealistic.

Another pull for me towards choosing JAG was the way the JAG Corps views trial practice. When I first interviewed, the colonel told me to expect to first chair at least one trial within my first four years of practice. Well, within two weeks of my arrival to Hickam as a first lieutenant, I was handed my first criminal case file to review for potential charging and prosecution. It was a drug case, specifically cocaine use and distribution, involving an airman first class who was a repeat offender involved in Oahu’s drug scene. The facts of the case were especially aggravating because he was an aircraft maintainer on Hickam’s F-15 fighter jets. It was an obvious point that the safety and integrity of the aircraft at our airlift base directly depended on the skill and attention of the maintainers.

From the first day I was handed the case file, two senior captains at my legal office mentored me, taught me how to organize my case, assemble my trial brief, handle evidence and talk to a jury. We held multiple “murder boards,” as I rewrote my opening statement and closing argument over a dozen times. The group of seven attorneys in my office critiqued me, my delivery, my words, my posture, even the looks that flickered across my face in response to panel members’ answers during a mock voir dire. I learned how to develop a proof analysis, a thorough examination of the elements of proof required for a charge and the corresponding evidence for each element. This key document became the cornerstone of my future trials and my own experiences in mentoring younger prosecutors, and is a lesson I consider one of the most valuable I have learned as an attorney to date. The level of training and attention to detail, the strategic case brainstorming and the camaraderie all honed my skills as an advocate and as a counselor.

As soon as I had gotten comfortable in my job at Hickam and had made a habit of spending every Saturday morning on Oahu’s beautiful beaches, my world changed. My colonel walked into my office on a quiet Friday afternoon, sat down, looked across the desk and smiled at me. I smiled nervously back and asked, “What’s going on?” She replied, “You’ve been chosen by higher command to go to the mountains and review some contracts.” Mountains? Contracts? The confusion must have been all over my face because she continued, “When I say mountains, I mean the Hindu Kush. In Afghanistan. And when I say contracts, I mean Army contracts.”

If I had thought I was in for an adventure in Hawaii, it was nothing compared to the half year I was about to spend at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. As I was soon to learn, I had been tasked as an Air Force asset embedded into the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF)-82. Run by the renowned 82nd Airborne of the U.S. Army, CJTF-82’s mission in Afghanistan was as command over RC-East, a large geographic area in the country to the north and east. I was one of a few Air Force officers chosen to work inside of the command alongside our Army comrades, as well as various military personnel stationed there from all over the world. Although my job description had nothing to do with my duties as a JAG in Hawaii, I began to understand that this type of flexibility as a practitioner was par for the course in my JAG career. To prepare myself, I attended an intense training course to hone my skills in government contracts.

Once I arrived in theater, I was one of three attorneys tasked with the legal review of every Army contract that affected RC-East. There I moved away from my former prosecutorial role and was knee deep in contract negotiations and fiscal law. Some of these contract negotiations involved negotiations with local Afghans, which meant various crash courses in cultural and gender sensitivities in preparation for discussions with locals.

Another key part of my job there was to help problem solve if a contract as originally written hit some legal snags. If my analysis was that a contract was legally deficient in some way, it was expected that I would find an alternative that was legally sufficient and also fulfilled the mission requirement. I had been trained to be that type of attorney as an Air Force JAG, and I understood the success of the mission was affected by my ability to “think outside the box” and seek out legal and feasible alternatives when various contract and fiscal law issues held up a contract. On top of these practice challenges, I was also forced to face my mortality as I experienced all manner of dangers, from earthquakes and sandstorms to Taliban rocket attacks, on a routine basis.

These few experiences represent a small fraction of my life and experiences as a JAG. I finished my Air Force tour out at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, a “space base” that was part of Air Force Space Command. There, as chief of military justice, I oversaw all criminal trials at my office, including cases involving theft, sexual assault and even a couple of child pornography cases. Throughout my JAG tour, I also provided legal assistance to military members, their families and veterans, advising on and assisting with family law issues, estate planning, bankruptcy, consumer debt as well as several situations involving the application of such laws as Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, among others.

Then there were all the job “perks,” including riding in military aircraft, singing the national anthem for an immigration ceremony in Afghanistan that welcomed soldiers into U.S. citizenship, being intimately involved in humanitarian efforts for local Afghan children, a stint as a special assistant U.S. attorney in Hawaii, and so many more. This is just one picture of what diversity of practice can mean for a legal practitioner, and who knew diversity of practice could be so interesting and so fun?


Katie Illingworth has practiced law since 2007 and was admitted to the Oklahoma bar in 2013.

She spent four years as an Air Force judge advocate, six months of which she was deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Ms. Illingworth currently practices as associate general counsel at First Financial Network Inc., a 25-year financial services firm headquartered in Oklahoma City.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal-- May 17, 2014-- Vol. 85, No.14
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal-- May 17, 2014-- Vol. 85, No.14

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