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Senior leaders get a refresher on military law

Lt. Col. Michael Safko, 319th Air Base Wing staff judge advocate, briefs Grand Forks AFB senior leaders on commanders and the law Sept. 7, 2012. The briefing covered a wide range of topics including an overview of routine services offered by the base legal assistance office, fitness discharges, disciplinary tools, line of duty determinations, dependent misconduct, and the area defense counsel. Safko said these sorts of briefings are typically held on an annual basis in late summer or early fall, because that is usually the time when new commanders have recently taken over the reins of their units. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Susan L. Davis)

Lt. Col. Michael Safko, 319th Air Base Wing staff judge advocate, briefs Grand Forks AFB senior leaders on commanders and the law Sept. 7, 2012. The briefing covered a wide range of topics including an overview of routine services offered by the base legal assistance office, fitness discharges, disciplinary tools, line of duty determinations, dependent misconduct, and the area defense counsel. Safko said these sorts of briefings are typically held on an annual basis in late summer or early fall, because that is usually the time when new commanders have recently taken over the reins of their units. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Susan L. Davis)

9/11/2012 - GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Senior leaders here took time out Sept. 7, for a refresher course on commanders and the law.

The briefing covered a wide range of topics including an overview of routine services offered by the base legal assistance office, fitness discharges, disciplinary tools, line of duty determinations, family member misconduct, and the area defense counsel.

Col. Tim Bush, 319th Air Base Wing commander, said during his opening comments that the tools to be presented in the briefing were essential to maintaining morale, good order and discipline.

"I have been to many of these previously as a squadron commander and a group commander, and I always learn something new each time," he said. "This is more of an open forum than a lecture."

Lt. Col. Michael Safko, 319th Air Base Wing staff judge advocate, said that the briefings are typically held on an annual basis in late summer or early fall, because that is usually the time when new commanders have recently taken over the reins of their units.

"Our purpose in conducting these briefings is to give our attending audience the tools to take back to their units to help them accomplish the mission," he said. "We try to cover a breadth of issues in a limited amount of time, and let senior leaders know that if they see an issue in their unit that was covered in the briefing, they should reach out and give us a call."

One notable aspect of the event was that not all briefers were judge advocates, Safko said.

"We had a few briefings from Airmen and NCOs," he said. "I think that was well-received, because we want to show that our organization has professionals all throughout, up and down the ranks."

Capt. Teran Wellman, legal assistance chief, covered routine services offered by the legal office, including advising on consumer law, family law, lease issues, powers of attorney, wills and general legal advice.

"Some services are available on a walk-in basis, like powers of attorney, but more in-depth issues such as wills need to be scheduled for an appointment," she said. "We are also limited to advising only on personal matters and civil matters. We have expertise limitations, and we cannot represent service members in court, but we can help service members represent themselves in court in certain situations."

One other particularly timely topic covered by Mark Hanson, chief of general law, was policy on political activity.

"Like many other areas of the law, some activities are a clear case of right or wrong," he said. "For many of them, it just depends."

He explained that Department of Defense Direction 1344.10 clearly states certain political activities that are permitted and some that are prohibited. The bottom line for military members: don't mix business with politics.

"You can absolutely encourage others to get out and vote, as long as you're not endorsing a particular candidate," Hanson said. "You can express your personal opinion, as long as you add a disclaimer making it clear that it is your personal opinion and it is not a reflection of your military affiliation. Service members are prohibited from participating in anything that may imply endorsement of an issue, cause or candidate by the DoD. That rule also applies to social media."

Another pair of topics that often go hand-in-hand are Article 31 rights, the Uniform Code of Military Justice equivalent to civilian Miranda rights, and military laws governing search and seizure.

Safko said he hoped senior leaders would take some of the information about these two subjects back to their first-line supervisors.

"Many times when an Airman is in some sort of trouble, if they go to their supervisor and start talking, the supervisor's initial response is to try to find out more," he said. "What they should be doing instead is reading them their Article 31 rights if they are questioning them and they suspect them of misconduct."

For some attendees, much of the material was review, but it reinforced some important principles of Air Force leadership.

"It's imperative that the commander, chief and first sergeant are fair, equitable and consistent when enforcing military law," said Master Sgt. Richard McCorkle, 319th Operations Support Squadron first sergeant.

One of the main points Safko said he hoped attendees would take away from the briefing was driving home the importance of proper documentation.

"That is one of the issues we sometimes run into when processing certain packages," he said. "Improper documentation slows down that process. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. If we can help make sure it's done properly from the very beginning, it helps save a lot of time and effort for everyone."

Col. Christopher Mann, 319th Air base Wing vice commander, wrapped up the briefing by echoing some of Colonel Bush's thoughts.

"There is always something new to learn at these briefings, and it is extremely helpful to have a good working relationship with the staff judge advocate, as well as first sergeants and superintendents," he said. "It's also important to handle every scenario on a case-by-case basis, and always operate within the boundaries of the law."

For more information on services offered by the legal assistance office, call (701) 747-3036.

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