A Different Kind of Deployment
By Major Steven G. Loertscher, MILGP-SCSJA LNO
/ Published March 09, 2012
Bogotá, Colombia --
My career as an Air Force JAG has provided many great opportunities that most of my classmates from law school could only dream about, and that's certainly true of my current deployment. For the last several months, I have served as liaison between USSOUTHCOM JA and the Military Group (MILGP) at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. It has been a challenging and rewarding experience that I will never forget.
The liaison job is different from the "usual" deployment to the CENTCOM AOR in many ways. While there are still force protection concerns in Colombia, Bogotá is sufficiently secure to allow MILGP personnel to move about with considerable freedom. MILGP personnel generally have free time on weekends, so there are many opportunities for a great cultural experience throughout the assignment.
Another difference is that the MILGP is just one part of the multi-agency U.S. country team. As a practical matter, this means coordinating with other federal agencies to make sure the recommended course of action is consistent with other efforts and sound from a diplomatic point of view. Teamwork across agency borders is absolutely critical to effectively advancing U.S. interests in the region.
My daily workload includes the usual potpourri of legal issues common to JAG deployments, but also extends well beyond the gamut of civil law, contracting, military justice, and legal assistance. As the liaison officer, I provide "boots on the ground" for USSOUTHCOM's legal engagement programs, which include helping the Colombian military work on human rights and military justice initiatives. Colombia's military justice program has long struggled to gain credibility in the eyes of the military itself, civilian society, and the international community. The current system is plagued with a chronic backlog of cases that for a variety of reasons struggle to move from the investigative to the trial stage.
This is an exciting time to be involved in addressing these challenges. Colombia is in the process of moving from an inquisitorial system, in which courts-martial are based largely on documentary evidence, to an adversarial system similar to our own. At the same time, the Colombian military is looking to the United States for help in developing a new organizational structure that will help speed up the administration of justice and improve the autonomy and independence of military judges.
As I've attended many meetings and worked on these initiatives, I have gained a greater appreciation of how critical an effective military justice system is to fielding an effective and legitimate military force. I've also come to appreciate the wisdom inherent in how the Air Force JAG Corps is structured and the way it does business. If you've ever wondered what would happen if TJAG did not have assignment authority for judge advocates, you only need to come to Colombia to see how just that one seemingly small difference can adversely impact the administration of justice and the delivery of legal services.
The deployment has also been very rewarding on a personal level. Since I spend most of my time interacting with the Colombian military, I've had a chance to dust off my long-dormant Spanish language skills. The Colombians I have worked with have made me feel very welcome, and they are sincerely grateful for the support we are providing. The Colombian Military Justice Director recently observed that USSOUTHCOM was practically the only external organization that offered support instead of criticism, and she thanked me personally for the help I have been providing. I pass her sincere thanks on to the JAG family and leaders that helped prepared me for this incredible experience.