Lawyers Journal

Practicing law in a war zone

Al Asad Air Base, Iraq -- 
We are currently mobilized U.S. Army reservists with the 804th Medical Brigade out of the former Fort Devens in Ayer. We deployed to Iraq in February and will remain here until later this fall.

As the command judge advocate for the brigade, Rich Sugarman is the legal advisor to the commander over all Army medical units in Iraq, as well as subordinate commanders and staffs. This is a force of more than 1,500 soldiers who provide world-class medical care to service members throughout Iraq. The responsibilities are shared with Jerry Parisella, the deputy command judge advocate. Jerry, recently elected state representative from Beverly, also maintains a law practice in Beverly.

Whatever legal issues arise, we tackle. As a medical unit, we regularly advise our clients on -- and are often asked by other lawyers to assist on -- medical issues, such as HIPAA, medical provider misconduct, medical research issues, purchases and servicing of medical equipment, informed consent and "against medical advice" waivers. Unique military medical matters we work with our clients on include reviewing who U.S. forces can treat.

For instance, as the Iraqi military becomes self sufficient, the U.S. government expects the Iraqis to provide for their own medical care and not to bring patients to U.S. facilities. U.S. troops will provide care for certain seriously ill or injured patients, but there are very strict guidelines in place and a strict procedure to request exception to this policy. As the lawyers, we become involved in guiding providers and leadership through this process.

As any military organization, we also handle criminal law, international law, contract law, administrative law and ethics issues. The most significant criminal case involved an alcohol-fueled sexual assault that our office prosecuted. Additionally, because of the unique environment and safety concerns, the military prohibits alcohol in theatre, and we routinely become involved in prosecutions of soldiers who sneak alcohol into theatre.

Both of us come from law firm backgrounds: Rich generally handled business litigation, employment and environmental law, while Jerry handled litigation and real estate matters. So, this deployment has broadened our legal experiences significantly. However, our Army Reserve training has prepared us well for this experience and, of course, all lawyers need to know how to research any legal issue.

The Army provides us with Westlaw accounts and the Judge Advocate General Corps has many great secondary resources available. Although most of our primary and secondary resources are available online, they are not always available, due to connectivity issues, so we rely very heavily on DVDs provided by the JAG Corps that contain nearly every pertinent military regulation, as well as treatises summarizing aspects of every major subject area a military lawyer is likely to encounter, along with citations to primary sources.

The JAG Corps functions very much like a law firm. Although we are assigned to a unit and work for the unit commander, the senior lawyers at the next command level up from us consistently provide us the guidance and mentorship necessary to excel as legal professionals. Although we have been located at the same base as our senior lawyers, not all of the other lawyers are so close. So, we regularly have conference calls with JAGs throughout Iraq in which we discuss ongoing legal issues and have sort of a mini CLE on issues of importance.

As Massachusetts natives, it was a challenge getting used to temps over 125 degrees. Personally and professionally, no two days are the same. Our first six months in Iraq were spent near Baghdad at a large base that was regularly shelled by enemy forces. Fortunately, neither of us had a particularly close call, but any shelling in the area is dangerous and frankly, scary. But, it was one of those things where we just put it out of our minds and did what we needed to do.

One of the most memorable experiences that highlights the practice of law here came when we were both on a conference call with other lawyers stationed in Iraq when we started getting shelled. We heard the explosions and did what we are supposed to do -- fall to the ground and lie flat. We eventually evacuated the area and ran to a hardened bunker. We returned to find the conference call still going on. The irony was that the lawyer heading up the conference call had been in the building that was hit (a former Saddam Hussein palace) and he had no idea. Just another day here.

The most difficult part of this deployment has been missing our families. We both have young children who will have changed considerably by the time we are home. We have been able to Skype and call home routinely, if not daily. As hard as the separation has been, we both agreed a long time ago to deploy if asked by the Army.

We are very fortunate that in the Army, like the civilian world, we are lawyers. Practicing law here has been challenging and interesting. We are better lawyers for the experience by broadening and further developing our legal skills and providing legal advice to senior decision-makers in incredibly stressful circumstances, where legal issues can have great repercussions beyond the clearly obvious effects.

Editor's note: In honor of Veterans 
Day, this issue includes the firsthand 
account of two Massachusetts lawyers 
serving in Iraq as U.S. Army reservists.

Editor's note: Jerry Parisella, a U.S. Army veteran, was on active duty from 1997-98 in Bosnia as a public affairs specialist.

Richard Sugarman, a U.S. Air Force veteran, 
served on active duty from 1993-97 as a space 
and missile operations officer.

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