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Life, Law, and Service in the JAG: Micah Elggren

By Tracy Schorn

September 28, 2016

In October's Washington Lawyer, the D.C. Bar talked with attorneys whose legal practices serve our country as members of the Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Here we profile Captain Micah W. Elggren, who serves as an attorney in the Aviation and Admiralty Law Branch of the Claims and Tort Litigation Division of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

Where has your government service taken you as a JAG?

Micah ElggrenI joined the Air Force JAG Corps after graduating from the George Washington University Law School. During my initial assignment at Tyndall Air Force Base on the Emerald Coast in Florida, I primarily focused on criminal justice. That focus continued at my next duty assignment at Osan Air Base in South Korea. I returned to Washington, D.C. three years ago and serve as an attorney advisor in the Air Force's Aviation and Admiralty Law Branch.

From July 2015 to March 2016, I deployed as a legal advisor in the Combined Air & Space Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. My primary responsibility during this deployment was to work with our intelligence analysts to vet targets for engagement. The legal advisor plays a significant role in this process, helping to ensure that the target being evaluated is a valid military target under international law and the method of engagement complies with U.S. policies and procedures.

Prior to target engagement, I met with the commander who has authority to authorize the strike. During this meeting, we discussed the merits of the target and any legal concerns with target engagement. We also looked at the likelihood of civilian casualties and made adjustments to the process in an effort to minimize civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible.

What was memorable about the experience?

The most memorable aspect of my deployment was making decisions in a short amount of time and under a great amount of pressure. There were so many layers to the legal authorities that apply to targeting (e.g., international law, ICRC interpretation of international law, coalition partner interpretation of international law, U.S. interpretation of international law), I consistently felt challenged in my abilities to provide legal advice. That environment resulted in an immense amount of learning about the law and about myself.

Were you supporting troops or helping with a humanitarian mission?

The primary focus of my deployment was supporting the leadership of the Combined Air & Space Operations Center during the air targeting process. The missions I participated in mainly focused on our operations against ISIL.

What surprised you?

I appreciated the fact that my voice as a lawyer mattered in the targeting process. Commanders recognize the importance of international law and U.S. policy in making decisions over our military engagements.They knew the real benefits (e.g., preventing civilian deaths, promoting international relations) of complying with law/policy.

What were your impressions?

Broadly, the experience helped me recognize the amazing effort and work of our military to combat very real threats to our national security. Tens of thousands of military members are sacrificing time away from home to make sure the United States is safe. It was the highlight of my career to play a small role in that effort.

What do you most enjoy about your job?

I thoroughly enjoyed working with our coalition partners.The effort against ISIL is made more effective through the participation and support of countries throughout the Middle East and the world. I benefited immensely as both an officer and lawyer from observing how our partners evaluated and engaged the targeting process. I also benefited from the cheese platters shared by members of the Italian Air Force and unlimited Tim Tams from members of the Royal Australian Air Force.

What was the most challenging thing about being deployed?

The most difficult moment of my deployment was hearing the news about the terrorist attacks in Paris. It was Friday, November 13, just as I was going on shift at the Combined Air & Space Operations Center. I experienced a similar anxiety that, I would imagine, most people felt as information about the attacks developed. We had accomplished so much in our efforts against ISIL, but the attacks on Paris served as a reminder that there were many things left to accomplish. I was thrilled to work with the legal advisor and operators from the French Air Force to prepare the first targets in response to the attacks.