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Memorial Day and the Cost and Value of Being There

Memorial Day is not a day I typically celebrate publicly. Like other military service related or patriotic holidays, I have conflicted feelings about the 'showiness' of service and sacrifice. I have lived in service to others -- and continue to serve others as they grow in their own leadership and service -- simply because I think it's what we all owe to each other.

This year, though, has been a little bit different. I was invited to speak at an AmLaw 100 firm in recognition of Memorial Day and to begin the launch of their newest employee resource group focused on supporting service members, veterans, their families, and supporters. (More on them later, I don't want to get ahead of their official launch.) It was a great event that gave me a chance to have a 'fireside chat' with an old friend. That conversation, though, got me thinking about two things related to service, leadership, and being there for your team.


The first is the story of Command Sergeant (CSM) Major Cornell Gillmore. He was the Army JAG Corps' senior non-commissioned officer (broadly responsible for all of the Army's paralegals) when he was killed in Iraq on November 7, 2003. He died that day with Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CW5) Sharon Swartworth, the JAG Corps' senior legal administrator. They were part of an Article 6 visit to JAG officers and soldiers stationed in Iraq. Article 6 visits are opportunities (requirements under the Uniform Code of Military Justice) for JAG Corps leadership to review the work of legal teams in the field.

The Judge Advocates General ... or senior members of their staffs, shall make frequent inspections in the field in supervision of the administration of military justice.

- 10 U.S. Code § 806


The JAG Corps is one of the nation's largest 'law firms,' comprised of active duty and reserve officers (both attorneys and legal administrators), soldiers (paralegals, court reporters, and others), and civilian attorneys and other staff. Losing two of its most senior leaders in one day was a blow, and it brought home to all of us just how much we were offering to the nation, even if we were just attorneys and paralegals.


I'd only met CSM Gilmore once, during my introduction to the JAG Corps. I'd been in the Army for about seven years at the time, through my service as a helicopter pilot and through law school. But every new military attorney goes through a common training program to introduce them to military legal practice, whether or not they've been in the Army for years or joining straight out of law school. Part of that introduction was to hear from the JAG Corps' senior leaders about how important our role would be.


CSM Gilmore had a reputation of being a big presence, and it was well-deserved. His heart and enthusiasm for the work and for the legal teams he was responsible for were apparent. He radiated care, compassion, and competence, and he was an inspiration to all of us, even those who formally outranked him. And his example made clear the power of leadership, the reality that formal authority is only a piece of leadership influence. Recognizing and leveraging that influence is what makes some of the best leaders so influential. I've seen it many times in the Army and since. It is especially rewarding to see clients begin to embrace new facets of their leadership through informal influence, both in their firms and teams but also with clients and within their families.


CW5 Swartworth and CSM Gilmore were out visiting their legal teams. They were practicing a version of 'leadership by shoe leather,' a principle I later heard succinctly articulated this way by one of my mentors. To know your team, to understand the environment and make the best decisions, to inspire loyalty and effort towards a common purpose, you need to spend time with your people. This pays huge dividends in loyalty and performance, but it costs time, money, and energy. For soldiers, it sometimes costs more. But it's a lesson we can appreciate and learn from.


The other memory this holiday has reminded me of is that of my father and others like him who went to war and came back forever changed. His service in Vietnam didn't kill him but it did cost him his life. While military service changes everyone -- often in very good ways -- it touches some in profoundly sad and tragic ways. That was his story. Home from Vietnam, addicted to heroin, and stripped of his capacity to heal himself. He later died at just 35 years old, the toll of his life simply too great.


My memories of him are scant, but I've taken from his example a reminder that service and sacrifice take different forms. While we celebrate our surviving veterans in November, I find it appropriate now to also remember the lives that have been forever changed by their service. Luckily, support services and our understanding of the toll of service has grown more robust. I hope that fewer and fewer families need to mourn a life 'lost' and can instead celebrate the strength of a life changed. And I hope we'll all remember the sacrifices of those who have made the contribution of everything to our common good.

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