Flora Darpino learned as a little girl she would have to strive her hardest, just to be equal.
As she nears retirement from a 30-year career as a military lawyer, it’s clear that the lieutenant general took that lesson to heart. More than being equal, she became a shining example to female soldiers and the first woman in the nation’s 242-year history to serve as the judge advocate general of the U.S. Army.
Darpino, 56, said her drive to work her hardest stemmed from the prejudice she and her family faced as Italian-Americans living mainly in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“Every generation had to be better than the generation before them, and we always had to work harder and be better than people around us to be considered equal,” Darpino recalled that her father would say.
There was no question in her dad’s mind that his three daughters would attend college, and he pushed his girls to shoot for advanced educations. One of Darpino’s older sisters became a nurse, and the other became a doctor.
Yearning to be different — and find an outlet for her penchant to argue — Darpino decided to become a lawyer.
Now a three-star general, Darpino leads the nearly 9,900-person Army JAG Corps, which counts over 4,500 military lawyers among active, reserve and national guard troops. As one of just 18 females out of 321 regular Army general officers, her near singular success has made her a leader among women in the military and law.
“I don’t think I am [the judge advocate general] because I am a woman, but I think it’s important that I recognize I’m the first TJAG who is a woman,” said Darpino, who will retire on Aug. 31. “Other people have said they recognize now it can happen.”
Darpino initially thought she would become a commercial litigator when she went to Rutgers School of Law in 1986. But her husband, Chris O’Brien, had been in the ROTC and owed the army four years of service. Darpino didn’t like the idea of taking a bar exam everywhere that the Army would station her husband, so she signed up in the JAG Corps.
As a brand new army officer in 1987, Darpino experienced history serving in West Berlin, Germany, at the fall of the Berlin Wall. And although they signed up initially for just four years, both Darpino and O’Brien ended up making their careers as military lawyers.
“What keeps the vast majority of us in the Army beyond our first tour of duty is the camaraderie of the JAG Corps and folks we work with, but also our clients,” Darpino said. “When you go in and get to advise your clients in a values-based organization where their decision is based on what is best for the organization and within the rule of law — you can’t replicate having clients like that.”
Over the years, Darpino has been both a defense lawyer and a prosecutor in the army’s criminal justice system. She’s been a civil defense litigator, the chief of a civil law division, chief of an administrative law division and much more. Along the way, Darpino earned a master’s of law degree in military law from The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in 1995.
She was deployed to Iraq twice. In 2003, she helped to rebuild Iraq’s court system after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
“We made sure the judges felt they were safe to make decisions that wouldn’t be politically driven, but in fact were based on the rule of law,” Darpino said.
Brian Bentley served under Darpino during that deployment. He recalled a time that their unit was working in a former Hussein compound and calls came over the radio that insurgents were scaling the walls. They found out later it was false.
Darpino took her troops to a more secure location, and then headed back, saying it was her job to go where the mission and the commanders were.
“That just demonstrates what she has: a commitment to duty and the job, but at the same time, she looks out for her people and considers what’s in their best interests,” Bentley said.
Darpino is an honest broker with a quiet resolve, Bentley said. She can calm down a room of commanding generals running high on emotion during stressful situations.
“She puts her hands on the table and says, ‘OK, let’s figure out what we really disagree on and what we can agree on.’ It’s like a wave washing over the room,” he said.
The problem of sexual assault in the Army is one of the biggest that Darpino has addressed during her four years in office, said Richard “Rick” Rosen, a law professor and director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University School of Law. He was a JAG officer for 26 years.
“I think the Army is bringing cases it would not have tried back when I was in the Army,” Rosen said.
In 2006, 5.1 percent of female service members and 2.2 percent of male service members experienced unwanted sexual contact, according to the 2006 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members. The numbers decreased over the next 10 years.
In 2016, 4.3 percent of women and 0.6 percent of men experienced sexual assault within the past year, according to the 2016 version of the same survey. Researchers estimated that 14,881 active duty members had been sexually assaulted. Compared with 2014, there was a 0.6 percent decrease for women and a 0.3 percent decrease for men, the report said.
The Army, since 2004, has operated the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, which includes two legal programs,” said Col. Jeff Miller in an email. He is a strategic initiatives officer in the Office of The Judge Advocate General.
The Special Victim Prosecutor program since 2009 has used specially trained prosecutors to oversee the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault. Then in 2013 — the year that Darpino became judge advocate general — the Army started a Special Victim Counsel program in which licensed lawyers who have special training represent sexual assault victims through investigations and the judicial process.
Miller said that the Army distributes anonymous surveys that show the prevalence of sexual assault has decreased. Since 2012, reporting of sexual assault has increased by 60 percent, which is a sign of trust and confidence, he said. Since 2009 there’s been a 100 percent increase in courts-martial of sexual assault, and conviction rates over 70 percent.
Darpino said the Army’s action to address sexual assault has made it a role model for other institutions.
“We really have tipped the scale,” she said.
By statute, a judge advocate general can only serve for four years. After she retires, Darpino plans to spend time with her daughters and work on gardening, her favorite hobby. Eventually, she’ll return to work that matters, she said.
“I will find something to do where I’m able to still give back to our nation: an organization that helps others, maybe with young women and girls, or with our veterans,” Darpino said.
She noted that she’s still going to be in the Army, just on retired status — subject to recall whenever the nation needs her.
“I’m always a soldier — I’m a soldier for life,” she said.
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