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WASHINGTON — Army Capt. Sebastian Edwards looks remarkably clean for someone who has been sleeping in the desert and has gone days without access to a shower. Compared with many of his fellow soldiers training at Fort Irwin’s National Training Center, Edwards appears downright fresh. Only his dust-covered boots make it plain that Edwards — an Army judge advocate and the sole lawyer in a combat brigade of roughly 3,000 soldiers — has spent the past three days trudging around the California Mojave Desert as part of rehearsal exercise for an assignment in Iraq. A 31-year-old graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, Edwards serves as trial counsel for the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. He works in an office of roughly 15 lawyers, and he prosecutes soldiers before courts-martial for drunk driving, rape and other crimes. Before going to law school, Edwards spent four years as an Army pilot flying a Chinook helicopter. As a lawyer, his day-to-day job is not terribly different than that of a civilian district attorney. But there are some differences. Next spring, Edwards and the roughly 17,000 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division will deploy to Iraq. The assignment carries risks, even for a lawyer, as evidenced by the recent deaths of two senior JAG officials in a helicopter crash. But if Edwards has misgivings about his orders or about the prospect of leaving his wife and 3-year-old son, he does not betray them. A graduate of West Point and the son of a Vietnam War veteran, he talks about his upcoming deployment matter-of-factly. Like most JAGs, Edwards considers himself a soldier first. “For me, being an officer in the Army was always my goal,” he says. “Even in my role as a lawyer, even preparing for cases, I always see myself as an officer first.” INSIDE THE BOX The crown jewel of the National Training Center, known as NTC, is a 1,000-square-mile block of land so barren that fighter jets can drop live bombs, so remote that soldiers can fire live ammunition. Army insiders refer to the immense training ground simply as “the box.” Judge advocates began accompanying Army brigades on NTC rotations only recently, in 1995, making Edwards part of the first generation of Army lawyers to train there. The Army’s decision to include JAGs in intense combat training demonstrates the expanding role of military lawyers in modern warfare. “At our training centers, lawyers are integrated into the overall exercise. It’s not like they stop and say, ‘I need to inject this legal issue here,’” says retired Gen. John Altenburg Jr., the Army’s No. 2 uniformed lawyer from 1997 to 2001. “Knowing how to respond correctly to a legal problem ends up being just as important as having soldiers who can shoot straight.” For the past two decades, judge advocates have played a quiet but crucial role in military operations — advising commanders on battle plans, target selection, and matters of international law. In Iraq, the nature of the conflict draws JAGs deeper than ever into military planning cells. Among the myriad tasks occupying the nearly 200 JAGs in Iraq: training troops on rules of engagement; overseeing the detention and interrogation of civilians; establishing a new Iraqi legal system and screening out judges who had connections to the Baath party; settling claims made by Iraqi civilians against the U.S. government for property damage; answering fiscal law questions; prosecuting crimes committed by soldiers; and providing legal assistance to deployed troops. Indeed, peacekeeping missions are known as low-intensity conflict — LIC, for short — but Army lawyers joke that LIC actually stands for “legally intensive conflict.” “The nature of issues that come up day in, day out in peacekeeping operations are highly complex and often more demanding than the issues that arise in combat,” says Altenburg, of counsel in the D.C. office of Greenberg Traurig. For the better part of two decades, units visiting Fort Irwin trained for conventional warfare — participating in staged tank-on-tank battles against a full-time force of about 2,500 soldiers wearing Soviet uniforms and driving Soviet vehicles. During the Cold War, NTC officials boasted that their facility maintained the “best Soviet motorized rifle regiment in the world.” Then, for several years after the fall of the Soviet Union, NTC stopped replicating specific nations during training sessions. Now things have changed again. The theater of operations for Edwards’ rotation is dubbed Artesia, but the scenario clearly simulates conditions facing U.S. troops in Iraq. “This rotation, more than any rotation in recent history, is being driven by the fact that this unit is going to Iraq,” says Maj. Michael Lawhorn, Fort Irwin’s public affairs officer. Even the harsh physical environment of the box mimics the terrain of Iraq. Desert sand, as fine as dust, irritates the skin, nose and eyes. It forms a film on every surface, clogging weapons and jamming computers. During the summer, daytime temperatures exceed 110 degrees. During the winter, nighttime temperatures sink into the single digits. For this exercise, six hastily constructed villages dot the desert landscape, each one populated by hundreds of “civilians” — actually members of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment housed at Fort Irwin. Some of the role-players act friendly to U.S. troops; others are hostile. The challenge facing Edwards’ brigade during its 10-day training rotation: to ensure law and order, defend against attacks from anti-U.S. guerrilla fighters, and create the conditions for a democratic election. What ensues is an elaborate game of laser tag that costs upward of $1 million a day. Players on both sides wear harnesses and helmets that signal when hit by a weapon’s laser. Upon being hit, soldiers open casualty cards to learn the extent of their injuries, and medics must then respond appropriately. Damage to vehicles is also simulated in small detail. “It’s not just the soldiers or the trigger-pullers that get to do training out here. We exercise every part of the system,” Lawhorn says. Indeed, training begins months before a brigade leaves its home installation when NTC starts sending out orders and intelligence. Arrival at Fort Irwin mirrors deployment and staging in a foreign country. Back in the day when Fort Irwin drilled troops exclusively in high-intensity conflict, NTC’s full-time opposing force routinely crushed visiting brigades. At the end of Edwards’ rotation, there is no clear victor. During the 10-day training period, significant numbers of American troops and Artesian civilians are “killed,” though Fort Irwin officials won’t say precisely how many. More than 25 improvised explosives detonate, “killing and injuring” U.S. soldiers and civilians. On the first day of training, U.S. troops mistakenly “bomb” a United Nations vehicle. On training day three, a paramilitary “sniper” claims the lives of four civilians as they register to vote. On Election Day, a “suicide bomber” strikes a populated area killing several civilians and disrupting the election. “The biggest thing we offer the units that come here is the chance to make mistakes here before they do it in combat,” Lawhorn says. In Iraq, mistakes can be fatal — at Fort Irwin, the hope is that they will be learned from. Every 48 hours, the action pauses for extensive evaluations. For JAGs, the most basic lessons can be the most critical. “The simple things are the things that can really get you in trouble quickly,” says Capt. Christopher Kennebeck, an Army JAG stationed at Fort Irwin as one of more than 700 observer-controllers who develop and monitor training. “Drink water. Eat food. Keep your weapons clean. Make sure your radio works,” Kennebeck continues. “Lawyers are used to an office environment. We need to train them to think about all those things before they leave.” In this rotation, the second NTC drill ever to focus exclusively on urban warfare, Fort Irwin’s observer-controller teams are learning their own lesson — that the guerrilla-style conflict in Iraq is not only difficult for U.S. troops to fight, but also difficult to train for. LAWYER TASKS For 10 days, Edwards reacts to events inside the box. He leads an investigation into the bombing of the U.N. vehicle and finds that U.S. troops acted appropriately. “Two aircraft saw what looked like muzzle flashes and interpreted that as a hostile act,” he says. “Our conclusion was that it was a reasonable course of action based on information they had at the time.” Edwards opens another investigation after soldiers fail to fill out the proper paperwork for a group of civilians found with bomb-making materials in their vehicles. He coordinates several trips away from the brigade command post to meet with Artesian officials and to settle claims brought by civilians. However, it’s not all action inside the box. For security reasons, Edwards can leave the command post only as part of a four-vehicle convoy, and he spends a great deal of time standing around and waiting for the necessary escorts. “A lot of things have to happen before you execute a simple lawyer task,” says Capt. Toby Harryman, an Army JAG stationed at Fort Irwin as an observer-controller. “You’re talking about moving a lot of people safely through a dangerous environment. It’s not like you’re driving to McDonald’s.” The “hurry up and wait” pace of a military operation can be frustrating, particularly for attorneys, Harryman says. “Lawyers are used to moving quickly,” he says. “When you’re out in this environment, you do what everybody else does.” More than many JAGs, Edwards fits in with his fellow soldiers. The son of a commercial pilot father and a police officer mother, Edwards grew up in Houston. After graduating from West Point in 1994, Edwards spent roughly four years as an Army officer, based first in Alabama and then in Hawaii. He then attended law school on a coveted military legal education scholarship. Each year, the Army selects about 15 officers to receive the honor, which entitles the soldiers to attend law school at the Army’s expense, while continuing to collect full salaries. In 2001, Edwards’ mother, now 56, followed her son’s lead and enrolled in law school. She is scheduled to graduate from South Texas College of Law in May 2004. MODERN WARFARE Inside the planning tent, where Edwards spends much of his time, sleep-deprived men of indiscriminate age assemble nightly to discuss the next day’s objectives. Dozens of restless soldiers sitting around a U-shaped table chug soda and peck at their laptop computers. In the past, battles may have been fought with tanks and guns, but modern warfare, it seems, is waged with PowerPoint. “Without PowerPoint,” jokes one soldier, “this place would implode.” The following night, Artesian paramilitary troops fire mortar shells at the command post itself. Although no one is injured, the attack is a wake-up call for the brigade’s commanders. In this exercise, as in Iraq, everyone is a potential target. On Nov. 7, the Army JAG Corps received a painful lesson on the risks faced by judge advocates in Iraq when two senior members of the Army’s legal staff died in a helicopter crash near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. The two officials — the most senior nonlawyers in the Army JAG Corps — accompanied a Pentagon team visiting judge advocates and legal specialists stationed in Iraq. Army Judge Advocate General Thomas Romig and two senior Army lawyers were flying nearby in a second helicopter. Edwards learned of the incident from a colleague back at Fort Hood. “It really hit home for a lot of us. You don’t anticipate having a judge advocate killed in combat,” he says. “Traditionally, we’re not on the front lines.” There are no front lines in Iraq, no rear. Nine Army judge advocates and legal specialists have been awarded Purple Hearts for injuries sustained in Iraq. In August, Army JAG Keith Bracey, a claims specialist with the 1st Armored Division, received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for pulling a wounded U.S. soldier out of a burning vehicle after a rocket-propelled grenade attack. The need to conduct operations in populated areas requires JAGs to provide rigorous training on the rules of engagement. “It’s important to give soldiers . . . limits in order to make them confident to employ deadly force if necessary,” says Capt. Robert Hamilton, an Army JAG assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in Ar Ramadi. “The problem is that the enemy’s unconventional tactics present unique scenarios in which rules of engagement have never been employed.” Back at Fort Irwin, the rules in play mirror the basic rules applied in Iraq: Individuals positively identified as members of a hostile force can be killed on sight. [Positive identification, or PID, is defined as a reasonable certainty that the proposed target is a legitimate military target.] After experiencing NTC, Edwards suggests that his work in Iraq may actually be easier. During training, he says, the expedited schedule makes it difficult to execute plans. “There are hurdles out here I won’t have once we deploy,” Edwards says. “Over there, I think I’ll be better resourced. I think the pace will be a lot slower, so I’ll be able to give greater attention to the issues I’m dealing with.” “Of course, the stakes will be a lot higher,” he quickly adds. “At the end of the day at NTC, no one is going to really be killed.” Vanessa Blum is a reporter for Legal Times , a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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