McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State House

February 1, 2014

Lawyers in the Air Force come from backgrounds that are many and varied

ENID, Okla. — How does one go about becoming an Air Force lawyer?

In the case of Lt. Col. Theodore Richard, staff judge Advocate for the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance Air Force Base, you start as a helicopter mechanic, then become a private detective.

Richard joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard as a 17-year-old high school student, and became a helicopter mechanic.

“I did it to get money for college, and ended up loving it,” said Richard, a native of Madison, Wis.

After spending a couple years as a mechanic, Richard became a flying crew chief on a Blackhawk helicopter.

“I became a flight attendant with a machine gun and a tool box,” Richard said. “I just loved that.”

Throughout much of his college career at the University of Wisconsin, Richard had his sights set on medical school. But after a time, he changed his mind and accepted an offer to become a private detective.

“I just thought that was a cool job to do,” he said.

As a private eye, he investigated worker’s comp fraud, did surveillance work in divorce cases and was a defense investigator in criminal cases, including murders.

“I wound up helping get at least three people acquitted of first degree murder through my investigation work,” he said.

Through his work with attorneys on these cases, Richard had an epiphany of sorts.

“I kept thinking, ‘I’m working much harder than they are and they’re making all the money,’” Richard said. “So at some point, I decided I was going to go to law school.”

He went to law school at Wisconsin, where he met his future wife, Ankie, an exchange student from Holland. The fact the only way he could practice law in Europe was through the military, led him to apply and be accepted to both the Army and Air Force Judge Advocate General corps, with the hope of being stationed closer to the Netherlands, where Ankie is licensed as an attorney.

“The Army said ‘no way would it ever be possible,’ and the Air Force said, ‘You never know,’” Richard said.

So he chose the Air Force.

“The Air Force really is, I think, where it’s at as far as the legal issues and the cutting edge of the law,” he said.

The couple, who have three children, have yet to be stationed in Europe, instead being assigned to posts in North Dakota, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., and, since 2011, Enid.

“We’re still waiting to get to Europe, but it’s been a great career,” he said.

He has enjoyed the variety of legal areas he has been involved with in his career, including labor law, contract law, military justice, civil law and operations law.

As a contract law specialist during his deployment to Afghanistan, Richard was involved in the drawdown of U.S. troops and facilities.

“As they shut down the bases they had to figure out how to dispose of the property,” Richard said. “All the legal issues in the strategic realignment were all contract and fiscal issues. So I’m the one going out, riding in the MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) and helping turn out the lights in different places. I have my Army Combat Action badge up in my office.”

Capt. Megan Schmid, deputy SJA at Vance, entered the Air Force after graduating from the University of Nebraska and its ROTC program.

“I knew coming into the Air Force I wanted to be an attorney at some point, but I wasn’t ready to go straight to law school,” said Schmid, a native of Weeping Water, Neb.

After spending two years as a contract officer and two more as an executive officer, she was selected for the Air Force’s Funded Legal Education Program. Under that program, the government pays some money toward law school while continuing to pay the airman’s salary, in exchange for an additional commitment of time to the military. Through that program, Schmid attended law school at Villanova.

“She was No. 1 in her class,” Richard said, a fact Schmid failed to mention.

The variety of law practiced by Vance’s legal office is appealing to Schmid.

“Yesterday, I did fiscal, criminal, labor, administrative and did a little bit of environmental stuff,” she said. “You don’t get that as a civilian attorney. It makes it challenging, but it also makes it very interesting.”

That is unique to the Air Force, Richard said. The Army, he said, tends to pigeon-hole its lawyers in one area or another.

“In an Air Force base office, you’re just doing everything all the time,” he said. “You really don’t get burned out doing just one thing.”

“This is a wonderful training office,” said Jean Null, Vance’s court reporter and legal technician.

The newest member of the Vance legal team is Airman 1st Class Shafiyquca Gause, a military justice paralegal. A paralegal position opened up when she was in basic training. After basic she completed the paralegal apprentice course at Maxwell AFB, Ala., then came to Vance.

“I like it so far,” she said.

As a paralegal, Gause, a Los Angeles native, is responsible for processing administrative discharges, nonjudicial punishment and courts-martial.

Staff Sgt. Erica McKissick is non-commissioned officer in charge of civil law. Like Gause, she is a paralegal, but she began her Air Force career in communications.

McKissick made the change by necessity.

“When I was promoted to staff sergeant, there were too many staffs in my career field, so I was asked to re-train,” she said.

She was guided to the legal career field by an SJA at one of her former bases.

“I have enjoyed it,” McKissick said. “I think that’s been the best career move I could make.”

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