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Prior to taking command of the Continental Army in 1775, George Washington insisted that the Continental Congress appoint an attorney as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) to oversee matters of military justice. Over time the number of attorneys and legal staff grew, and this JAG Corps became the legal branch of the United States Armed Forces. It is now one of the largest law firms in the United States.
During World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, many members of the JAG Corps served both on the battlefield and in the courtroom, often receiving high commendations. First Lieutenant Samuel Spitzer, a young JAG officer who spoke German, received a Silver Star for convincing over 500 German soldiers in a French village to surrender. Another JAG officer, Colonel Hubert Miller, received the Distinguished Service Cross for combat in Normandy.
The JAG Corps assists all five branches of the United States Armed Forces. As in the past, the Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard do not have separate units for their JAG officers, who are also expected to serve as line officers wherever they are stationed. In the Army and Navy, however, these officers are only assigned legal work.
The function of the JAG Corps is to serve as legal advisors to their command and at times to be personal legal advisors. They conduct court martials and provide attorneys for both the prosecution and defense in matters of military law under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They also provide legal advice on policy formation and implementation and other legal issues which can arise.
Until the end of World War II, military regulations varied between the service branches and issues were decided under the Articles of War established in 1775. In 1947, all of the branches were united under the newly formed Department of Defense. In 1950, a Congressional committee was convened to update and unify the military law, creating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. While still more restrictive then other courts, the Code was drafted to incorporate many of the protections found in civil and criminal courts. All branches are now subject to identical standards, ensuring equal treatment of service men and women.
Over the years, the JAG Corps has been responsible for a number of historic trials. During the Revolutionary war, the Judge Advocate General was in charge of the court martial of Benedict Arnold. When President Lincoln was assassinated, the JAG Corps conducted the Lincoln Assassination Trials as well as the prosecution of the Commandant of Andersonville, a notorious Civil War prison camp. This department also played a significant role in the prosecution of Nazi war crimes at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany. JAG officers have served as military governors and helped draft international armistice and treaty agreements.
During World War II, the JAG Corps took on a new role which continues today; offering assistance to military personnel and their families with their personal legal affairs. Prior to deployment, JAG officers assist service personnel with wills, power of attorneys, and any other legal issues which might interfere with departure. This assistance continues to be available to the military members and their families during their deployment, allowing them to concentrate on their jobs and not on legal problems back home.