I have worn some version of a uniform since Reception Day in 1996 as an unrecognized plebe at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I was 17, and at that stage in my life, I only knew how to achieve.
My path meandered here and there, and leaving the Academy shy of the goal of graduation was the first real failure my life had ever known. But our failures shape us as much or more than our victories.
Undeterred, I found my way into the Demon Battalion at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. The recruiter could hardly believe as I recounted my resume of accomplishments and accolades, and he was eager to award me an ROTC scholarship. The plan was to demonstrate to West Point my resolve to go back. After two years, West Point gave me the green light. But by that point, I was two years into a 4.0 GPA at the Honors College, and I made the tough choice to stay still. It is not something that comes easy to me. Ask anyone who has spent time in my company.
When the head of Cadet Command told me that I should not bother applying for an educational delay to pursue law school, I thought to myself “You don’t know me.” I was one of 20 ROTC cadets that year who was granted the opportunity to pay for law school on my own dime and to apply to come back in to serve my scholarship obligation as a judge advocate.
I have largely lived my life within the four corners of an impressive resume.
In more recent years, I learned that there is far more.
I count myself incredibly fortunate for the sage advice of mentors who have helped to shape my inner dialogue:
- LTC (Ret) James Bulger said ”Never become complacent”
- COL (Ret) Kevan Jacobson said “A jag captain is a butter bar in disguise”
- Stephen Smith told me, “Take care of the client in front of you, and the rest will take care of itself.”
- COL (Ret) Mike Mulligan said, “A question is the highest compliment a person can pay you; honor that compliment by taking the time to answer.”
- LTC (Ret) EJ O’Brien asked me (and all counsel appearing before him) “What is the therefore?”
- Joshua Karton helped me to confront the reality that I have great capacity to tap into sorrow, but that the real living happens when you tap into joy.
- And most recently, my dear friend David Tarrell told me “do not confuse retreat with escape.”
The hardest part of saying goodbye to this role is feeling like I have left something not done. One goal left unaccomplished. One that for me was formative.
Anyone who knows me knows that I declared that I would be a judge when I was 5 years old. After some cajoling and evidence presented to me by my father, only then did I come to believe that I would have to be a lawyer first. Begrudgingly, I pivoted only slightly these dreams to include having to practice as an attorney.
And so, I have. For nearly 20 years.
I’ve accomplished a litany of goals, set records, and raised the bar for myself in a fairly ridiculous fashion. People have questioned whether I sleep. I (mostly) don’t.
In the years of reflection, I know that I have built my resume, my list in the way that others build armor. It is a defense mechanism and a coping strategy for trauma. I like to quip that my traumas have trauma.
But as I often say, I am still standing. And let’s be candid, on most days I am doing better than standing. But standing is my new threshold. There have been days when standing felt impossible.
The day that I learned that I would not make military judge was among the hardest of my life. I have come to some level of acceptance because I know that I was rejected from being a judge not for lack of experience, and not for a lack of the right demeanor. It’s true. I did not make judge because I am an instigator, a provocateur, and a truth teller. Over more than a decade’s worth of blogposts calling out a system that claims fairness while annually repealing protections is proof positive. And if speaking truth to power means that I will not count myself among the club of those chosen to sit in judgement, then it has to remain a role I’ll not accept.
I know that in my words and in my calls to action, I sit in truth. And this reality means that I am not someone who is compatible with the role. I (hope that if ever it were presented to me in this way) that I would choose the opportunity to shape and to change the system over the nod.
I have lived the majority of my life chasing nods. I like to say that I am in recovery from chasing acceptance.
As I face the reality that there are likely more days behind me in this life than there are in front of me, how, where, and to what extent I place my energy is the critical question. And I know that it is not hedonism to give myself permission to be guided by that energy. What feels good these days is outreach and finding community. I am infinitely privileged to be in a place where I can choose. Choosing is at its most critical level privilege.
So, for all of the amazing advice that has been gifted to me, I’ll add my own – Be intentional. In whatever you do. Whether it is your work, your passions, your hobbies, or your love. And most of all your energy. Be intentional.
Thank you for being a part of my journey, for being a place where I can be. Just Jocelyn.
Thank you for reminding me that there is no greater calling than the one we take up every day.
Thank you for the azimuth check and the reminder to continue to find my joy. In moments.
And for being here with me so that I can formally shed this role of uniformed service.
At the Trial Lawyers College, they remind us that how we say goodbye is as important as how we live. It says everything about who we are. So, as I say goodbye to the part of me that kept hope alive to finish what I started, thank you for allowing me to step into the space of knowing that I have indeed finished. I have. And yet, I have only just begun
Jocelyn Stewart is a UCMJ court-martial attorney who specializes in defense of allegations of sexual assault for all branches of the military worldwide.
Contact the Law Office of Jocelyn C. Stewart at 253-212-958
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