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Naval officer helps restore Afghan law

It takes more than military might to rebuild a country such as Afghanistan.
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It takes more than military might to rebuild a country such as Afghanistan.

It takes a cadre of dedicated lawyers, as Vice Admiral Bruce MacDonald knows. MacDonald serves as judge advocate general of the Navy and is responsible for more than 2,300 officers, enlisted and civilian personnel. He also provides legal and policy advice to the secretary of the Navy and chief of naval operations.

MacDonald, who grew up in Glenville, returned to Washington, D.C., two weeks ago from a trip to Afghanistan, where he was helping the Afghanis rebuild their legal institutions.

“It’s a real new mission for us,” he said. “We’re engaged in counterinsurgency operations and it’s a recognition that the rule of law is a part of a fight to tamp down the insurgency, the likes of which we’re seeing in Afghanistan.”

MacDonald said military lawyers are serving as mentors to the Afghan National Army and Afghan legal advisers. He said the key is to rebuild the political and legal system to restore the faith and trust of the Afghan people. This, MacDonald says, will create the kind of environment in which companies will feel safe to send people and do business.

Previously, MacDonald said JAGs had been mostly associated with providing guidance on international law, interpreting the rules of war and working in military justice courts.

MacDonald received a promotion to three-star rank in August. Congress had passed legislation requiring the top judge advocate generals to move up to give them equal clout with the civilian lawyers at the Pentagon.

MacDonald has also undertaken similar legal assistance efforts in Iraq and visited the country in January 2008. He has made three trips to Afghanistan and two to Iraq in the past two years.

Iraq is in a better position than Afghanistan, MacDonald said, because it has more physical infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, as well as natural resources such as oil. However, he said, achieving success in both countries will require a “long, sustained effort.”

On the home front, MacDonald has been helping to implement the Navy JAG Corps 2020 master plan.

One of the major goals is improving education for JAGs. The service is moving toward offering a master’s of law degree. In addition, the Navy is looking to develop associate degree programs for its civilian work force. “This is really about providing lifelong learning opportunities for our career force,” he said.

Military justice litigation is the core mission, handling all types of disciplinary offenses in courts-martial. This would be the equivalent of misdemeanor and felony cases in the civilian criminal justice system.

MacDonald said one of his most memorable cases was taking testimony for the court of inquiry of the USS Greenville, a submarine that struck the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru on Feb. 9, 2001. The vessel sank and nine crew members were killed.

He recalled working seven days a week for two months to take testimony and prepare the report.

Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the sub’s commander, was not court-martialed as a result of the incident but submitted his retirement.

JAGs have also been very involved with the war on terrorism. He and other JAGs testified in 2006 before the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Armed Services Committee on the use of torture.

It had never entered MacDonald’s mind that he would have a 30-plus year career in the Navy. He is the second-oldest among four brothers and a sister and graduated in 1974 from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School. His older brother got an Army ROTC scholarship to attend St. Bonaventure University. MacDonald recalled his father saying “I have three children following you. It would sure be nice if you looked into this ROTC,” he said.

Holy Cross had an ROTC program and some scholarships. He applied for one and received it. In exchange for the scholarship, he was required to serve four years on active duty. He fully intended to leave military service after the four years.

“What convinced me to stay is the fact that I had some wonderful leaders in the Navy that talked to me about additional scholarships from the Navy in the law,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald earned his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1992. He received his juris doctorate from California Western School of Law in San Diego. In 2002, he received the Distinguished Service Medal from the American Bar Association.

He came to the Pentagon in the summer of 2002 to serve as special counsel to the chief of naval operations and began his current job in July 2006.

MacDonald has been married to his wife Karen for 27 years. They have a 23-year-old daughter who recently graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle. His mother died six years ago but his father still lives in Glenville off Route 50, and MacDonald said he tries to come back to visit every three months and for holidays.

He plans to retire from the Navy in the summer of 2009. He is interested in doing some type of nonprofit foundation work. but has not decided exactly what yet.

MacDonald said he absolutely loved his Navy experience.

“Service, without question, it’s what kept me in,” he said.

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