Dedicated to service, a 19-year-old Anna Sturges started her journey toward a career in the Air Force JAG Corps the summer after her first year of undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, when she joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Course (AFROTC) after watching an older sorority sister excel in the program. At the time, she had a dormant interest in law after years of high school speech and debate and a keen interest in helping people and effecting change through her writing. Her senior year, she applied for an AFROTC program that permitted students to take an educational delay, essentially delaying their Air Force service commitment by three years to attend law school. She was accepted as one of two students nation-wide.
In 2015, she started law school at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, focused on arming herself with the trial advocacy skills and criminal law knowledge she needed for a career as a military justice practitioner. She also found something she did not know she needed in her life: his name was Connor Richards. He was an Indiana native who wanted to be a video game/e-sports lawyer, which she thought was a made-up job. How wrong she would be eight years later.
Anna spent her first summer interning with the domestic violence unit of the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office in Indianapolis, where she listened to hours of jail calls, identifying protective order violations and obstructions of justice, and supported and observed criminal trials. Her second summer, she interned at the base legal office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where she got her first taste of life as a JAG. Base legal offices function similar to in-house counsel, a one-stop shop for a wide variety of legal issues, such as the wing commander wondering if he can ethically accept a gift, a group commander wondering what funds can be used to buy specialized equipment, a unit commander wondering what to do about a member accused of a serious crime, or an individual airman looking to get a will done before deploying.
That summer was like drinking from the firehose for Anna as she came to understand all that is expected of a first-assignment JAG. Anna was pleasantly surprised to find the office filled with strong female mentors. From its leader, the base staff judge advocate, who was an Air Force Academy graduate who shaped the face of the Air Force environmental law in the years to come, to the dual-military first-assignment captain who excelled as a prosecutor and a sexual assault victim’s counsel, even while coping with multiple pregnancies and spouse deployments, Anna had approachable and impressive role models out of this internship.
Anna returned to law school for her final year. As graduation loomed closer, Anna was not an obvious choice as the J.D. student speaker at graduation; she was not the valedictorian or the student body president, but she had a perspective and a message all her own. That year, she invested in the mantra “fight for what you can do, not what others think you can do.” Thus, she applied and was selected based on a speech that highlighted the uniqueness of her graduating classmates through a metaphor about the beautifully blending and separating Midwest sunsets, challenging her classmates to draw on their differences and unique perspectives as they shape the legal world in the future.
Carrying this mantra into her professional life, Anna graduated, passed the Indiana State Bar, married Connor, and moved without him (but with her corgi) to begin her career as a JAG at Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB), South Dakota. Connor stayed in Chicago working for an accounting firm that did not have an office in South Dakota. To cope with long-distance and the new experience of South Dakota winters, Anna threw herself into her work, absorbing everything she could about military criminal law. Along with the nine weeks of intensive military legal training at the Air Force JAG School and the five weeks of field training in college, this early exposure to the military helped her cement her passion for service and desire to unpack and understand the military justice system. She spent her first year at Ellsworth AFB advising on and preparing adverse disciplinary actions, such as letters of reprimand and nonjudicial punishments, while assisting more senior attorneys prosecuting drug courts and litigating administrative discharge boards.
In her next two years, she filled the role of chief of military justice, overseeing investigations, coordinating jurisdiction decisions with local and federal prosecutors’ offices, and organizing and prosecuting courts-martial. While a heavy undertaking for a second-year attorney, she had the supervision of the base staff judge advocate, who had more than 13 years of trial experience and a reputation across the JAG corps for exemplary litigation. She notes that he led his office on the principles of integrity, competency, and professionalism. He saw these as the cornerstones of the profession, especially in criminal law as the rights and interests of individual service members are impacted by every decision. He required careful attention to appellate updates and administrative policy changes. She credits his emphasis on ethical, organized discovery and zealous, yet professional representation as the framework upon which she developed her litigation practice. In terms of the streamlined processes and innovative systems that helped her excel as Chief of Justice, Anna credits her success to the lessons she learned from her predecessor in the position, a woman who went on to be a military defense attorney before being hand-selected to return to the Air Force JAG School to prepare a new generation of recent law school graduates and lateral hires to be military officers.
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic began, the base legal office received word that a servicemember’s child was in critical condition from potentially non-accidental injuries. After the six-month-old baby died two weeks later, the investigation became a murder case. In the military, serious crimes are tried at general courts-martial, which usually require senior prosecutors and defense counsel to assist the counsel located at the base, coordinating remotely during pretrial and flying into the area for motions practice and trial. While Anna performed the role of third chair at the murder trial, giving the opening statement and directing and crossing a few witnesses, she was also the only prosecutor in the local area for pretrial actions. This unique situation gave her invaluable experience, coordinating with Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents throughout the process, and establishing a rapport months ahead of the trial with key witnesses, including the mother of the child, treating physicians, and civilian law enforcement.
About a year into her assignment, Connor moved to Denver to be closer to Anna, thereby shortening the long-distance commute from 19 hours by car to six. He switched firms to a media-focused law firm, primarily focused on video games. While this time apart gave them time to establish themselves in their respective careers, it also gave Connor time to fall in love with Denver and convince Anna that the city’s legal community, weather, outdoor adventures, and affinity for dogs was perfect for them. Anna applied for and received the Area Defense Counsel (ADC) position at Buckley Space Force Base (SFB) in Denver. She then packed up their now two dogs and drove that six-hour route to her husband for the last time.
Area Defense Counsel are the first line of defense for members facing criminal allegations in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Whether these allegations lead to no action, administrative disciplinary paperwork, discharge boards, or courts-martial, ADCs assist clients throughout the investigation and any disciplinary process to follow. Anna has defended clients against a variety of crimes including drug use, assault, sexual assault, check fraud, and military-specific crimes, such as malingering and absent without leave (AWOL). During the last two years at Buckley SFB, she has assisted more than 300 clients, defended courts-martial in multiple states and bases in Colorado Springs, and litigated administrative boards, preventing members from being discharged or receiving negative discharge characterizations. As a defense attorney, she fights tirelessly for her clients, but believes in her ethical obligations, her duty to the court, and that adversarial roles require professionalism and civility, not only for the good of the profession but for success in negotiations. She finds that new attorneys are sometimes surprised by the level of negotiation, co-counsel coordination, and pretrial litigation necessary in trial work.
One of the most surprising and rewarding aspects of her job has been the number of talented and quick-witted women she has worked with in the military litigation world. Colorado has four ADC positions who primarily defend Buckley SFB, Peterson SFB, Schriever SFB, the Air Force Academy, and tenant units world-wide connected to these bases. All the defense paralegals in Colorado are women and three of the four ADCs are women (the only male attorney is on paternity leave). Anna’s direct supervisor, a senior defense attorney, was previously the sole attorney at the Air Force Drug Testing Lab and now returns to her newborn every few weeks after litigating cases and teaching courses all over the country. Thus, an all-female defense team currently supports Colorado Airmen and Guardians.
Outside the office, Anna enjoys spending time skiing, hiking, and going to dog parks with her family. She also enjoys fostering future lawyers by judging tournaments for both high school speech and debate and college mock trial. Recently, she volunteered to judge a mock trial for the Air Force Academy tournament in Colorado Springs. Both activities are always looking for more judges, especially those who are not conflicted by any association to a specific team. Also, the tournaments are normally on the weekends. Anna recommends volunteering to judge these competitions to anyone looking for a highly rewarding way to get involved with the community. Either review the tournament locations on the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) website or reach out to the closest school district’s speech and debate league.
Thrilled to see CWBA events moving back in-person after the pandemic, Anna joined the CWBA community on the advice of friends who were already members. Her hopes of expanding her local legal network and meeting mentors have been more than recognized. The CWBA events and committees are great opportunities to make connections with local attorneys as well as law students, plus the frosé machine is a fun touch! Anna is a great resource for anyone interested in military law, and she is happy to grab coffee or connect people with Air Force JAG Corps recruiters.
Authored by: Captain Anna Sturges
Edited by Kate Noble:
Kate Noble is a CWBA Publications Committee member and a legal editor with Colorado Bar Association CLE, the nonprofit educational arm of the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations.