Area Defense Counsel provides legal advocacy for Airmen

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Tammie Ramsouer
  • JBER Public Affairs
There are many terms Airmen don't like to hear -- such as "counseling", "reprimand" or "Article 15." These are some of the administrative actions undertaken when Airmen commit crimes like driving under the influence of alcohol, abusing drugs or committing a sexual assault. These are just a few examples of what the Area Defense Counsel helps Airmen with five days a week.

ADC offices are on every Air Force installation to provide Airmen with the counsel they need. The defense counselors assigned to the office of the ADC on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, ensure legal defense is available for Airmen, regardless of rank, facing any type of adverse administrative action.

"The office of the ADC was set up by the Air Force in the 70s in order to provide Airmen with independent legal counseling," said Capt. Steven Braunlich, ADC. "We are separate from the [Staff Judge Advocate], although everyone who works in the ADC has at one time been placed in a legal office at some prior assignment."

In the military justice system, the JA office is the prosecuting agency and the ADC is the defense agency, unless an Airman decides to hire a private civilian attorney at his own expense. While the ADC cannot defend an Airman in a civilian court, the counselors can still provide advice.

The ADC can help Airmen with a variety of legal defense concerns, such as courts-martial, Article 15 actions and many more.

"We can [also] assist them with administrative actions, such as letters of counseling, letters of reprimand or any other adverse actions in which counsel for an individual is required or authorized," Braunlich said.

Airmen have three days to respond to different administrative actions, he added.

Within that time, the counselors can determine if the individual needs an extension of time to respond due to any errors or unlawful treatment present in the document.

For one Airman, a meeting with the ADC was mandatory due to the administrative action he received -- a meeting may have saved his career.

"In September of 2004 while stationed at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., I was apprehended by security forces due to being spotted 'stumbling in a drunken manner'," said Master Sgt. Michael Ferrandino, 3rd Maintenance Squadron aircraft hydraulic systems section chief. "Unfortunately at the time, I was an airman 1st class and was not of the legal drinking age."

After being read his rights, he was immediately escorted to the security forces squadron building.

"One of the [security forces] personnel had to remind me that I had a right to remain silent and that I should maintain that right," Ferrandino said. "I was not saying nice things to them."

A few stressful days after his ordeal, he had to report to his commander with the first sergeant and his supervisor.

Ferrandino received an Article 15, non-judicial punishment for drinking under the legal age limit while in public.

"As I stood there, the commander proceeded to read the official language in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but his words were falling on deaf ears," Ferrandino said. "I couldn't help but repeat the words 'Article 15, what is that?' to myself."

Soon after the meeting with his commander, a one-on-one with the first sergeant was next on the agenda. This meeting gave Ferrandino a way to get help.

"The first sergeant notified me of my mandatory appointment with the ADC," he said. "I asked my first sergeant, 'ADC? You mean like lawyers or something?' and he nodded his head yes. I thought to myself, 'What's the point? I'm done for. There's nothing that can be done.'"

The first sergeant explained to him the ADC was an agency that helps Airmen, not the commander.

"I grudgingly decided to attend my mandatory appointment," Ferrandino said. "As I walked into the ADC, I immediately noticed that the captain sitting at his desk was not wearing the same patches as I was, meaning he didn't belong to the wing or have the same chain of command I had."

This immediately put Ferrandino at ease; there was no conflict of interest regarding his case.

"The captain sat me down and went over the specific details of my case," he said. "For the first time since my apprehension, I actually felt comforted and, in a way, relieved. I had people who were 100 percent committed to assisting me with my legal issues."

During the meeting, Ferrandino was advised by the ADC counsel to write a memorandum for record to possibly reduce his punishment.

"The captain helped me write my letter and to make it as formal and concise as possible for the commander," Ferrandino said. "The miracle the ADC performed was evident to me upon returning to my commander's office."

The commander read the statement, said it was a well-written product and decided to have leniency, Ferrandino said.

The punishments were a reduction in base pay for a few months, 15 days of restriction to base and 15 days of extra duty.

"Although it seems like a harsh punishment, I did not lose a stripe, but instead [received] a suspended reduction in rank to airman for six months," Ferrandino said. "I am not certain if the memorandum for record the ADC helped me write convinced my commander to go easy on me, but I am certain about the positive affect that the ADC had on me at that time."

"Sometimes we are simply the conduit that speaks to the commanders on behalf of our clients," Braunlich said.

As the ADC's defense paralegal, Staff Sgt. Vanity Barr-Little is responsible for handling the administration side of the office. Barr-Little screens clients before they meet with the ADC, assists with witnessing interviews and conducts legal research.

"She is an excellent interviewer and helps throughout the process of getting to trial if someone is heading that way," Braunlich said.

The unique chain of command allows them to counsel without the appearance of partiality.

"Our chain is completely separated from all the other offices on base," Braunlich said.

Their chain of command begins in the ADC office at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash., with the Senior Defense Counsel, then goes to the Deputy Chief Trial Defense Division atTravis Air Force Base, Calif., and ends at the Air Force Legal Operations Agency in Washington, D.C. No other agency can rate, review, give guidance or control how the ADC advocates for Airmen.

"We focus solely on getting the best results for our clients," Braunlich said.

The ADC is the one place in the Air Force where an Airman can talk to an attorney with complete confidentiality, Barr-Little said.

She also recommended Airmen know their rights and remain silent if they are suspected of a criminal offense according to Article 31 of the UCMJ.

"I encourage all of my Airmen to seek out advice from the ADC when they have any type of legal or administrative action issues," Ferrandino said. "I know from personal experience the ADC is here for us Airmen."

For information or to make an appointment, contact your local ADC.