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Jury still out

Capt. Vincent DeFabo, 325th Fighter Wing Judge Advocate chief of legal assistance and preventative law, refers to text for verification May 28 at the legal office. In the legal office judge advocates or attorneys assist Airmen, retirees and dependents with legal issues. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Solomon Cook)

Capt. Vincent DeFabo, 325th Fighter Wing Judge Advocate chief of legal assistance and preventative law, refers to text for verification May 28 at the legal office. In the legal office judge advocates or attorneys assist Airmen, retirees and dependents with legal issues. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Solomon Cook)

A still photo of the legal office exterior May 28 at Tyndall, inside judge advocates stand at the ready to assist clients. Judge advocates are licensed attorneys that handle all things legal at Tyndall. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Solomon Cook)

A still photo of the legal office exterior May 28 at Tyndall, inside judge advocates stand at the ready to assist clients. Judge advocates are licensed attorneys that handle all things legal at Tyndall. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Solomon Cook)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Tyndall is considered a small scale city. There is a security forces squadron to keep order, a civil engineer squadron to put out fires and a judge advocate office to handle all things legal.

"If the commander is the mayor, we would be the base's general counsel," said Capt. Vincent DeFabo, 325th Fighter Wing Judge Advocate chief of legal assistance and preventative law.

A judge advocate office consists of a staff judge advocate, attorneys or judge advocates, paralegals, a court reporter and an administrative clerk.

However, the judge advocate or attorneys are the primary customer service representatives. They are commissioned officers and licensed attorneys with the duty of helping Airmen, retirees and dependents who have issues pertaining to the law.

"Every judge advocate is a licensed attorney of a state," said Capt. Mark Mason, 325th Fighter Wing Judge Advocate chief of civil and labor law. "We go to four years of undergraduate school, three years of law school and pass the bar exam of a particular state. Judge advocates are allowed by federal law to perform legal practices pertaining to military duties in any state."

But, they are limited in that they will not actually go into local courtrooms and be someone's lawyer. They can only help with issues clients may have, give them advice or make calls on their behalf, Mason added.

The duty of a judge advocate is to provide assistance to those not educated in the legal system or benefits and tools clients can acquire.

"Something that a lot of people are not familiar with is the Service Members' Civil Relief Act or the military clause, which we can help with here," said Mason. "These documents assist in financial matters, getting Airmen out of leases, loans taken out before joining the military, which can be capped at six percent, or getting out of phone contracts due to a deployment."

There are also multiple services provided during walk-in hours: landlord-tenant disputes, divorce, contract disputes, child custody, immigration and constructing living wills, DeFabo added.

The judge advocates alternate performing theses duties.
"At the legal office, the judge advocates generally rotate jobs annually," DeFabo said. "We serve as chiefs of various departments such as, chief of legal assistance, chief of military justice and so on. Different from the other branches, an Air Force Judge Advocate operates in all spectrums of the legal process."

The judge advocates are also responsible for passing judgment on Airmen that do not adhere to the core values: Integrity first, Service before self and Excellence in all we do.
"A bad reason to deal with us is the criminal justice side, where we prosecute Airmen who break the law," said Mason.

Basically, this office handles any type of legal issue that comes up, DeFabo added

In a country built on laws, the need for these legal representatives will always remain.

"The basis behind having our program is to help Airmen with legal issues, so they can focus on the mission," said DeFabo. "I find it the more fulfilling aspect of my job. If we can take the stress of a pressing legal issue off the shoulders of Airmen, they can focus on the mission and their family. If that is handled then we have done our job."