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US Army calls four from Class of 2012 to JAG Corps

Four Penn State Law graduates from the Class of 2012 were selected among thousands of applicants for active duty in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. Sara Carlson, Melody Mahla, Meghan McClincy, and Vietlong Nguyen came to their career choice with different backgrounds and experiences but all had a common motivation. “I can’t think of a more honorable way to begin a law career,” said McClincy. She and the other students said they were inspired by family members and other mentors who had served in the military. “The relationships Penn State has built, with the Army War College, ROTC, and in establishing the Omar Bradley Chair have been very helpful,” McClincy said. Read more about each student.

Photo of JAG students

Sara Carlson

Photo of Sara CarlsonWhen Sara Carlson was growing up, she wanted to be an astronaut or a lawyer. She attended West Point because she thought for either career, graduating from the military academy would be a great start. Captain Sara Carlson spent more than five years as an MP. After her time as an active duty officer, she served both in the United States and overseas as a civilian, providing irregular warfare analytical support to deployed forces before taking time off to go to law school and spend more time with her two young sons. The family moved to State College because Carlson’s husband, an Army pilot, scored an assignment at Penn State teaching ROTC Cadets and Carlson began commuting to Widener School of Law in Harrisburg before gaining admission to Penn State Law.

One of the many things Carlson knows about military life—especially dual career military life—is that change is inevitable, and to be prepared for it, you have to know how to juggle. “My husband had been unexpectedly deployed to Iraq, or away at unscheduled training for most of the time that I have been attending law school here,” she said. (Earlier this year, Carlson described the lives of military families in a website article “How do you do it?”). Carlson juggles her law classes and studies, getting her two sons to school and activities, volunteer work, and externships and internships—including the summer she spent with the JAG Corps in Texas. “I’m thankful that I have parents and in-laws who understand and support our decisions,” she said. Both families helped with childcare, pet care and home care while Carlson spent two months doing a JAG Corps rotation internship to which she advises anyone considering the military to apply. “It helps you understand the military lifestyle,” she said. “It’s not for everyone.”

She said that in addition to her military service, she helped establish a local nonprofit that helps struggling veterans pay bills for basic needs such as heating oil and food. “Good grades are important, but showing a commitment to serve is also important. Taking practical skills classes—like client counseling—also helps and ‘getting all the experience you can’.” Carlson has had a number of legal work experiences, including her current externship with the Centre County D.A. “It’s tough to get into the JAG Corps,” she said and persistence pays off. She added, “The real world isn’t going to open the door for you; sometimes you have to break it down.”

Melody Mahla

Photo of Melody MahlaMelody Mahla said “I was as shocked as anyone could be when I got the call from my field screening officer.” Mahla felt others who had a more direct connection to the military might have had a better chance of being selected. But it may have helped that her mother was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Medical Corps and her father was a major and that she was born at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where her parents performed their anesthesia residencies. For Mahla this experience provides her with an “opportunity to help soldiers; to show my appreciation for men and women who are going to Afghanistan and elsewhere when they don’t have to,” she said.

In addition to skills classes, Mahla highlights her moot court experiences – especially oral arguments, in helping her prepare for the position. She also said that her work on a U.S. Supreme Court petition for cert during a semester with the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic “gave me something to talk about.” The case focused on ensuring that the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protected those serving in the military against harassment based upon military service. Mahla stressed that it’s important to be physically fit so she made sure she was in shape for her interview.

Mahla is especially excited about the assignment because she will be able to get courtroom experience right away. “You start with a big stack of cases that are your cases. I’m not sure you can get that kind of experience with a law firm,” she said. The Army also allows her to begin to build a public service career, something that she has had her sights set on since coming to law school.

Meghan McClincy

Photo of Meghan McClincyMeghan McClincy knew she wanted to be in the JAG Corps when, at the end of her summer internship at Fort Drum, she felt sad to be leaving. “It is in a remote part of New York. You really felt like you were part of something—a focus on the mission over the individual which is very different from law school,” she said. She became interested in the military during an internship before law school in Washington, D.C., where she saw so many people in uniform.

Because Fort Drum, New York is a “rotating deploying” post, she felt the best part of her internship was when she helped counsel clients on family matters in the Legal Services Office. “What struck me most was how young most of the soldiers are and here they are going off to war or coming back and facing major life issues, like a spouse who totally wrecked the family finances, or child custody matters,” she said. Other rotations included federal tort claims, administrative law, military justice and trial defense services.

One law school experience that she cites in helping her prepare for the position is the Penn State Journal for Law and International Affairs where she serves as editor. “The leadership role, especially as the journal transitioned from its original format and mission, demonstrates a different skill set than class work,” she said. As for class work, she said that most of the classes students take at law school are “confidence breaking.” That is why she appreciated Professor Gary Gildin’s trial advocacy classes. “Professor Gildin explained that it is important not to lose your lovable essence; to stay true to yourself,” she said.

She advises students interested in the JAG to work hard inside and outside of the classroom. “Get involved in the Penn State Law community, especially those areas related to the military experience, and find something that you are passionate about and take on a leadership role. Also take time out to volunteer and stay in shape.”

Vietlong Nguyen

Photo of Vietlong NguyenVietlong Nguyen joined the Army ROTC as an undergraduate when he became interested in the military experiences of his political science professor who was a former captain in the Marines and a judge. “I realized I wanted to be part of something that was bigger than me,” he said. He received his commission and an education delay to attend law school. He opted to join a local Army Reserve Unit which requires that he drill one weekend a month. “Penn State is a military-friendly campus and that helps a lot,” he said.

In order to pursue his interests in criminal law, he did an internship with the San Diego D.A. this past summer and was able to sit in on trials and argue motions. He also worked for a private defense firm in California, externed with the Blair County Public Defender’s Office, and has an externship with the Centre County D.A. “I’m definitely interested in criminal law, but I will go where needed. I view this as a service commitment more than a paycheck,” he said.

Nguyen said that to be considered for the JAG Corp it is “important to show commitment to the military and especially the JAG Corps.” He added that getting the support of Law School faculty also helped. “General Altenburg’s class and his personal insight into the application process really helped.”

“I was so happy to get that call,” he said. “I was jet lagged from coming back from the holidays so I needed to double check my caller I.D. to make sure I didn’t dream it …. It’s a relief to know what I will be doing when I graduate.”

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