UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When you’re an alumna of Penn State Law, a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, and up for a promotion, there is perhaps no one better suited to perform your promotion ceremony than Penn State Law Interim Dean and Distinguished Scholar in Residence James W. Houck, the retired 41st judge advocate general of the U.S. Navy.
So when it was time for alumna SaraAnn Bennett, class of 2014, to be promoted from lieutenant junior grade to lieutenant, she asked Houck, a mentor and former professor of hers, to administer the oath. Houck performed the ceremony at the end of his National Security Law class on Sept. 1, in front of his students, Bennett’s parents, her former professors Michael Foreman and Michele Vollmer, and current Penn State Law administrators and retired Navy judge advocates Russ Shaffer and Jeff Horwitz.
Like many law students, Bennett wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do when she finished law school. She was excelling in Houck’s class and served as his research assistant, so the two often discussed Bennett’s plans post law school.
“I think you’d be a great fit in the Navy,” Houck told her during one of those conversations. At first, Bennett didn’t think military law practice was right for her.
“I had this idea of what people in the military are like, and I didn’t think I would fit into the mold that I pictured the military to be,” she said. “I started to consider it more seriously when Admiral Houck, who was one of the most down-to-earth people I’d met, said there are great people in the Navy, and I trusted his judgment.”
She decided to look into the JAG Corps and shadowed some JAGs at the Pentagon and Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
“I had never met so many lawyers who loved their jobs,” she said. “They know they are working for a greater purpose and they are enjoying the work they are doing and the people they are working with.”
The JAG Corps is the military legal division of the U.S. Navy, responsible for providing legal services in support of servicemembers, veterans, and naval and joint military operations around the world. Houck served as the Navy’s judge advocate general from 2009 to 2012. In that capacity, he was the principal military legal counsel to the secretary of the Navy and chief of Naval Operations, and he led the 2,300 attorneys, enlisted legal staff, and civilian employees that comprise the worldwide Navy JAG Corps. Houck retired from the Navy in the rank of vice admiral in 2012 to join the Penn State Law faculty.
Bennett was accepted in the Navy JAG Corps in 2014 and officially started in March 2015. She’s stationed at Region Legal Service Office Northwest (RLSO NW) in Bremerton, Washington, near Seattle, and she is in the middle of her first tour, which includes four six-month rotations in the JAG Corps’ four main practice areas. During her first rotation, she was in the Command Services Department, which provides legal support for Navy units that do not have their own in-house JAGs. She’s currently serving in Military Justice, where Navy JAGs bring criminal charges against servicemembers who have violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Next, Bennett will rotate to Legal Assistance, a unit that provides legal aid to retirees and current servicemembers and their dependents. Following that six-month stint, Bennett will work for Navy JAG defense counsel, representing servicemembers facing charges in the military court system.
Just after arriving at RLSO NW, Bennett spent four days on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, observing naval operations and servicemembers at work aboard the ship. She also spent a week shadowing a JAG who serves as counsel for a submarine command in Bangor, Washington.
“Every day it was, ‘JAG, can you do this?’ ‘JAG, can you do this’? It was awesome to see how much the command and sub community relied on their JAG every day,” she said.
Following her swearing in, Bennett offered some insights on her career to Houck’s class and urged the students to take advantage of the access they have to the Penn State Law faculty. “The professors here are amazing, and they were a huge resource for me during my three years here and even afterward,” she said.
She also thanked former JAGs Horwitz, Penn State Law’s director of development and alumni relations, and Shaffer, associate dean for operations and planning, for their counsel during the process of joining the Navy. “Their guidance and support when I was stressed about getting into the Navy were extremely helpful,” she said.
At Penn State Law, in addition to serving as Houck’s research assistant, Bennett was a member of the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic and the Penn State Law Review. After graduation, she served as a graduate fellow under Foreman, where she was instrumental in working with Foreman and Vollmer in getting the law school’s Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic off the ground.