When Soldiers have an appointment with Capt. Meghan Vasquez, chances are they’re in a spot of trouble. But Vasquez, like all Fort Lee judge advocates, will be quick to put her client’s mind at ease.
As a member of the Fort Lee Trial Defense Service, Vasquez provides defense counsel to Soldiers facing criminal investigation or disciplinary action. This includes administrative separation, non-judicial punishment and court-martial.
All legalese aside, Vasquez loves her job. While the court-martial experience may be frightening to a client, it is where her passion for advocacy allows her to perform at her best.
“What I love doing most, and have done well in, is connecting with witnesses,” said Vasquez, a New Jersey native. “I believe that witnesses can make or break a case. They are the primary form of testimonial evidence for the record. For me, to connect on a human level with witnesses is the most important thing.”
Vasquez personally meets with every case witness to prepare them for the cross-examination.
“Everyone sits on the stand ahead of time, knows how to dress, how to talk and where to look,” said Vasquez. “I will never call a witness to the stand I have not met or interviewed in person, or cross-examine a government witness I have not given the same attention.”
That same attention to detail is afforded to her clients as well.
“When I’m ramping up for a trial, I’ll have a client in the office every day for at least some period of time, even if just to review a small portion of a cross-examination,” said Vasquez. “When I’m a month out of trial, I will see or talk to them almost every day during the duty week, just to make sure we both know what we need to do – and to maintain a constant line of communication. When we arrive in court in our uniforms on the day of trial, the Soldier knows exactly what to expect. He or she may still be nervous. It can still be a frightening experience, but I have given them all they need to get through the process.”
Vasquez admits she’s not as strong at citing specific line and verse from law books. That’s when a good defense team can be supportive, and Vasquez said the JAG officers she works with are the best colleagues around. But when it comes to trial advocacy, Vasquez is at the top of her game.
She recently returned from the 29th Criminal Law Advocacy Course at the JAG Legal Center and School in Charlottesville. Vasquez received best oral advocate and distinguished honor graduate among the 50 judge advocates attending the class.
“It was a very flattering honor,” said Vasquez, “because I love what I do so much. It says that you are excelling in what you do, and that means a lot to me.”
Sometimes her duties take her out of the courtroom, like when a Soldier requests defense counsel on an Article 15. This form of non-judicial punishment is administered in a commander’s office, and a Soldier can request the presence of a lawyer.
“It’s at the commander’s discretion whether they will allow a defense counsel to be present,” said Vasquez. “But the reasoning against this is that it is not a judicial matter, and the Soldier really does not have a right to counsel because it’s purely an administrative matter.”
Every Soldier has a right to refuse punishment under Article 15 and demand trial by court-martial.
“We’ll advise Soldiers of what the maximum liability is if they turn it down and demand a trial by court-martial,” said Vasquez. “Even hearing the words ‘confinement’ or ‘jail’ could be enough for a Soldier to consider an Article 15. It’s those finer points of law that we counsel Soldiers on so they can make the best informed decision going forward.”
Vasquez said this passion for fairness began years before she even entered law school. As junior class president, she rallied the other class presidents at her public high school to stage a walk-out when the school board cut an elective from the class curriculum.
“The state had a J-factor rating of schools and the school board was making this schedule change to keep the high rating,” said Vasquez. “It was a travesty to me, and I considered all the teachers who would lose their jobs.”
When she was commissioned Sept. 11, 2006, Vasquez knew that the JAG Corps was the perfect means for her to display her love of justice.
“I knew going to law school I wanted to advocate for the interest of justice, and what better way than to do that for Soldiers,” said Vasquez. “That gives me a job satisfaction rating of 100 percent. I will work to any extent to make sure that the Soldiers who sit in the courtroom next to me, or in my office, are also 100 percent satisfied.”