#BZFriday: Naval Station Guantanamo Bay JAGs Flourish Performing Cutting Edge Legal Work

From Region Legal Service Office Southeast Permanent-party judge advocates are assigned to support Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (“NSGB”) for 18-to-30 month tours.  Navy and Marine Corps judge advocates who […]

From Region Legal Service Office Southeast

Permanent-party judge advocates are assigned to support Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (“NSGB”) for 18-to-30 month tours.  Navy and Marine Corps judge advocates who do so trace a history of over a half-century of supporting the mission of NSGB.

Located 400 air miles from Miami, Fla., NSGB is the United States’ oldest overseas military installation (established in 1903) and the only one in a communist country.  Per the United States’ lease with Cuba, the U.S. retains jurisdiction while Cuba retains sovereignty over the 45-square-mile installation.  However, land access to the rest of Cuba remains barred. These dynamics force the permanent-party judge advocates to act on the forefront of novel legal issues.

NSGB Command Staff Judge Advocate (SJA), Lt. Cynthia Parmley, frequently has to develop creative policy solutions to tackle installation issues exacerbated by the absence of host nation/state law.  This work not only takes nimble ingenuity, but also requires extensive collaboration up the chain of command, the DoD, and across federal agencies. Parmley recalls one particular incident where a foreign national was discovered to have brought over 130 lbs of chicken feet on the rotator to NSGB. It turned out this was a common practice borne out of the fact that there is no customs regime at NSGB because Cuba retained sovereignty over the land, but US customs enforcement only occurs on US soil. This presented a unique jurisdictional gap that the NSGB Commanding Officer turned to his SJA to solve. Parmley, after researching US, Jamaican, and Cuban importation regulations on meat and produce and liaising with the Department of State, US Customs and Border Protection, and the US Department of Agriculture crafted an importation policy for NSGB — truly cutting edge SJA work. “I must have missed the class in law school and at NJS on how to deal with sacks of raw meat…” Parmley noted. “It’s just one example of how interesting and challenging this SJA job is. Every day is different, and the intersection of law and policy allows space for creativity and fosters a close relationship between the installation Triad and the SJA.”       

The isolated nature of the base, as well as a large number of federal agencies and mission sets confined therein, means that the SJA’s work is not just confined to the Navy.  Parmley is frequently interacting with the Department of State, particularly on Cuban migrant issues, as well as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and Department of Homeland Security.  Yet, with all this diversity of work and opportunity, what Parmley truly enjoys about the work is being an integral member of the NSGB command team.  While the NSGB SJA is the Region Legal Service Office Southeast (RLSO SE) officer in charge for the Detachment, Parmley is also a special advisor to the NSGB commanding officer as per the installation Standard Organization and Regulations and a department head within NSGB, fulfilling all the responsibilities associated with department heads at the command.  With this responsibility also comes the enjoyment of the close-knit community fostered on the installation, where everyone is family.

While Parmley serves as the installation SJA, another Navy judge advocate serves the community as its full-time, permanent legal assistance attorney.  Lt. Ryan Kennedy’s role is unlike any other in the JAG Corps.  “My role is to offer free legal assistance to a unique community of military and civilian personnel,” says Kennedy. “NSGB is that sort of installation with no ‘out in town’ where you can pay someone to notarize a document or draft a power of attorney, and leaving island can be difficult. However, we’re authorized via special extensions of limited legal assistance services to provide customer services to a wider group of people than most offices, even wider than some other OCONUS offices. Our legal assistance customers include foreign nationals working for DOD contractors, as well as the special-category residents (SCR), including Cuban exiles and their dependents, who’ve supported NSGB since the 1960s.”

GTMO legal assistance gets both unique customers and unique clients.  “Besides normal services for personnel stationed here and limited services to SCRs, over a quarter of your clients are deployed personnel from all of the uniformed service branches,” says Kennedy.  “Then you can take remote appointments from all throughout Navy Region Southeast, and you even help Defense Service Office Southeast operate its remote PERSREP office co-located in the same building spaces.  That leaves you plenty of opportunities to stay busy helping both individual clients and the bigger RLSO SE command.  It’s probably been my best tour so far, in terms of the complexity and range of problems I’ve helped others to fix or prevent.  It can go from requesting a stay of proceedings for a deployed National Guardsman on a Tuesday to spending Wednesday advising an eighty-year-old Cuban exile on advance medical directives and will substitutes.  That everyday variety is what makes it great.”

The judge advocates and legalmen stationed aboard NSGB serve as part of RLSO SE.  RLSO SE supports the operational readiness of DON assets in the Southeastern United States through legal guidance, support, and training in the areas of military justice, legal assistance, and administrative law.