U.S. Navy First Tour Judge Advocate Deploys to Central and South America aboard USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) as Staff Judge Advocate for Southern Seas 2018 Mission
By Lt. Melissa “Mely” Rodriguez, Region Legal Service Office Mid-Atlantic
When U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (USNAVSO) and U.S. 4th Fleet sought volunteers to deploy to Central and South America aboard the USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) in April 2018, I immediately raised my hand. At the time, I was a first tour judge advocate (FTJA) working in the Trial Department at Region Legal Service Office Mid-Atlantic in Norfolk, Virginia. This was the first time that an afloat staff judge advocate (SJA) was requested for this annual mission, having historically relied on reach-back legal support from USNAVSO/4th Fleet. I knew that opportunities for junior officers to deploy at sea do not come up every day, so I felt very fortunate when I was selected for the job.
From June to September 2018, I served as the afloat SJA for Task Force 48 (TF-48), responsible for advising the Task Force Commander (CTF-48). CTF-48 embarked Gunston Hall to execute the Southern Seas 2018 (SS18) mission, which included mission stops to Cuba (Guantanamo Bay), Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, and Colombia. SS18 was a United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) directed operation executed by USNAVSO/4th Fleet to strengthen international maritime partnerships, enhance interoperability, and improve readiness of participating forces in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility. Our team, TF-48, was mostly comprised of Destroyer Squadron 40 (DESRON40) personnel and for the first time, multi-national officers from Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, and Peru.
During SS18, I encountered many legal issues involving international law, law of the sea, and military justice. Although I had not previously encountered many of these issues, I quickly realized that the outstanding training I had received during my FTJA rotations had given me the skills and confidence to work through each issue and make an important contribution to real world operations. The best example that comes to mind relates to what would have been a very routine transit through Boca del Dragón, an international strait between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago. A few days before our scheduled transit, open source reporting released information about an attempted assassination against Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro. This incident heightened political tensions in the region, as well as sensitivity about the scheduled transit of our warship through the strait, which required us to enter Venezuelan territorial waters. I had already planned to give training to all watch-standers on transit passage, the ship’s mode of transit used in international straits in accordance with law of the sea, but very quickly my training garnered the attention of senior leadership throughout the area of responsibility. I had to expand the focus of my brief to include topics related to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), to ensure that our team was 100% prepared to respond in the event the Venezuelan military attempted to query or challenge our vessel. Fortunately, our transit went smoothly and was executed without incident, as were several subsequent transits in the vicinity of Venezuela. Nonetheless, it was a tense period of time on board our ship that I will never forget.
I will also never forget the thrill and excitement I felt pulling into the port of a new country. Each mission stop exposed me to new cultural experiences, from unique foods to a foreign language (even as a Spanish speaker, it was interesting to see the variations in words and accents used by different Latin countries). Most importantly, each mission stop reinforced our alliances with Central and South American nations and their military through Subject-Matter Expert Exchanges (SMEEs), community relations (COMREL) activities, and candid conversations about enhancing joint maritime interoperability in the area of responsibility. By training and learning together, I’m confident that our Navy, and the navies of our partner nations, are now stronger, smarter, and more mission ready than ever before.
After about two months operating in Central and South America, we concluded SS18 by participating in UNITAS, the longest-running multinational maritime exercise in the world. For the exercise, I served as the SJA to the Commander of Combined Task Force (CTF) 401, Rear Adm. Gabriel Alfonso Perez Garces, of the Colombian Navy. Hosted in Cartagena, Colombia this was the 59th iteration of UNITAS and included participation from 11 partner nations. During the exercise, I provided extensive training to over 200 multinational officers on international law, the law of the sea, and the rules of engagement. I also advised Commander, CTF-401 during the at-sea Exercise Scenario Phase, during which 11 surface vessels and three submarines were divided into two forces to execute the exercise scenario that centered on conducting humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations while also combating rebel forces.
My deployment in support of SS18 sparked a real interest in this operational law, and SJA work overall. I gained invaluable experience that I hope to put to use in future assignments in the Fleet, and I learned a lot from the mentorship and support I received from judge advocates at SOUTHCOM, USNAVSO/4th Fleet, and elsewhere during the course of my assignment. I highly encourage all of my fellow junior officers to seek out and volunteer for these types of assignments whenever the opportunity arises. Not only will you learn more from utilizing your legal skills out in the fleet, you’ll also never see a sunset or sunrise quite as beautiful as the one you’ll see from the flight deck of a Navy warship.