Veterans Past and Future: Making a Difference at Georgetown Law
November 9, 2017
When now-veteran Ashley Nicolas (L’19) deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, as an active duty U.S. Army Intelligence Officer not long after graduating from West Point in 2009, she served as a Female Engagement Team Leader — just before the combat exclusion laws for women were lifted. One of the goals of the female service member teams was to interface with women in Afghanistan.
But the most challenging part of the work, Nicolas says, was breaking down the stigma surrounding the women U.S. service members. “It was 2012 — we hadn’t had women graduating from Ranger School yet, we hadn’t had women in the infantry yet, and so we were pushing the limits already. In many cases, we were trying to get service members who had never had to serve alongside women in their units to understand that these teams were going to be an asset, not a liability.”
Nicolas — who had just started high school in Syracuse when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred — did not come from a military family but had always been drawn to military service. “I really wanted the challenge. I knew that being a five-foot-two woman was going to make it very difficult, and that was attractive to me.”
And as a team leader, Nicolas found herself working hard to see that the women she led even had the right equipment to carry out their new roles. “The women on my team had been cooks and analysts and mechanics, so the code next to their name was a non-combat code,” she recalls. “When they went to go get the equipment for the deployment, they got the equipment associated with that code — despite the fact that they were going to be doing this job that was the same as the infantrymen. I had to get them winter boots, handguns…all the things they were going to need. It was very difficult, since the institution had been set up to exclude them from those jobs.”
It was, in fact, working through this bureaucratic inefficiency, breaking down obstacles — more than her actual work in Afghanistan — that propelled Nicolas to want to come to law school. “I started to develop as an advocate, someone who was trying to fight for changes,” she said. “The predeployment experience was the formative part for me.”
Nevertheless, after leaving the military with the rank of captain in 2014, she first headed to California to serve as a high school math teacher for Teach for America — in order to help ameliorate some of the educational deficiencies she saw in U.S. service personnel. “Teachers are very similar to military leaders in that they are very mission driven; we’re all trying to accomplish the same end; we have to be tied to benchmarks and goals,” she says. “In the military, that’s deployment, and when you’re teaching, that’s getting them to graduation and into college…we faced a lot of the same types of institutional barriers to success.”
In 2016, she won a scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation to attend law school — and at Georgetown, Nicolas has left nothing on the field. Her goal now is to be a federal prosecutor focused on counterterrorism work; to that end, she has externed at the Department of Justice and serves as a research assistant for Georgetown Law’s Center for National Security and the Law. She’s planning to participate in Professor Laura Donohue’s National Security Law Crisis Simulation this spring. She’s a staff editor of the Journal of National Security Law and Policy. And she’s co-president of the Military Law Society student group with Corey Krzan (L’18).
In her nonexistent spare time, Nicolas recently penned an op-ed for the Washington Post supporting NFL football players who kneel before the anthem. “It was really important to speak out and say, look, love of country is bigger than uniformed service and it’s bigger than symbolic gestures…being a patriot is bigger than just wearing a flag on your shoulder,” she says. “It’s giving back to the community, serving, and sometimes being critical of the government, speaking out. Maybe it’s kneeling, maybe it’s standing. That’s not the important part. The important part is that you take action and try to do something to make the country a better place for everyone.”
And she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s been given. “I think it’s important to acknowledge Georgetown’s efforts to make law school realistic for veterans; they have invested in having us here,” she says. “Between the GI Bill, Georgetown Law and the Tillman Foundation, I am able to do this while my husband continues to serve in uniform. It’s pretty unique to be able to do that.”
Family: Georgetown Law’s Military Law Society
When the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Appeals wanted to hold oral arguments offsite as part of their educational outreach program, they reached out to Georgetown Law’s Military Law Society student group. MLS co-president Corey Krzan gave the plan an enthusiastic green light, and the court heard the case of United States v. Gomez — a courtmartial involving sexual assault — in the Law Center’s Moot Court Room on October 31, with an introduction by Distinguished Lecturer from Government Tia Johnson, a former Army Judge Advocate.
“The Military Law Society is a big family of veterans and military-connected students — aspiring judge advocates, current service members and veterans,” said Krzan, who also planned an entire week of veterans’ programming at Georgetown Law for November 6-10.
The Military Law Society boasts approximately 200 individuals — at a school that is committed to opening doors to veterans. Georgetown Law provides full tuition and fee coverage to eligible degree-seeking veteran students through its support of the Veterans Administration’s Yellow Ribbon program and the match provided by the VA’s Post-9/11 GI Bill. The Office of Admissions also values military service: Georgetown Law has approximately 100 veterans on campus.
And there are those like Krzan, who are looking forward to future service as a judge advocate general; he credits his success to the relationships he has been able to build with veterans and active-duty JAGs at Georgetown Law.
“I wanted to come to a school that really valued public interest…I was hell bent on pursuing JAG,” he said. To that end, he commissioned in the Navy in May, and will be headed for Officer Development School and Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island, after graduation. “From there, I will go wherever the Navy needs me.”