A military judge's life: Travel, trauma and transitions

Linda Strite Murnane remembers her time as an Air Force judge with a mix of satisfaction and exhaustion. Satisfaction from handling interesting and important cases and exhaustion from traveling 200 days in one year alone, hearing cases across the country. “I wasn’t home much,” she recalled.

Michael Lewis, a judge on the U.S. Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, recalls moving eight times in a long military career. He credits his wife for sustaining him. “I would not have been able to spend 25 years in the Air Force without her support and her love and her willingness to forgo her own career opportunities,” he said.

And Kirsten Brunson, a former Army judge, recalls the difficulties of a dual military marriage. While Brunson forged her own career, her husband, also in the Army, spent six years in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now a three-star general. “At the end of the day, what it really means is I’m really tired. Which is why I re-tired,” she said.

Murnane, Lewis and Brunson talked about their careers at an American Bar Association webinar called “Judges in the Military: Perspectives on Careers, Family and Life After.” The program, sponsored by the ABA Judicial Division, was part of the ABA’s observance of Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

One challenge of a military judge’s career, Lewis said, is recognizing and overcoming vicarious trauma – pain caused by exposure to the pain of others. He recommended that judges attend programs that help them deal with the stresses of life on the bench.

Benes Aldana, former chief trial judge of the U.S. Coast Guard, is now president of the National Judicial College. He said the college offers many classes to judges who need help coping with their unique job stresses. He described the college as a kind of “judicial spa” that helps judges become better at their jobs – but without hot tubs and pina coladas.

The former judges also talked about the difficulty of transitioning to civilian life after the military.

Brunson said the biggest challenge is getting civilians to recognize female military veterans as actual veterans. Another difficulty is trying to translate military experience into the equivalent civilian experience. “It is really difficult for folks to understand how much we’ve done,” she said.

Aldana recommended getting involved in bar associations, especially the ABA.

“Just because you enter the military, you can’t leave your connection to the civilian world,” Aldana said. “For me, part of that is being involved in the ABA. The American Bar Association has been my support network. ... It’s not just building a network. It’s really getting perspective from different practice areas, whether it’s in-house counsel, academic, big law firms, small law firms, solos.”