Briefing Room


Bronze star recipient’s work has global reach

April 4, 2013 | Alumni

It hangs from his uniform on a red, white, and blue ribbon. A smaller star is fixed in its center. Engraved on the back of the bronze medal are the words “meritorious achievement.”

John Swords ’06 has a bronze star medal, an award bestowed on soldiers who exhibit meritorious achievement or valor in a combat environment. The current chief of administrative and fiscal law for U.S. Army Africa (USARAF) earned it during service as a defense counsel in Iraq from February 2010 to 2011.

And while he’s quite modest about the award, Swords did recognize the scarcity of receiving one as a JAG officer. “They’ve become rarer to receive as a captain in the JAG Corps,” he said.

Swords is somewhat of an atypical JAG, though.

Instead of taking a direct commission to the JAG Corps, he voluntarily attended basic combat training and Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. Both are infantry-based schools, which he knew would give him a better understanding of the Army. He subsequently attended airborne school as well.

“You learn all of the infantry tactics and techniques so that when you’re talking to commanders in your JAG capacity you have infinitely more credibility,” he said.

Swords, a captain, is currently in a position normally reserved for a major or lieutenant colonel.

“I was lucky that some colonels I had worked for previously went to bat for me, and pushed for me to get this position. I work hard to ensure I don’t let them down, because this is a small career field, and everyone talks. Senior leaders putting their reputation on the line for you is not something to take lightly.”

As chief of administrative and fiscal law, Swords is stationed in Vicenza, Italy, a city approximately 40 minutes outside of Venice. In addition to supervising two civilian attorneys, a fellow JAG, and a civilian paralegal in his position, he also acts as an ethics advisor.

Among those whom he has advised are the commanding general and deputy commanding general for USARAF, a two-star and one-star general, respectively. He also advises investigating officers on the proper rules and procedures for various investigations and Article 32 hearings. An Article 32 hearing is loosely akin to grand jury proceedings; however, it affords an accused the opportunity to confront witnesses and put on a full defense in an effort to get charges dropped.

On the fiscal side of his responsibilities, Swords has performed fiscal law reviews on tens of millions of dollars in contracts on the continent of Africa, as well as for Del Din, a new base being constructed in Italy.

He also was tasked with finding the proper funding source to pay for the 2012 African Land Forces Summit (ALFS) in Kampala, Uganda. ALFS was the largest gathering of African military leaders in the history of the continent. The land forces commanders of 47 African nations were invited, and the President of Uganda was the keynote speaker. Swords attended and was awarded an Army Achievement Medal for his service as the legal and ethics advisor to the summit. He will advise for the next ALFS, which will take place in Senegal in December.

Swords said he’s had an interest in African relations since he was an All-American policy debater in college. The debate topic for one year was focused on constructive engagements in Africa. He said that experience gave him a solid foundation for his current appointment.

“You cannot place a value on being able to walk into meetings with an expansive knowledge base,” he said.

His responsibilities as chief of administrative and fiscal law differ a bit from his former position as defense counsel.

“There are different kinds of stressors. In the defense world, I was most concerned about my clients. Everything centered on how to best defend my clients,” he said. “Now I have many more bosses. … I basically have many masters to appease.”

Swords also said being in an office for an Army Service Component Command and in Italy makes his position a “dream location.” Having some recreational fun close by doesn’t hurt either. “My weekends are spent skiing in the Alps in the winter, and traveling throughout Europe the rest of the time. Who else gets to say that?”

After his current three-year assignment ends next summer, Swords said he’s unsure of where he’ll be stationed. He plans on spending a career with and retiring from the Army.

He had a taste of life at a firm when he worked for one in his hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio, prior to joining the Army. “It was enjoyable, but I always had that burning desire to serve my country,” he said. “Now looking back I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

This article was written by Sarah Pfledderer.