FORT KNOX, Ky. -- With clear skies and the sun shining, a commissioned officer from DeWitt, Michigan, stood tall as his infantry branch insignia was removed and replaced with his new Judge Advocate General insignia. A moment that signified the beginning of a new career path made possible through the Army’s Funded Legal Education Program.
Capt. Zach Simons joins the 1st Theater Sustainment Command as its new administrative law attorney, after recently completing the Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course at the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"For me, the ceremony really was the culmination of the last four years in the Army since I was selected for FLEP, attended law school, studied for the Washington, D.C. bar exam and completed the Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course,” Simons said.
Before completing the basic course in December 2020, Simons spent three years in law school. He attended the American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C., earning a Juris Doctor degree.
Simons chose to attend law school through FLEP, which offers 25 active duty members the opportunity to attend law school at the Army’s expense. The program was originally available only to officers in the grades of O-1 to O-3. This year, the program has expanded to the enlisted ranks between E-5 to E-7.
“Since the inception of the FLEP program in 1974, the JAG Corps has relied on FLEP officers to provide peer leadership among captains and to leverage their ready-made experience with our client,” Col. Emily Schiffer, chief of Personnel, Plans, & Training Office, Office of the Judge Advocate General, at the Pentagon said. “The FLEP program begins an exciting new era this year with the expansion of eligibility to qualified NCOs.”
Once a year, a military personnel message is sent out with the application requirements. These requirements include not having less than two years of service and no more than six years for officers and having no less than four years of service and no more than eight years for enlisted. Applicants must also possess a secret security clearance and a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
As an infantry officer at Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Washington, Simons first heard about the program as a second lieutenant when his company’s executive officer applied for it.
“When I was looking at getting out and going to law school or becoming a military intelligence officer, I remembered this program and decided to apply,” he said.
Simons already held a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University and said the program allowed him to stay in the Army and attend law school.
According to Schiffer, FLEP wants to invest in leadership by attracting applicants who are confident, humble, and selfless leaders who will commit to their teammates and a JAG Corps career for the right reasons.
Because of this investment, applicants go through a review that is staffed through their chain of command. This includes an interview with their local staff judge advocate, a review of all officer evaluation reports, passing APFT and LSAT scores, along with letters of recommendation.
Before applying for FLEP, Simons held multiple positions during his four and a half years at the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, at Joint Base Lewis McCord.
Simons credits having great noncommissioned officers under him as a platoon leader, the time he served as a battalion adjutant, and the logistics experience he gained as a company executive officer and battalion S4 for setting his application apart from others.
Once accepted, applicants attend law school the following year. The program pays up to approximately $42k a year for tuition; any tuition above that will need to be covered by a scholarship. While in law school, applicants receive their full pay and benefits. After graduation and upon completion of the basic course, they will join the JAG Corps and continue service.
“It was the longest Army process that I’ve gone through since I joined ROTC and then commissioned four years later as an active duty officer,” he said. “But this time, the program was much smaller, more difficult, and rewarding at the end of the day to both become a judge advocate as well as become a licensed attorney in the District of Columbia."
As an administrative law attorney for the 1st TSC, Simons will conduct legal reviews for a wide range of actions, from ensuring other sections’ standard operating procedures are in line with army policy and Department of Defense ethics regulations to reviewing actions and investigations for legal sufficiency before they go in front of the commanding general for decision.
Simons appreciates being assigned to the 1st TSC and feels this assignment will set him up for success because of the added element of working cases overseas, due to the unit’s split-based operations with an operational command post at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
“A lot of people went to a normal entry-level division, and for them, everything they are doing is stuff they have seen before,” Simon stated. “Versus here, almost everything I’ve done so far I have never dealt with.”
Simons wants FLEP to be pushed heavily through commands to educate those junior officers and enlisted Soldiers who may be interested in exploring a different career path and are contemplating leaving the Army.
“Not everyone is meant to, or wants to do the job they are in for the first four to six years,” Simons stated.
Simons believes if people’s career goals and interests aren’t aligned with their current career path in the Army, then the likelihood of them leaving the service is high. That’s why programs like FLEP, which offer opportunities for people to continue serving in a different capacity, are so important. They allow people to pursue their career goals and enable the Army to retain talent.