Maj. Bill Kelly, right, listens as an interpreter translates for village  elders in Panjshir Province, where his unit disbursed U.S. micro-grants  for projects. Photo submitted
Maj. Bill Kelly, right, listens as an interpreter translates for village elders in Panjshir Province, where his unit disbursed U.S. micro-grants for projects. Photo submitted

Des Moines attorney Bill Kelly calls his one-year deployment to Afghanistan “the most complex legal problem” he has ever handled.

Kelly, a senior shareholder with the Davis Brown Law Firm, returned in July from Afghanistan, where he served as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the Iowa Army National Guard. While he was deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, one of Kelly’s key roles was to advise the unit commander in combat situations.

“When our troops came in contact (with Taliban forces), the commander had to make split-second decisions about how to protect those troops,” said Kelly, a major who has served 16 years in the Guard. “My job was to make sure that any actions we took were in accordance with U.S. policy and international law of armed conflict.”

Processing complex situations quickly was imperative within the unit’s tactical operations center.

“A lot of times, I’d be in our operations center, and they’d say, ‘JAG, can we shoot? What can we shoot?’ I think those were the most challenging situations, when there were immediate responses required,” Kelly said. “Obviously, the military guys knew how to do it; my job was, would it be legal to do it that way? I think those kinds of quick decisions probably were the most stressful, because as a lawyer, I like to analyze the facts and apply the law to the facts.”

Dealing directly with the Afghan people was another challenging part of the job, said Kelly, who rendered legal advice on issues such as rooting out suspected insurgents.

“I would get petitions from villages saying, ‘Please release this man, he is a good man; he has done nothing wrong,’ and we would have intelligence saying he might not be a good man,” he said. “So how do you interact with the Afghan people to show that we had the same goal to take insurgents off the battlefield? ... Ultimately, I thought Afghanistan was the most complex legal problem I’ve ever dealt with because of the complexity of the players involved, the resources involved, and the problem of knowing who the enemy was. That whole scenario made it very complicated for our commander, and very complicated for me to advise him on certain issues.”

Kelly trained to become an Army officer while he studied law at Drake University in the mid-1990s by enrolling in the Guard’s Simultaneous Membership Program.

When he joined the Davis Brown firm in 1998, “I don’t think many (members of the firm) knew I was in the military, because it was unobtrusive,” he said. The two weeks of annual training and one weekend per month worked easily into his schedule. His deployment to Afghanistan in July 2010 was his first overseas assignment.

Prior to deploying, he and other military lawyers were sent to the Brigade Judge Advocate Mission Primer program in Washington, D.C., where they were briefed by JAG officers who had just returned from Afghanistan and participated in videoconferences with lawyers who were still in-theater.

Besides advising the commander on operational matters, Kelly provided legal advice on fiscal and contractual issues related to the mission.

“Needless to say, we spent a lot of time analyzing whether our missions were going to have the desired effect on the population, the desired effect on the enemy, and how do we take care of U.S. resources, both property and money,” he said.

Kelly also served as the commander’s law enforcement arm, with responsibility for prosecuting infractions of military law – the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Fortunately, “we weren’t busy in that area,” he said, “so that allowed us to spend more time on the other priorities.”

Working long hours, seven days a week during his deployment made him appreciate the sacrifice his wife made in taking care of their household and four children.

“I think my wife is an absolute hero,” he said. “She was doing the job of two people.”

While he was deployed, four of his colleagues, whom Kelly refers to as “the Fantastic Four,” handled all of his cases. “That was one thing I didn’t have to worry about, because I knew they were taking care of them,” he said.

Because the Guard now tries to space deployments five years apart, Kelly said he isn’t likely to get another overseas assignment for four more years, just as he would be nearing 20 years of service and eligible for retirement.

“That would be a tough call,” he said. “I really enjoyed working with the Iowa leadership; they’re outstanding. I think if they asked me to do it again, I’d do it.”