Academy welcomes new college counselor, Jon Wagshul. (Andrew Barren’22/Media editor)
What do Tom Cruise and Assistant Director of College Counseling, Mr. Wagshul, have in common? Besides high school roots in the northeast, they were both lawyers in the Navy JAG Corps, one in the movies, one in real life.
Mr. Jon Wagshul joined our school community this fall after serving as history department chair and college counselor at Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. He says, “I was looking for a professional move where I could really focus on the college counseling, the part of my job that I was particularly enjoying. If we were to make a move, the timing was right as our daughter had just graduated from Darlington and was headed to college. As my wife and I researched the city of Columbus, we were impressed with what we saw and learned– it seemed like a great place to live.”
“I knew of Columbus Academy by its strong reputation, and also from a former mentor who had previously taught here, so I was immediately interested. The college counseling office here has a great reputation, and when I met everyone in the office, I could not have been more impressed. I feel lucky to have the chance to be part of such a great team.”
Wagshul joined the school community this year with an extensive background in the military, foreign policy, and administrative and ethics law. He earned his J.D. from Washington and Lee University and his L.L.M from the Judge Advocate General’s School (JAG), U.S. Army. He was the head of the civil law department at the Naval Justice School, a professor of international and operational law at JAG, and the assistant head of school and interim head at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies.
As a child of the Cold War, Wagshul predicted that a background in Russian would be helpful for a career in government or national security, which led to his early interest in this language starting in high school. He would later earn a B.S. in Russian from Georgetown University after studying the convergence of Russian and American spheres of influence and studying in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. He also speaks fluent German and rudimentary French.
Wagshul began his JAG Corps legal career in legal assistance. He provided help to service members and their families in personal legal issues such as domestic law, consumer law, wills or estate planning, and criminal matters. In his early JAG Corps years, he was also a trial attorney, defending Marines and sailors charged with crimes.
Regarding his interest in this area of law, Wagshul says, “JAG gave me an opportunity to combine two interests. One, the fact that I wanted to serve, and two, with being a lawyer.”
Describing the legal field, he says, “Even though in real world truth, nothing is perfect. Not everything that you work on everyday is awesome. But by in large, it’s great when you can feel very motivated and passionate about your work, whether in the public or private sector. That’s how I felt about being a JAG, and I never got tired of the fact that I was part of this mission that I believed in.”
He went on to serve as a legal advisor to commanding officers of ships and admirals in command of groups of ships and fleets, a role similar to an in-house counsel. He dealt with people-related, administrative, operational, international and homeland security issues. He handled cases on the USS Enterprise, Naval Surface Force Atlantic, and for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and was deployed to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean in support of operations involving Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.
Toward the end of his 22-year JAG career, his work at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies involved teaching only foreign students, and he cites this experience as one of his most memorable. Serving as part of the larger U.S. foreign policy, he worked with military and civilian government officials, building and teaching curriculum to apply democratic methods to their respective countries.
“A lot of what we were doing was working as an arm to U.S. foreign policy, to help build good governance in other countries in the world that wanted to be democratic or were early in the process of becoming democratic, and we were there to help,” Wagshul says. “It was kind of a good news story because almost all the time when we went to another country to work, it was because they asked for us to.”
When he was an adjunct faculty member at the Naval War College, he taught international and operational law, in particular the law of armed conflict and law of the sea. As part of the international law community, he engaged in dialogue about possible new developments in the law in light of the challenges posed by transnational terror.
As a professor, he explored the ethical and practical challenges of civilian protection in battles. A fundamental premise of international law is that civilians must be respected and protected. There is a term coined by a former Air Force Judge Advocate, Charlie Dunlap, called lawfare: “a cynical manipulation of the law to gain a battlefield advantage.”
Wagshul spent time examining this topic, even in graduate school. He explains how our adversaries, using lawfare, purposefully hide themselves and their weapons behind civilians.
“Adversaries would use human shields or purposely put a weapons stash or a military headquarters in a protected place like a hospital, schoolhouse, or place of worship. The weapons stash or military headquarters is a target. When you put it in a hospital, it’s just made for a very complicated world…They have violated the law.”
The next steps for the United States are difficult. He says, “We can leave them alone and allow them sanctuary, which is good for them, or we can attack, however carefully and as discerning as possible to avoid or minimize casualties. Nonetheless, the adversaries immediately go through the media to raise the issue that we are in violation of the law. Either way, they claim a battlefield advantage.”
The media has at times become “an unwitting partner in this process.” After seeing civilian casualties, blame is quickly placed on the United States. “Our adversaries are engaging in lawfare, or are actually looking like civilians. The law says in these situations that a civilian casualty is not categorically a war crime if you have a valid military target.”
He clarifies that while civilian casualties are always tragic and true civilians must be protected, the law provides a framework of analysis when taking on a military target, to determine whether it is lawful, despite the civilian losses. While having to make such an analysis can be awful, it is an important part of international law. The U.S. military’s efforts to protect civilians through careful analysis and use of smart weapons is unprecedented.
After closing out his time as a JAG Corps officer and professor, Wagshul thought it was time to pivot into a new career. As a college counselor, he says, “I get to focus on the things I love most, which is being able to help my students achieve what’s best for them . . . seeing their success makes me happy.” He recognizes that students are the future, the next generation of leaders, so it means a lot to him to help his students find success.
“This year is my fourth as a college counselor. During the summer and early fall, I supported Ms. Heywood and Ms. FitzPatrick by assisting them in their work with their advisees. I am excited to be going forward with the junior class, now having my own advisees. Working with the students and their parents in this process is very rewarding to me. Outside of college counseling, I am also coaching Middle School tennis.”
“When I can help you all find a path you want and see that work out, that is very satisfying for me.”