People serving in the military still need legal services, and one Homewood attorney was there for them for 27 years.
Homewood Village Attorney Chris Cummings retired in December 2017 as a colonel from the Judge Advocate General Corps of the United States Army Reserve. He entered as a first lieutenant and was promoted four times during his service. At the time of his retirement, he was commander of the 214th Legal Operations Detachment headquartered at Fort Snelling in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with teams in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
As a member of the JAG Corps, he performed services similar to what he does as a lawyer in private practice, because people in the military need legal services just like everybody else. They also have some situations that non-military people don’t encounter.
“People needed wills, powers of attorney,” he said. “If we knew units were going overseas we would come give them the briefings about the different rights you acquire as a soldier if you’re mobilized.”
Dealing with routine legal matters, like child custody or divorce cases, takes on another level of complexity when they involve someone stationed halfway around the world, he said.
He was deployed overseas serving for almost six months in Kuwait, arriving just before the U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq in 2003.
“We were there when that whole thing started,” he said.
While his unit was not near the fighting, the experience provided some interesting challenges not found in stateside service.
One example he gave was dealing with cases of fraternization between personnel of different ranks. The military has strict prohibitions against it, but in stateside service, the situation is not as critical to the mission as it is during overseas deployment.
“When you’re back here and you’re doing one weekend a month, that’s not as big a deal,” he said. When deployed, though, everyone is working together all day every day, often under more dangerous conditions.
“There’s a big emphasis on good order and discipline. We want people to be pulling on the oars in the same direction at the same time,” he said, so fraternization cases he dealt with were taken very seriously.
Another example of challenge faced in Kuwait and Iraq involved contract law. The local people often didn’t operate on the same contract principles as Americans. That made doing business with them sometimes fraught with misunderstanding.
He told one story about the U.S. forces buying rock from a local quarry. A truck was damaged during one delivery, and the military paid for repairs. U.S. officials soon noticed a spike in damage claims and eventually discovered they all involved the same quarry truck. The local drivers apparently saw reimbursements as a new revenue stream. The JAG Corp attorneys were there to help sort out those types of situations.
Cummings was also involved in interviews with enemy combatants captured during the fighting. He said it was early in the interrogation process. His unit was not involved in intensive questioning but did some initial interviews.
Most of his service, though, was closer to the Chicago area. His furthest post was in Minneapolis, although meetings and training sessions involved traveling around the country at times.
Cummings said the most rewarding aspect of his service was the people from around the United States that he had an opportunity to work with, giving him an opportunity to learn about different regions of the country and their specific characteristics.
“Over 27 years I met some of the most incredible people,” he said.
Although the Army is a huge, sometimes inflexible bureaucracy that he admitted doesn’t always seem to make the best sense, overall the culture was something he really valued.
“That’s what I loved. It didn’t matter what race, what sex, or anything else,” he said. “The only thing that mattered was your rank and whether you could do the job. The stuff that we get hung up on, there was none of that.”
The emphasis on education was also something he appreciated. He said training is almost constant.
Cummings said much of what he learned in the Army has helped him in his role as an adviser to Homewood officials. Military leaders often have to find ways to get various units and agencies to collaborate productively in spite of differences in language, mission and funding. The same can be the case in local government, though on a smaller scale.
“It’s really a chance to be the servant leader,” he said. “You can have an impact on other people’s lives. It’s about not always doing the convenient thing but doing what’s right.”
Cummings didn’t start out headed for careers in law or the military. He started as a journalist, working for a few years as a reporter for a newspaper in Johnson County, Indiana.
But he soon found himself following the career path of his father. Walter Cummings served in the Marine Corps for a number of years and was a long-time local lawyer who served as Homewood’s village attorney for 39 years. He died in 2017.
Cummings said their ties were always close. In fact, he was born in South Carolina while his dad was stationed there. The law and the military were ever-present as he grew up.