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Something Greater Than Myself
by U.S. Army Jane Lee
The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School
January 8, 2024

“I have a duty to use my abilities in furtherance of something greater than myself,” said California Army National Guard 1st Lt. Brett Diehl. “I view the Army as a chance for me to accomplish that goal.”

January 5, 2024 - 222nd Officer Basic Course student U.S. Army 1st Lt. Brett Diehl at The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photo courtesy of  Billie Suttles.)
January 5, 2024 - 222nd Officer Basic Course student U.S. Army 1st Lt. Brett Diehl at The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photo courtesy of Billie Suttles.)

It’s no surprise the Charlottesville native is called to a life of service. It’s practically hardwired into his DNA. His mother is a doctor, double board certified in internal medicine and pediatrics, who spent her entire career caring for the state’s poorest men, women and children. His father, now a professor emeritus, mentored countless students teaching biology at the University of Virginia, for over five decades. Diehl’s younger sister followed in his parents’ footsteps and educates youth in Boston’s public schools through free hands-on marine biology programs.

What is surprising is Diehl bucked the family trend and chose humanities over the sciences. “I hadn’t found quite as much joy in science classes as others in my family,” confessed Diehl. Tutoring in New Jersey prisons as an undergrad at Princeton sparked his interest in criminal justice reform advocacy efforts. “The ability to impact lives in a unique way … the way in which lawyers work collaboratively with colleagues and clients appealed to me.”

Two years spent pursuing his Master of Philosophy in economics and social history from Oxford University convinced Diehl that the lonely life of an academic was not for him. His career choice now solidified, Diehl was admitted to Stanford Law through the inaugural Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program. In addition to a full-ride scholarship, the multidisciplinary program emphasizes independent thought, purposeful leadership and civic-mindedness.

“I believe that participating in the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program gave me the confidence to pursue opportunities like joining the California Army National Guard,” said Diehl. “On the practical side, I was fortunate to participate in the Immigrant’s Rights Clinic, an intensive experience that taught me to fuse client goals, legal research, and in-court advocacy.”

After graduating in 2021, he and his wife moved to San Diego. Diehl works as a Federal Defender, while his wife is in her second year at the University of San Diego School of Law.

Regardless of his chosen field, Diehl has some big shoes to fill. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Maj. Edwin Hobson, served in WWII. For his innovation in plastics during the war effort, the U.S. Secretary of War awarded Diehl’s grandfather the Legion of Merit. Even though Hobson died when Diehl was very young, he left an indelible impression.

“I distinctly remember the honor guard detail at his burial that stood watch during the freezing New Hampshire winter,” recalled Diehl. “Joining the military had played in my mind for years … I was drawn to the National Guard because in a state like California, where natural disasters are common, I was attracted to the opportunity to serve both close to home and in more traditional armed-forces duties.”

And so, to become a better military judge advocate, equally comfortable advising a commander or a private, in a garrison or deployed downrange… Diehl has come home to attend the 222nd Officer Basic Course (OBC) at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School. The current crop of OBC students just finished the first of four units of instruction: Administrative and Civil Law. Diehl found it enriching even though it’s a far cry from his usual work defending indigent clients accused of federal crimes.

“As an assistant federal defender, it’s a privilege to gain the trust of clients confronting one of the most stressful moments of their life,” said Diehl. “That’s true serving as a judge advocate in the Army, too. Our role as a judge advocate is to offer advice and perspective: whether to a commander thinking through the implications of a tough decision or an enlisted Soldier unsure of how a misstep will affect his or her career.”

Diehl learned some valuable early lessons on how to be an Army leader while studying in Peru through the Princeton Bridge Year Program. Living with a host family, working on rural community service projects and joining the local town of Urubamba’s basketball team not only shaped Diehl’s choice of major (history, with an emphasis on twentieth-century Latin America), but also taught him how to understand, empower and get along with people from all different backgrounds.

“Leadership is an amorphous quality that officers are expected to possess. It’s hard to teach,” said Diehl. “Being able to connect with people, and, in turn, connect them, is something that living abroad teaches you.

“Being able to connect with a broad range of personalities and perspectives enables collaboration and collective growth. From the outside, I think it’s easy to assume everyone in the Army sees the world the same way. You quickly realize, however, that the opposite is true: The Army is strong because it is diverse.”

The newly minted lieutenant is happy the National Guard currently allows him to experience the best of both worlds: military service and civilian employment. Peering into the future, Diehl said he is prepared to serve in whatever role the Army feels is best, “The Army is an opportunity to help improve the lives of Soldiers and play my part in protecting our nation’s enduring principles.”

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