Whitley County superior court judge, Columbia City resident steps into military judge role

Whitley County Superior Court Judge Douglas Fahl has been named the Indiana National Guard’s first certified military judge as of September 2020. Every military judge goes through the same school, considered the most challenging offered by the JAG school. In Fahl’s case, the class consisted of around 48 students, with only four being National Guardsmen. (Photo by Indiana National Guard Sgt. Joshua Syberg)

The following was by Sgt. Joshua Syberg, Indiana National Guard Public Affairs

A Whitley County superior court judge and Hoosier soldier earned an additional job title in September.

The Indiana National Guard appointed its first military judge, Lt. Col. Douglas Fahl, 38th Combat Aviation Brigade’s brigade judge advocate.

Military judges play many roles for service members. They preside in trials, interpret the law, assess the evidence presented and control how hearings and trials unfold in their courtrooms.

The role of a military judge is nothing new. Beginning with the Military Justice Act of 1968, on August 1, 1969, the role of “law officer” was changed to “military judge”, aligning them closely to the role of a federal district judge.

Fahl said in the past the military judges school did not certify judges in the National Guard unlike their active duty counterparts. Only in the past two years has that changed to certify the first six.

According to legal leadership at National Guard headquarters, the U.S. Army pushed to have a judges program that was more uniform across the states. Traditionally, the states would allow most crimes to be prosecuted by the state prosecutor. However, when it comes to military specific crimes under Uniform Code of Military Justice such as absent without leave, disrespect to a noncommissioned officer and even some Article 120 crimes involving sexual assault, these crimes do not fall under state law.

By having a uniform judicial system within each state, it will allow the National Guard to prosecute those crimes and maintain good order and discipline within its ranks.

“The soldiers and airmen of the National Guard serve selflessly defending our freedoms on the other side of the planet, and protecting our families, property and communities here at home,” said Brig. Gen. Bobby L. Christine, National Guard adviser to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. “Such servants in our nation’s oldest fighting force deserve the best and most modern system of justice. Lt. Col. Doug Fahl’s selection to serve as military judge for the state of Indiana is proof positive that the rights of those who defend America will be safeguarded. No finer selection for judge could be made. The leadership of the Indiana National Guard is to be commended.”

Every military judge goes through the same school, considered the most challenging offered by the JAG school. In Fahl’s case, the class consisted of around 48 students, with only four being National Guardsmen.

“I have not been that stressed since going through law school,” Fahl said jokingly. “I’m 53 and have been practicing since 1996.”

Not only has he been practicing in the United States for over 20 years, but has also been called upon to represent military law in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq.

Fahl, brings with him a unique perspective and insight when molding the new military judge role within the state.

Like a judicial version of Superman, during his day-to-day life he wears his long, black judge robes, and only when he’s called to service does he don his military uniform.
“I am fortunate to receive great training from the Indiana Office of Court Services,” Fahl said. “We get a lot of training on recognizing that everyone has to have confidence in the system. That’s a part of what we are seeing in the national movement. The folks that are protesting, they don’t have confidence in the system.

They don’t feel that these investigations are going to be fair. So it is incumbent upon us to make sure we always keep that confidence in the system.”

This mentality was vital in Brig. Gen. Dale Lyles’ endorsement of Fahl for this new role.
“Lt. Col. Doug Fahl is the perfect candidate to be our state’s first military judge,” said Lyles, the Indiana National Guard’s adjutant general. “His ethics, morals and professionalism made him the clear choice to lead the way for this new position within our force. We are so proud of how well he represented his fellow Indiana Guardsmen at the invitation-only military judge course. His presence and certification help streamline our UCMJ process and once again puts Indiana ahead of the curve in the National Guard.”

Fahl aligns deeply with Lyles “people first” strategy. In Whitley County, Fahl spearheaded a new veterans treatment court program. According to Justice for Vets, Veterans Treatment Courts allow jurisdictions to serve a large segment of the justice-involved veteran population. Rather than a random judge, Veterans Treatment Court judges have a better understanding of the issues veterans may be struggling with, such as substance addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma.

The Veterans Treatment Court model requires regular court appearances, as well as mandatory attendance at treatment sessions, and frequent and random testing for drug and alcohol use. Veterans respond favorably to this structured environment, given their past experiences in the armed forces.

The court understands a few will struggle, and it is exactly those veterans who need a veterans treatment court program the most. Without this structure, these veterans will reoffend and remain in the criminal justice system.

The Veterans Treatment Court is able to ensure defendants meet their obligations to themselves, the court and their community. “We broke them,” Fahl said. “We sent them all over the world. A lot of these substance abuse issues we see didn’t occur until after their military service. Whether it’s PTSD, what they’ve seen, being away from their family or whatever it is – they’re broken. The military may not have caused that completely, but it contributed to it. So we owe them the extra time.”

This program was so successful in Whitley County that two neighboring county’s court systems send their qualifying veterans to Judge Fahl. With all of these experiences Fahl brings to his new role, he said he plans to lay the groundwork and foundations of this important new position within the Indiana National Guard.

Once this work is complete and he has built that confidence and trust, he looks to ultimately pass the torch to his successor. “I don’t believe anybody should be stagnant. It’s not something where one person should occupy it for too long,” Fahl said. “I think my job is to get in there and get it started with a great framework and then move on and let the next person take over and make it better.”