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Earning their stripes


Master Sgt. Leann Melton stands before South Carolina Air National Guard 169th Fighter Wing F-16 Fighting Falcon at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, S.C.(Photo/S.C. Air National Guard, SMSgt. Edward Snyder)

Master Sgt. Leann Melton stands before South Carolina Air National Guard 169th Fighter Wing F-16 Fighting Falcon at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, S.C.(Photo/S.C. Air National Guard, SMSgt. Edward Snyder)

They all took different paths to get there, but five exceptional women have careers in law while serving their country. One grew up in a military family. One entered the military while competing in boxing, and another was motivated by the 9/11 attacks to serve her country.

The Boxer

Stephanie Wharen was featured in a 2015 South Carolina Lawyers Weekly article about her competitive boxing as a student at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Now Wharen is a captain in the United States Air Force and Chief of Military Justice at Shaw Air Force Base.

Wharen said she was encouraged to enter the military after law school by her fellow boxing teammates, many of who were active-duty service members, whom she trained with 17 to 19 times a week: morning, lunchtime, and after class. Her boxing coach, who was an Army Ranger, asked if she had considered becoming a Judge Advocate General officer.

“I just got in that habit. My coach was like, ‘Hey, you already like getting up and training at 5 a.m.,’” she said. “Until I joined my boxing team, it had never even crossed my mind that the military might be a good option for me. Boxing really shaped my day-to-day life and the way I was living my life, as far as being really disciplined in every aspect of my life–to be able to maintain that schedule and training.”

As Chief of Military Justice for the 20th Fighter Wing, Wharen oversees the Air Force base’s justice section, including disciplinary actions, crimes, logistics, administration and litigation for all courts on base. In 2018, the office was honored as The Judge Advocate General Legal Office of the Year.

“The military JAG program just seemed the most conducive to what I wanted in my legal career, and then also, what I wanted in my personal life as well, as far as physical training and the opportunity to travel,” she said.

While assigned to Joint Base Andrews, Wharen was a member of the State Funeral Team. She served as an honorary pallbearer for President George H.W. Bush’s funeral and escorted the spouses of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal for her service.

Associate to the Pentagon

While attending law school at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh native Lt. Col. Heather Scherba became interested in the opportunities the military provided for young law school graduates.

Scherba now serves as the Executive Officer to the Mobilization Assistant to the Judge Advocate General at the Pentagon, assisting a two-star general in performing his duties managing the JAG Corps Reserves. She is also deputy director of the Air Force TRIALS Team, a team of 34 JAG instructors that teach litigation techniques to active duty Judge Advocates. After nearly a decade of active duty, Scherba now serves in the Air Force Reserve and telecommutes from her home in Lexington to Washington, D.C. She said a military life that includes a change of assignment every two to three years appealed to her.

“That’s one of the interesting things that drew me to the Air Force is that you get quite a wide breadth of experience. It’s always learning something new and keeping it interesting,” she said.

Although her military experience has given her a lifetime of memorable moments, Scherba said working as a criminal defense attorney at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas was the most rewarding of her career so far.

“You encounter these individuals who are in trouble, who feel like they have nobody in their corner, who are scared and have sometimes made mistakes that they regret, and you are the one person who’s in their corner who they can have confidence in, who are going to really, zealously advocate for them, even despite their mistakes,” she said. “I remember a lot of those clients that I was able to help. That’s really the most memorable assignment to me in the 15 years that I’ve been in.”

The Inspiration

Maj. Krista Bartolomucci is also a Pittsburgh native and Duquesne Law School graduate. She enlisted at 18 and attended basic training at Fort Jackson before earning an ROTC scholarship that sent her to Pitt for her undergraduate degree in human resources. Now, 15 years later, Bartolomucci is back at Fort Jackson as Chief of Administrative Law.

The Chief of Administrative Law Office includes five attorneys and one paralegal and handles environmental, contract, fiscal, labor and general administrative law. The office also investigates property loss, deaths, and ethics and handles congressional responses and community outreach.

“I like interacting with people,” she said. “I really like the administrative law, whatever that issue is. It’s a pretty broad category, but honestly, I just enjoy working with other people and having interaction during the day.”

Bartolomucci was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan for one year and said she will always remember the support she received as a young commander from the soldiers she led.

“I was pretty young to be a commander, I was about 24-ish, and I had about 103 soldiers at any given time underneath me,” she said.  “And I just remember the females of the group writing a letter to me and to all of us–the entire team–when they were graduating, and, basically saying, ‘we know you’re young and you are our inspiration and we really look up to you.’ And I always remember that. I kept the letter, because I was just going through survival mode. And really, to me, just the friendships I’ve made and those experiences, when someone takes the time to recognize the impact you’ve made on their life, and to me, those are the stories that click.”

The Paralegal

Master Sgt. Leann Melton joined the National Guard in Watertown, New York, before she had a drivers’ license. Her parents drove her to drills.

Now she is assigned to the South Carolina Air National Guard 169th Fighter Wing based at McEntire Joint National Guard Base. She assists with state JAG cases and Army National Guard cases, providing legal research for federal and state codes for military justice, working with commanders on legal justice issues such as labor relations, equal opportunity employment, administrative actions, contracts, ethics, environmental issues and law enforcement jurisdiction.

Melton served seven years at McEntire in law enforcement, and when a paralegal position opened, she applied.

“I’ve always loved the law and being a cop. It just really interested me, everything going on,” she said. She received her associate degree in paralegal studies through the Community College of the Air Force.

Melton has been deployed several times, including to Ecuador. Melton also serves with the National Guard on the national level as the Air Combat Command East Coast Paralegal. She is responsible for all of the units on the East Coast under Air Combat Command and attends Judge Advocate Council meetings.

Among the issues in which Melton has been a part of the discussion include transgender participants and use of CBD products.

“Our job is so neat. It touches so many different things,” she said. “Being a paralegal in the civilian sector is fun, but you work with an isolated section of law. You’re either a family court paralegal or you’re a real estate paralegal. Whereas, in the military, you have so many different areas of law that you get to touch.”

The 9/11 Witness

“Ever since I was a little girl, my parents said I argued very well,” Lt. Col. Laura DeSio said.

Upon graduating from law school at Ohio State University, DeSio worked as a Presidential Management Civilian Intern in the Secretary of Defense’s office as a lawyer and policy analyst. She was working at the Department of Justice on 9/11.

“I was supposed to be at the Pentagon that day. I was right by the White House and, you know, that fourth plane was coming to the White House.”

Her husband was in New York City that day. She saw the Pentagon burning.

“It just crushes you. You think, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ And at that point, there was nothing we could do.”

“It really had an impact on me,” she said. “I felt that public service part of me was missing. I’ve always wanted to be in the military.”

So DeSio “decided to go all-in,” and with the blessing of her husband, joined the Air Force. The Ohio native said the appeal of practicing law while being an officer and leader appealed to her.

DeSio is a Staff Judge Advocate at the 628th Air Base Wing at Joint Base Charleston, advising base commanders and other leaders on a variety of legal matters including criminal, environmental, and administration. As lead counsel, she evaluates and reviews items for legal sufficiency and legality. The office also provides legal assistance to military personnel, retired military, and their dependents.

“It’s a great job in the fact that I get to touch so many different things each day, which was the appeal for the military, too, because for somebody like me that doesn’t necessarily want to specialize in one thing, I get to do everything,” she said.

“It’s a great job. I love what I do every day. I love putting on this uniform. It’s been one of the greatest career experiences I’ve ever had.”

Follow Renee Sexton on Twitter @BobcatRenee

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