Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly described the harsh questioning of a woman allegedly raped by Naval Academy football players. The questions came from defense counsel, not from the prosecution. this version has been corrected.
A portrait of a portly man with thin strands of blond hair hangs in a gilded frame a few paces down the hall from the office of three-star Gen. Flora Darpino. She walks a visitor over to the painting of Joseph Holt, a predecessor from whom she draws historical insight.
Darpino is the Army’s judge advocate general and the face of the Army’s military justice system. Last week, she became the first woman to hold the post.
Holt, she explains, was Abraham Lincoln’s judge advocate general and the man who prosecuted the conspirators who assassinated the 16th president. In the course of the trial, Holt was accused of suppressing evidence.
“He issued a pamphlet and it cleared his name,” Darpino says, reading Holt’s biography aloud. “See, we were under scrutiny from the very beginning.”
She laughs at the thought.
A sense of history and a sense of humor are necessary components for the job, which has grown in scope since Holt’s tenure. Darpino’s responsibilities run the gamut from advising the secretary of the Army and the Army’s chief of staff on legal matters to overseeing the Army JAG Corps’ staff of 10,000.
Most immediately, Darpino comes into the office when Congress and advocates for female soldiers are focused on the problem of sexual assault in the military.
“With perception as important as it is in this particular debate, to have a woman in the forefront will give her added credibility,” says Walter B. Huffman, a retired Army judge advocate general who was once Darpino’s boss and believes she is the right person for the job, at the right time.
But Darpino knows good optics aren’t enough to answer the questions confronting her: Will she support an overhaul of the system or hold to the status quo? Can she help the military address the incidents of sexual violence that affect thousands of women — and men — in uniform?
“This presents an opportunity that she and other members of the military legal community could make the most of and seize, rather than simply defending the fortress,” says Eugene R. Fidell, scholar of military justice at Yale Law School.
Darpino, who is 52, doesn’t see her challenge as so black or white.
“The military justice system has never been a static system,” she says. It is constantly under examination, which she finds healthy. She is eager to engage in the debate and notes that the Army has appointed “special victims prosecutors,” “special victims investigators” and “special victims liaisons” to develop a deeper sensitivity in such cases.
Every sexual assault allegation must be investigated, Darpino says. It is up to the suspect’s commander, with the advice of a military lawyer, to bring a case to trial or dismiss a case altogether. The commander could also issue a “non-judicial” punishment, such as issuing a letter of reprimand.
As many as 26,000 service members were the target of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, according to a Pentagon report, and 3,374 incidents of sexual assault were reported. Thousands more were unwilling to come forward. It is not Darpino’s branch of service, but a recently concluded inquiry called an Article 32 hearing, involving an alleged rape committed by U.S. Naval Academy football players, invited scrutiny when defense counsel harshly questioned the accuser. It is the latest example of what reformers view as the failures of the military justice system. Editorials and a documentary film have also played a role in galvanizing public opinion.
Darpino and other senior military officials do not support the legislation being pushed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would put sexual-abuse cases outside a commanding officer’s control and give the authority to investigate and bring charges to military prosecutors alone.
“It’s Army business, not lawyer business,” Darpino says. “If you take the power away from the commander to discipline his troops, you take away the greatest tool he has that makes us the greatest Army in the world.”
She speaks with the command of a three-star general, but the decor she’s chosen for her office may say more about her philosophy and outlook.
On a side table she keeps a copy of the original Manual for Courts Martial. Its yellowing pages remind her that “it is a living document.” On top of it is an “Army Life” pamphlet printed in 1944. “It’s all about men,” she says with a smile.
In the center of the largest table in the room, she keeps a small set of figurines depicting people standing in a circle with their hands on each other’s backs. It is a reminder that the Army is a team.
Darpino’s late father, Albert Darpino, was an Italian immigrant who served in World War II. He taught his four daughters that “you always have to work your hardest and give everything your very, very best.” It was part of his mind-set because of his immigrant background, says Darpino, who kept her maiden name to honor her father’s sacrifices for his family.
But it was her husband, Christopher O’Brien, she followed into the Army 26 years ago. They met in the basement of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house at Gettysburg College, O’Brien recalls. By their junior year, they were a couple, and after law school they married. O’Brien was an ROTC student and owed the Army a four-year commitment. Darpino decided to join the Army JAG Corps.
“I thought if I could do three years of law school, I could do three years in the Army,” she says.
Both she and O’Brien, who have two daughters in their early 20s, excelled.
“We were promoted to several grades on the very same day,” he says. “Same day to captain, same to major, same to lieutenant colonel and same day to colonel.”
In 2011, Darpino was promoted to commanding general of the Army’s Legal Services Agency, surpassing her husband. He likes to say her first act upon being promoted was to fire him from his position as chief of the litigation division. He had to switch jobs because she would have been his superior.
Darpino took posts in Iraq and Germany. She missed seeing her daughters off to prom. O’Brien, who had served as chief of personnel for the Army’s JAG Corps, retired when his wife became his boss again last week.
Darpino is one of 28 female Army generals out of a total of 431 active-duty generals. Her counterpart in the Navy, Vice Adm. Nanette DeRenzi, is also the first woman tapped to serve in her post.
Darpino joined the Army in the late 1980s, about the time that West Point had become fully coed, which signaled an opening of specialized jobs to women.
“I walked this path with a whole peer group of absolutely fantastic women,” she says, noting that of the past six classes of the JAG Corps, 35 percent are women.
Darpino sees her journey as emblematic of the career arc of women in the modern military, and instructive as she and other military leaders deal with the issue of sexual assault.
“When I showed up to my first assignment,” Darpino recalls, “my boss said to me, ‘I told them not to send me a woman, but they sent you anyway.’ ”
That boss — a man — was never promoted again; his superiors, instead, elevated Darpino.
“They got it,” she says.