On Being a Pioneer and a Public Servant...The Challenges and Rewards

Coral Wong Pietsch

Stephen H. Lockhart is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

What an honor and privilege to have been chosen a White House Champion of Change. Previously, I never considered myself a champion or an agent of change. But as I look back, my life has been filled with opportunities to make a difference and I was curious enough and perhaps adventurous enough to accept those opportunities. Let me share with you a little bit about myself and about some of the opportunities that I have had the fortune of accepting.

I was born in Iowa. My father is Chinese, my mother is Czech. I grew up in a time when many of the professions were not populated with womenthe law, the military and public service among them.  Fortunately, it was my mother who “nagged” me into going to law school (children of all ages listen to your mother!) and while I was in law school I met my husband, a fellow law student. He was a commissioned officer in the Army and the Army had allowed him to attend law school on a full-time basis. It was through him that I “joined” the Army and this was the beginning of my long, rewarding and wonderful career in public service. 

I have been in the profession of public service on several levelsstate, national and internationaland at each level I saw the challenges through the lens of a pioneer. When I was commissioned an Army officer, there were approximately 20 women in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, a Corps consisting of over 1,400 lawyers.

The challenges included acceptance by my fellow JAG officers, assignments, and career management,  to name a few. But the rewards were astoundingtravel, friendships, personal and professional development, and best of all, I was able to help pave the way for other women. There are now more than 400 women in the Army JAG Corps and in fact, the current Judge Advocate General of the Army is a woman!

When I was the Chair of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, a non-compensated position, the challenge was to improve our processing times and to be responsive to both employees and employers. I took on this challenge knowing that I had to explore new ways of dealing with this backlog.

In the end, we accomplished our goal and timely and responsive action became the norm. Again, the challenges were many but the rewards were extremely satisfying because the citizenry, and especially those who may have faced discrimination, regained confidence in the process.

In 2007, the War in Iraq reached new heights and the  "Surge” was implemented. To complement the increase in military strength, a call was made for Department of Defense civilians to volunteer to increase diplomacy and reconstruction efforts. I volunteered and I spent one year in Iraq as the Deputy Rule of Law Coordinator for the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team working side-by-side with the military and going on missions into the heart of Baghdad as the fighting reached its highest point since the beginning of the war.

This one year tested me on every level and was made more difficult because I was a civilian (civilians working in a combat zone was a rarity). But in that one year I was able to work with the Iraqi Bar Association, numerous Iraqi Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and the international community to advance the rule of law. In coordination with the Iraqi Bar Association, we established a Legal Aid Clinic at one of Iraq’s largest detention facilities, which is operating to this day. I worked with Iraqi Law Schools on curriculum development; and I worked with NGOs to open up opportunities for Iraqi women. The challenges were oftentimes overwhelming, but the rewards were priceless.

I looked at each of these endeavors as an opportunity to embrace a difficult situation and to see where it would take me. In the process, I like to think that I have improved the lives of people while at the same time becoming a better person myself. This is what the profession of Public Service is about.  

Coral Wong Pietsch was the first woman to be promoted to general officer in the United States Army Judge Advocate General and the first woman of Asian ancestry to be promoted to general officer in the Army. She is currently a Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She was appointed to the bench in June 2012.

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