Gill Beck: Soldier first, lawyer always

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By Kate Cahow '08 MA

Gill Beck '78, a third-generation Mountaineer and third-generation North Carolina attorney, has led a career of distinction as both a civilian and a soldier.

Since graduating second in his class at Appalachian, he has served with the U.S.Army Reserve in a variety of positions. He has been an assistant U.S. attorney in the middle district of North Carolina since 1992.

His career reached a pinnacle of distinction in December 2008 when former President George W. Bush promoted him to brigadier general with the Army Reserve.

Beck, who will receive Appalachian's Distinguished Alumni Award this spring, reflects on the experiences that took him from college student, to soldier, to lawyer and judge. Interview excerpts:

Q: At Appalachian you majored in English. How did you end up in the military?

A: From the time I was in first grade, I wanted to be a lawyer. ROTC officer training at Appalachian helped make that happen. After graduation I went into the Army and they offered me a full scholarship to Duke University School of Law. It was an opportunity of a lifetime.

Q: Did your time at Appalachian provide a good foundation for law school?

A: Absolutely. At Duke I was among students from Stanford, Harvard and Yale and was as well prepared as any of them to take on the challenge of law school.

My instructors and coaches at Appalachian, and people like Susie Greene who was my high school counselor and is now the dean of students at Appalachian, were tremendously supportive of my growth as a student and leader.

Q: Your military experience has been primarily as a lawyer and judge. Do you call yourself a soldier?

A: Yes. In the position of judge advocate with the reserves, I am an Army lawyer and must be able to demonstrate soldier competencies. Army lawyers are soldiers first and lawyers always.

During my tour of duty in Iraq, we traveled some dangerous roads from Camp Victory into the Red Zone and parts of Baghdad. Those convoys were carried out as combat operations and everyone involved was expected to function as a soldier.

Q: How do the different roles of your career—lawyer and soldier—interrelate?

A: Over the past 30 years, I've served the Army Reserve in a variety of positions, including prosecutor, defense counsel, brigade judge advocate and commander of a legal support organization.

In these roles I've provided legal services to commanders and soldiers. This work has complemented what I do as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Department of Justice, prosecuting cases on behalf of the United States. It's given me a broader perspective on the role of the law in our society.

Q: What will your duties be as brigadier general with the Army Reserve?

A: I will be a judge with the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, the appellate court for the Army's court-martial system. I will also work with reserve component judge advocates and paralegals to ensure they're prepared for future assignments, and will assist the judge advocate general of the Army providing proactive legal support to the Army and joint forces.

Q: What have you learned about human nature and international relations through your experiences?

A: An experience that left a lasting impression on me was witnessing the election of the Iraqi transitional government. This was the Iraqis' first opportunity to vote in free elections and they did so at great risk to themselves.

I came away with a profound respect for these people and an appreciation of the human desire for freedom and liberty.

Although thousands of years of development separate the Middle East from the U.S., I now believe we have more in common than not.