Waterloo to Washington: The Long Journey of Coral Wong Pietsch
By Lt. Col. Randy Pullen
Public Affairs and Liaison Directorate, Office of the Chief, Army Reserve
WASHINGTON, April 24, 2001 Trivia question: What do James T. Kirk, the captain of the Starship Enterprise, and Coral Wong Pietsch, the Army Reserve colonel selected to become the Army's first Asian Pacific American woman general, have in common?
Answer: They both come from Iowa.
Coral Wong Pietsch, in her capacity as a U.S. Army Pacific civilian staff lawyer, gives a pre-deployment briefing to soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, prior to them -- and her -- flying out to Johnston Island for a chemical accident/incident response exercise in 1998. Pietsch has been nominated for promotion to brigadier general. If the Senate confirms her, she would be the first Asian Pacific American female general in the Army's history. Photo by Lt. Col. Randy Pullen, USAR.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Pietsch's career has not sent her across space like Captain Kirk's but she has been to quite a few places on this planet: Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii and Johnston Atoll, to name a few. And to stretch the Star Trek analogy a bit further, she sometimes has felt like she beamed onto a new world that did not quite understand where she came from or who she was.
"I was commissioned as a judge advocate general officer in 1974," Pietsch said. "I was told I was now a member of the largest law firm in the world, with about 1,450 lawyers. I served in Korea and in Hawaii for six years on active duty, then went into the Army Reserve."
On her first annual training with an active duty unit, a snapshot was taken of her with two other Army Reservists. When the picture came back, someone wrote on it, "those Reservists."
"I don't think they meant anything by this, but it did get me to thinking," Pietsch said. "I realized the size of the JAG Corps had really been underestimated. It was a lot bigger than those 1,450 active duty lawyers. There were another 1,600 Reserve JAG officers not being counted."
Things have changed in the Army JAG Corps since 1980. The world's biggest legal firm is close to 5,000 lawyers and legal specialists. It is "one legal team," as the first three words of the JAG Corps vision states. Today, the Army counts -- and counts on -- the legal soldiers of all its components.
Pietsch has been part of those changes and will soon be one. The individual mobilization augment is already the first woman chief judge in the history of the Army JAG Corps, and upon Senate confirmation will become its first woman general, too.
Her place of duty is the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency in Falls Church, Va., near Washington, D.C. That is a long commute from her civilian job and home in Hawaii, but Hawaii is quite a distance from where she was born, Waterloo, Iowa.
Her father was an emigrant from Canton, China, who settled in Waterloo to start a Chinese restaurant.
"He met my mother there, and that's where I was born," Pietsch said.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in theater and a master's in drama, she went to law school at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. It was there that she met an Army officer working on his law degree, James Pietsch. He became her husband. He also became her colleague.
Both served on active duty and in the Army Reserve. James Pietsch retired as a colonel in 2000. In his civilian career, he is an associate professor of law at the University of Hawaii's William Richardson School of Law and a clinical professor at the university's John Burns School of Medicine.
Following her active duty service at Eighth Army in Korea and at Fort Shafter in Hawaii, Coral Pietsch worked as a deputy attorney general for the State of Hawaii for six years. Then, she became a civilian attorney at Headquarters, U.S. Army Pacific, Fort Shafter.
She is now the senior civilian attorney at USARPAC and chief of the Civil Law Division in the staff judge advocate's office. She supervises a staff of attorneys whose areas of expertise include administrative law, contract law, environmental law, ethics, fiscal law, operational law, and personnel and labor law for a major Army command, whose area of responsibility covers half of the earth's surface.
While rising in her civilian career, Pietsch also rose in her Army Reserve career. She had assignments as the contract law officer and claims officer at Headquarters, IX Corps (Augmentation), Fort DeRussy, Hawaii; contract law officer, chief of legal assistance, and chief of the administrative law division at Headquarters, IX Corps (Reinforcement), Fort DeRussy; and as the staff judge advocate, 9th U.S. Army Reserve Command, Fort DeRussy.
In February 1996, she was recalled to active duty and served for six months as the staff judge advocate for U.S. Army Pacific.
Pietsch's civilian and Army Reserve jobs have sent her often to the far-flung reaches of USARPAC's area of responsibility. As a soldier in the 9th ARCOM, she has gone to Japan for the Yama Sakura exercise. As an Army civilian employee, she has gone to tiny Johnston Atoll, located some 825 miles southwest of Hawaii, to take part in chemical accident/incident response exercises
(Johnston Atoll was the site of the Pacific's chemical munitions demilitarization facility. The U.S. Army Chemical Activity Pacific was located there to store, safeguard and transport the munitions to the on-island destruction facility. The last munitions were destroyed in November, and USACAP held a chemical surety decertification ceremony April 11).
One of her most interesting deployments, she said, occurred in October and November of 1995 when she took part in Exercise Balikatan in the Philippines. The U.S.-Philippine exercise brought together some 600 U.S. and 600 Philippine military members to conduct combined and joint operations and to provide cross-training opportunities for participants. Pietsch was the senior legal officer for the exercise.
Her duties took her away from the headquarters in Manila to check on activities where the numerous exercise events were taking place, such as the medical/dental/veterinary civic action project in western Luzon and infantry training at Camp Magsaysay in northcentral Luzon. She even managed to accompany a group of U.S. and Philippine Navy SEALS on a rubber boat exercise on Manila Bay.
A less pleasant experience was Super Typhoon Angela, the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines in a decade, which struck Luzon on Nov. 3, 1995, with 200-mile-an-hour winds. The headquarters staff had just moved to its forward location at Camp Magsaysay, which was directly in the typhoon's path. They evacuated to stronger buildings in Manila, but as luck would have it, the storm shifted and hit Manila instead.
None of the Americans was hurt, and Exercise Balikatan resumed after Angela passed. Pietsch kept busy advising on legal issues resulting from damage claims and other typhoon-related issues.
The big news came to Hawaii and to Pietsch in April 2000 that she had been selected to become chief judge (IMA), a brigadier general's assignment. She took up her new duties a month later. On March 1, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that the president had nominated Pietsch for promotion to brigadier general. If the Senate confirms her, she would be the first Asian Pacific American female general in the Army's history.
As the daughter of a man who came from China to start a new life, Pietsch knows something about what it means to have the chance to succeed. Her father took the opportunity that America offered; she followed his lead and charted her own course.
That course led her through Washington, D.C., to Korea and to Hawaii, with stops at Johnston Atoll and Japan and the Philippines, and has now brought her back to Washington at the highest levels of the world's biggest legal firm, the U.S. Army JAG Corps.
In her own way, Col. Coral Wong Pietsch has explored as many worlds as Capt. James T. Kirk.
(Lt. Col. Randy Pullen is assigned to the Public Affairs and Liaison Directorate, Office of the Chief, Army Reserve, Washington, D.C.)