Sara Plesser Neugroschel LL.M. ’19: Serving to prevent injustice, tyranny, and terrorism

With no other members of the military in the extended family, the parents of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Sara Plesser Neugroschel LL.M. ’19 were “very, very surprised” when she decided to commission in the Navy after her 2L year at the University of Miami Law School, from which she graduated in 2009. But Neugroschel felt a particularly personal reason for serving her country: Her grandfather was a holocaust survivor.

“Part of my wanting to serve was a drive to ensure that the tyranny and persecution that he and millions of others faced—both then and now—never happens again,” says Neugroschel, a counter-terrorism expert who is spending her year at HLS focusing on national security law and international relations. While that goal may be “an unrealistic expectation,” she says that it is “important nonetheless, and it’s worth it if there is even a small chance that my actions and the actions of my fellow service members can prevent injustice, tyranny, and terrorism in the future.”

Raised in New Jersey and then in a tiny town in Pennsylvania, Neugroschel felt the call of wanderlust and a strong sense of adventure from a young age, fostered by family trips to Israel and the Caribbean and her grandparents’ encouragement that she travel the world. She chose The George Washington University for its program in international relations and spent her junior year in Israel and Spain. Upon graduation she enrolled in law school in order to further her studies in international relations and public policy, and chose Miami law school because both sets of her grandparents lived in that city. Shortly after she graduated she lost both her grandfathers, “so it was perfect that I was able to spend significant time with them,” she says.

During her 2L summer at Miami, where she was very involved in the school’s pro bono program, Neugroschel took a public service fellowship to work in the office of the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was her first direct exposure to the military, and she found she “absolutely loved” the work and culture. When the Navy arrived on campus her 3L fall to recruit, she commissioned, much to her family’s astonishment. Upon graduation, she attended Officer Development School followed by Naval Justice School, both in Newport, Rhode Island, where she learned to become a Naval lawyer.

Her first assignment was in Jacksonville, Florida, where she served as a trial attorney with the region’s Legal Service Office landing convictions in dozens of cases including a child sexual assault case. She also served as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting felony cases related to service members and military contractors. While she enjoyed the work, the location was hardly the exotic experience she hoped her military service would bring.

Then came her next assignment: Afghanistan, where she spent a year. As operations director of the Afghan National Security Court on a U.S. military base in Parwan, Neugroschel assisted Afghans in getting the newly created court up and functioning and she also helped mentor Afghan defense attorneys. As well, she oversaw the transfer of hundreds of detainees from U.S. detention to the Afghan justice system.

Her next assignment was in Kandahar City, where she mentored the first all-female unit of the Afghan National Police, growing it from four to 15 women. In a country where women typically do not work outside the home, “These women were not only doing everything in their power to go against the Taliban but they often were going against their own families as well,” she explains. “It really was the most remarkable experience.”

Neugroschel, who counts herself fortunate to have grown up with a supportive family and relative privilege, recalls that one of the women in the unit had been married at age 14 to a much older man who mistreated her; when he died, she was directed to marry one of his relatives but escaped and showed up at the base, where she was trained to join the police force. A number of abused children also appeared at the police headquarters and the all-woman unit not only created a foster care facility for them but also began investigations into child cruelty. “It was a privilege to work with these women,” she says.

Her next assignment was to Diego Garcia, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean that holds a U.S. Naval Support facility. There, in a place she describes as a “tropical paradise,” she was the sole lawyer for over 3,000 American military personnel and civilian contractors, serving as a general practitioner for a wide range of legal needs. She also served as principal legal advisor to the commanding officer, assisting him on everything from questions of international relations to best procedures for protecting swimmers and snorkelers after a shark attack claimed a contractor’s life.

After the privations of Afghanistan, the splendor of Diego Garcia was especially welcome, Neugroschel recalls—and it was to be a respite before her next assignment, in Bahrain, where she was one of four attorneys handling the legal needs of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Her work ran the gamut from criminal cases to advising on counter-piracy operations and rules of engagement during coalition operations and military exercises in the Arabian Gulf.

After a year in Bahrain, Neugroschel returned to the U.S. in 2015, to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where she worked as a general practitioner for the Navy Seals, handling a wide variety of legal services. She also deployed for short stints in the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa in support of Special Operations Joint Task Forces as they conducted world-wide counter-terrorism operations. Neugroschel advised on some of the Navy’s most sensitive clandestine military plans.

During this year at HLS, where she is taking courses in national security and cyberlaw, among others, Neugroschel remains on active duty attached to the Naval ROTC program at MIT, and she is also taking classes at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The breadth of her studies “is giving me the opportunity to advance not just my legal studies but the policy side of my work,” says Neugroschel, who after finishing her degree in May will be stationed at the Pentagon, where she will work for the Navy JAG. After years traveling the world—missing weddings, funerals and birthdays—she is embracing the opportunity to spend time with family and friends.

“My sister planned her whole wedding around this year because she knew I would be in America and not be deployed,” says Neugroschel.

She plans to stay in the Navy for another 10 years, a decision which has surprised even herself. “I’ve never called myself a lifer or said I’m committing to do this forever but I will do it until I no longer enjoy it,” she says. “I have loved every experience I have had so far and I wouldn’t change it for anything. People always ask what my favorite duty station has been, but I can’t say because I’ve enjoyed them all for very different reasons.”