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Phoenix Forward

From the courtroom to Afghanistan, retired judge takes calculated risks

Retired judge takes calculated risks

University of Phoenix instructor spends more than three years in Afghanistan, helping officials learn and implement the law

Some people lead simple, quiet lives where they stick to one career and then retire. Others, like Larry Sage, live on the edge.

In 2007 at age 61, the University of Phoenix College of Criminal Justice and Security instructor embarked on two 15-month stints in Afghanistan to help the country establish a “Rule of Law”— an international term used to reference attorneys who work in countries undergoing law/justice systems development. He joined other expatriates from around the globe and personally acted as a Justice Advisor to the Attorney General’s Office in the country, and then later as a Ministry of Defense (Army) Parliamentary Affairs Mentor and Senior Legal Advisor.

Risk taking is nothing new to Sage, whose career is colored with accomplishments. Sage is a former active duty infantryman in the U.S. Army, a former prosecutor, a former Nevada judge and a distinguished jurist for the Supreme Court of Nevada. As a judge, he issued thousands of arrest and search warrants, and imposed thousands of sentences. He’s also an adjunct professor at The National Judicial College in Reno, Nev., and a part-time contractor for a U.S. Department of Defense law enforcement program.

“I’ve had too many operations on my knees. I can’t lead men in combat,” he says. “I’m at a stage where you bring your personality and experience and you try to make a difference in a positive way.”

I've had too many operations on my knees. I can't lead men in combat. I'm at a stage where you bring your personality and experience and you try to make a difference in a positive way.

Making a difference in Afghanistan

In 2004, following centuries of invasions and 30 years of continuous warfare, Afghanistan passed a new constitution, though more than 70 percent of the country’s population could not read or write. Also, many international aides and two million Afghans had left the country, fleeing the Taliban as they desired education, women’s rights. When Sage arrived in 2007, he worked to help further Afghans’ desire “to be governed by a legal system supported by the people, not an extremely fundamental Islamic version of Sharia [Muslim] Law,” he says.

While in the war-torn country, Sage lived in secure compounds. He travelled on dangerous roads to secure government locations to advise and train the country’s lawyers, judges, officials and educators on Afghan law.

“You’re in a bullet-proof vest and helmet and an armored vehicle wherever you go,” he says.

“I’ve also been knocked out of my chair at work and my bed twice with different attacks, some bombs, some rockets,” he says, noting it is important to stay alert and to not make “any stupid mistakes.”

Progress continues

While Sage’s missions were successful overall, there are still hurdles to overcome in Afghanistan: corruption and waste among police, judges and prosecutors, largely due to low salaries; tribal affiliations, which affect decision making; lack of coordination; lack of adequate security; hoarding as a way of life; a high illiteracy rate; a legal system made up of traditional law, Sharia law and state law; unreliability of electricity service; and lack of paved roads, cell phone coverage and public transportation.

“The difficulties of operating in a legal system with a lack of basic benefits is perhaps best illustrated by the plight of one Afghan primary court judge, who sought judicial training to improve his skills,” Sage wrote in a November 2009 article published in Nevada Lawyer Magazine. “To attend the training sessions, [the Afghan judge] had to walk for eight days, each way.”

However, Sage believes change is possible. Shia and Sunni Muslims, who historically have been at odds, are working together to improve the country, he says. “The younger Afghans, the new generations, are fantastic, eager, exciting and rapidly becoming more educated,” he adds. “They and the rule of law are the future of Afghanistan.”