In 2020, Army 1st Lt. William Ratliff led his platoon on an unprecedented six-month mission to protect the U.S. Embassy in Iraq after a terrorist attack. It was the first deployment of the new Immediate Response Force, a rapid reaction force jointly maintained by the Army and Air Force capable of deploying worldwide within 18 hours of notification.
“I was only 23 and charged with a 30-men unit on a deployment that I wasn’t expecting,” Ratliff recalled. “Our mission was to rapidly mobilize and provide strategic influence in the region. Our mission was successful, and an important display of the IRF ability to rapidly deploy, and my platoon all returned home safely.”
That operation, and others like it, helped Ratliff realize he wanted to serve his fellow soldiers in a new capacity. The U.S. Military Academy graduate and incoming first-year student will begin classes at the University of Virginia School of Law on Aug. 18 with the goal of joining the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Ratliff said he chose UVA because of the school’s relationship with the neighboring Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, as well as with the military as a whole. His newfound respect for U.S. soldiers during deployment and talking to JAG officers about their work fostered his interest in the law.
“When we received the activation call, members of my platoon were scattered around the country and within 24 hours they had to say goodbye to their friends, children and pregnant wives as we left for an unknown time in a combat zone,” he said. “This experience solidified my desire to continue to serve American service members and their families.”
Ratliff’s father is a West Point alumnus who played football for the Black Knights and served 20 years in the Army, but the younger Ratliff didn’t initially feel compelled to follow in his footsteps. However, as a high school football recruit himself weighing scholarship offers, Ratliff felt during a visit that the academy was the best fit.
“I think growing up, I wasn’t naturally drawn to the military life or didn’t think it was something that I was definitely going to do, but after going and seeing the place and meeting the guys and the type of environment, the type of leaders they produced and the quality of education, it was kind of an easy decision for me,” he said.
Ratliff played one season as an offensive lineman, earned a bachelor’s in engineering management and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
As a cadet choosing which branch to serve with, he said the infantry’s culture and teamwork appealed to him, so he enrolled in the U.S. Army Ranger School, which entails a 62-day course teaching soldiers to engage the enemy in close combat and direct-fire battle. After graduation in 2019, Ratliff was stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and was later promoted to first lieutenant. He served as an operations officer and then a rifle platoon leader.
The Wake Forest, North Carolina, native is pursuing his J.D. through the Army Funded Legal Education Program, in which he will incur a six-year service obligation as an attorney in the JAG Corps.
The JAG Corps is a government organization that operates like a court system. Its practitioners, referred to as judge advocates, are licensed attorneys qualified to represent the Army and soldiers in military legal matters, including courts-martial, civil litigation, tort claims, labor law and international law.
“I think the opportunity to attend a school like UVA is so, so great,” Ratliff said, “and through this program and especially a school of this caliber, I think it’s going to hopefully make me a better attorney and better able to serve American soldiers.”
Meet the 1Ls
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.