From a pre-med major at the U.S. Air Force Academy, to acquisition officer, to Air Force lawyer, Col. Polly Sandness, the Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center has had a career full of change and adventure.
Growing up in an Air Force family – her father served 30 years – and moving around a lot as a kid, Sandness never had any intention of joining the Air Force. However after getting recruited to play Division I soccer at the Academy, and learning more about Air Force career opportunities she decided to sign up.
Playing soccer was an outlet, and a way to connect with other cadets going through the rigors of the Academy.
“It [soccer] was a great experience, particularly my first year when my sister – also on the team – was a senior,” said Sandness. “The bonds you make on a team because you’re already in a very stressful environment, and finding people that you can take a moment to breathe with was important for me.”
Upon graduation from the Academy and graduate school, where she met her husband Pete, also an Air Force colonel, Sandness started as a program manager with the former Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where she worked on targeting pods for weapon systems. However, after running into and talking with an Air Force lawyer that she knew from her time as a cadet, she started thinking about a career change.
“I enjoyed targeting pods, it was interesting at the time,” remarked Sandness. “But looking long-term, I found myself really interested in the areas of dialogue and discourse. I also loved the idea that [as a JAG] you didn’t have to pigeonhole and could go into different areas of the law.”
So she applied for and received Air Force funding to attend law school at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she was challenged and provided perspectives of various legal careers to include corporate law.
“When I was in law school, one of my instructors had us do an assignment where we had to keep track of our day in ten-minute increments, which is how he had to bill in his corporate firm before becoming a professor,” Sandness said. “He said do it for a day and imagine having to do it for years.”
After graduation from law school Sandness was assigned to the legal office at Brooks Air Force Base and shortly after was assigned to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. “Starting off, it was challenging but incredible for me since I was a little bit of an older officer, younger JAG,” recalled Sandness. “It was a very busy office with an incredible SJA, and I was able to get a lot of exposure quickly and get on par with my peers who’d been practicing for a few years.”
Currently as the SJA for AFLCMC, Sandness serves as the primary legal advisor to the Center Commander and senior staff, providing counsel on a wide range of topics, including civil law issues, IG complaints, ethics, and disciplinary actions within the military justice system.
“I’m focused on providing senior leaders with the best advice on a fair, timely and consistent basis, and effectively communicating why we should go down a certain path, especially when on a peripheral level, it may seem obvious to go down a completely different path,” she said.
A large part of the job involves staying up to date on changes to policy, implications of the changes and providing legal reviews for senior leaders.
“A lot of what I do is a game of chess, in the sense of if we take an action what are the secondary and tertiary effects,” said Sandness. “If you take an action without thinking ahead, you could find yourself out of the game because you had such tunnel vision that you didn’t open your aperture to be able to think two and three steps ahead.”
Outside of work, you’ll find Sandness running 10Ks and half marathons, spending time with family and traveling to see friends.
“We’re a hockey family,” she said. “My son is an avid hockey player and Pete helps coach, and in the winter our weekends are spent enjoying hockey venues. Also, my daughter is a cross country and track runner – a recent development – and loves it. For me, having the opportunity to be available and be engaged with them [family] has been wonderful.”
Juggling two busy kids and two active-duty careers for over 20 years has been incredibly rewarding, but also challenging Sandness said.
“There has to be give and take, but we’ve been blessed with mentors and senior leaders that helped us so we could both pursue our careers,” Sandness noted. “‘Village life’ with strong support from family and friends has made it possible for us to be successful. We have friends that ask, ‘How can we help?’ and really mean it! We couldn’t do this alone.”
For people interested in an Air Force legal career, Sandness said it’s incredibly rewarding.
“One of the best things about the JAG career field is you can try different areas of law to figure out what your passion is,” she said. “Also, the JAGs and paralegals are just phenomenal and some of the smartest individuals to work with. You’ll never walk into a legal office where you have a bunch of individuals. You have people with their own specialties but ultimately, it’s a team and you’ll find teammates who are willing to chip in and help out.”
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