Corinna Barrett Lain

From Army to academia: Law professor recounts military experience

November 9, 2020


Veteran Corinna Barrett Lain said she would not be a law professor right now if she had not first been a truck driver in the U.S. Army.

Lain grew up in Montana in a working-class family. Lacking the resources to pay for college, she joined the Army when she was 18.

“I knew there was this great big world out there, and I wanted a piece of it,” Lain said. “I joined the Army for the GI bill, so I could get an education, but what I ended up getting was so much more.”

Lain explained that when she enlisted, the Army needed female truck drivers, and by selecting that specialty, she was able to get a guaranteed post in Europe. 

She was stationed in Darmstadt, Germany, just south of Frankfurt, in a combat-heavy engineer battalion — one of eight women out of nearly 1,000 soldiers. She distinctly remembers a game-changing experience that earned the respect of male peers.

“I was sent to the primary leadership development course, where I was among Green Beret soldiers, several of whom thought women had no place in the military, and told me so. But it turned out that I could do more sit-ups than they could, and I could carry the company flag during group runs, and that earned their respect,” Lain said fondly. “It gave me confidence in my own abilities, and I ended up graduating first in my class, ahead of them all. That was fun.” 

Lain quickly rose through the ranks. Four years later at age 22, she left the Army as a sergeant and squad leader. Lain said the Army provided her with long-lasting gifts, including a love of fitness and being institution- and mission-oriented.

“I was exposed to people very different from me, which was an important growth experience, and I came out with discipline and drive that I never would have had otherwise,” said Lain. “I was born into one socio-economic class, and I am now in a very different one. I credit the United States Army as the key to unlocking many doors that have opened for me in my life.”  

After the Army, Lain attended the College of William & Mary, and then the University of Virginia for law school. She was a prosecutor for three years and then joined the Richmond School of Law faculty. 

“Transitioning to academia is a challenge, but the Army helped me there too,” Lain said. “I was a training officer in the Army, so I already had experience in teaching and knew the importance of encouragement and constructive feedback,” she said.

Lain, a renowned constitutional law and death penalty scholar, continues to use skills she first gained through the Army at the University of Richmond. She was the law school’s first associate dean of faculty development and says that her time as a sergeant taught her how to break down a task and get things done.

“Sometimes I’m still ‘Sgt. Barrett’ at home,” Lain says of her maiden name. “Sgt. Barrett comes out when it’s crunch time and there’s a task that needs to get done.”