Why Washington needs more veterans, and not just in office

Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.

Following decades of decline in the number of veterans serving in Congress, the 115th Congress, which was sworn in Jan. 3, has more than the 114th. Despite this current crop of lawmakers bucking the trend for veteran representation, the number of congressional staff members with a military background remains incredibly low; less than 1 percent of policy staffers have military experience, according to the veterans advocacy group HillVets.

This shortage leads to a lack of perspective when Congress acts on defense and veterans issues. While veterans can add significant value to a congressional staff, they are at a disadvantage when seeking these policy positions.

Getting a job on the Hill can be a challenge for anyone. The traditional path involves an unpaid internship in one of the most expensive cities in the country, followed by time in positions with low pay, before even having a shot at a policy or leadership staff position.

Unpaid internships and low pay for staff assistants may be manageable for some 20-somethings who can live with four other people they found on Craigslist, or have a helping hand from mom and dad. Veterans are often in a different place, seeking an opportunity on the Hill at an older age and often with financial commitments that are not flexible, such as a spouse, children, or a mortgage.

While a pay cut is expected, an unpaid internship is untenable for most veterans. Even a staff assistant position can see a junior officer making one-third of what she would earn on active duty, and a four-year corporal would lose almost 40 percent of his D.C.-area pay.

Entering straight into a policy or leadership position offers veterans a greater opportunity to influence policy. It also offers better pay that, while still not great, can sustain a veteran motivated by a desire to serve the country. 

These positions often require a network, however, and most veterans lack one in Congress. Additionally, they are lacking what many offices view as a key resume item to have for one of these policy positions — prior Capitol Hill experience.

Understanding how the Hill works and having a strong network are vital parts of serving a member well. Yet the ways of the Hill can be taught and networks built. Veterans bring initiative, attention to detail, leadership and teamwork that have made them a coveted asset for high-performing companies across the country — even without work experience in the sector. In a young office, they can provide a degree of maturity and focus for the staff.

Additionally, when it comes to certain policy questions, such as reform at the Veterans Affairs Department, veterans can bring important perspectives both from their own experiences and those of their fellow service members.

David Shulkin will face the challenge of working with Congress to continue improving VA once he is confirmed as the department's secretary. The Choice Card, which increased access to care in the community for veterans, is due to expire by August. Discussions surrounding VA's current proposal for consolidated community care are still ongoing. 

Much of the background and planning conversations are, and will be, held at the staff level. Having veteran voices in those conversations can help make a difference. I know my own personal experience as a veteran with the Choice Card program helped shape my views on the subject.

The importance of veterans' perspectives extends to defense issues. Veterans provide a window into this world for their fellow staff and their boss. This can be essential to raising issues for a member that they might not otherwise be aware of — whether it is proposals for cutting the housing allowance for service members, or efforts to recover bonuses for National Guardsmen. Veterans will hear about these issues early on and if they are a part of a policy staff, they can raise the issues for attention.

Admittedly, not all veterans are created equal, and not all veteran applicants will be suited for congressional staff positions. But that should not deter offices from interviewing and considering military veterans without (or with limited) Hill experience. Members of Congress who see the value in hiring veterans will continue to do so.

Frank Broomell served in the Marine Corps before spending time on a D.C. lawmaker's staff.

Photo Credit: Courtesy photos

I was fortunate enough to work for a member with a real commitment to veterans, Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., who saw the value my background brought to her policy team even though my resume lacked time on the Hill. When I left, she chose another Marine veteran to fill my position. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also recognized the value veterans bring to the job and created the Congressional Veterans Job Caucus to encourage their colleagues to hire veterans.

Members of the that caucus — and organizations like HillVets, with their HillVets House Fellowship — are working to raise the number of veterans in policy positions on the Hill. As we face uncertainty during the coming years in the areas where veterans have direct experience, more members of Congress should join my old boss, and those like her, in bringing veterans onto their policy staffs.

Frank Broomell served four years in the Marine Corps, including two deployments to Afghanistan, and left active duty as a first lieutenant in 2013. A student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he's a graduate of George Washington University and the Harvard Kennedy School, and ran in the Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat in New Jersey in 2014.

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