By Kristina Wong - 06/17/14 06:00 AM EDT
Paul Rieckhoff has successfully built a small army of dedicated veterans to combat issues faced by the new generation of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rieckhoff, 39, is founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), one of the most prominent voices among groups representing younger veterans.
“I wanted to serve, to give something back,” he said in a recent interview with The Hill. “My father had been drafted for the Vietnam War, and my grandfather drafted into World War II.”
He laughed. “They encouraged me not to go in to the military, because I didn’t have to.”
Still, he was inspired by their service and involvement in the local community. He grew up in New York state, in the Hudson Valley, about an hour north of Manhattan. His mother was a nurse. His father worked at the Con Edison utility company and was a volunteer fireman, His grandfather was a local voting booth volunteer.
Rieckhoff enlisted into the Army Reserve as a military police soldier in 1998, a couple of months after graduating from Amherst College.
He returned to a job at JPMorgan, but after two years, Rieckhoff chose the military over Wall Street.
“I wanted a tough challenge. I didn’t feel like I was going to get that behind a desk.”
There was an opening with the New York National Guard. He became an officer and joined the infantry in June 2001.
“I wanted to be in a front-line unit. Infantry is the heart of the military,” he said.
Rieckhoff left his Wall Street job four days before the 9/11 attacks took place. His unit, on that catastrophic day, was deployed to lower Manhattan to assist in rescue efforts.
“It was a crazy time. It was a scary, scary time. Everybody in New York wanted to chip in and do their part.”
He volunteered to go to Iraq in 2003, where he served for about a year in central Baghdad as an infantry platoon leader.
“We got there during the invasion,” he said. “Then the lull, looting, emergence of the insurgency, then the insurgency. We started losing people, it was very violent.”
It was on the ground in Iraq during those bloody days that, he said, he learned the skills to found and lead the IAVA — to adapt, improvise and overcome with limited resources and guidance.
“You got to be creative, you got to stick together, and you got to rely on your teammates.”
Rieckhoff said the idea for starting the IAVA came after he returned home, and he realized there was nothing out there for vets returning from Iraq; experts opining on the war were talking heads and policy wonks but no one who had actually fought there.
“There was also a gap in existing organizations that didn’t fit our needs,” he said.
Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are younger, more diverse and more tech savvy than older veterans, and 15 percent are women, he said.
The group started in 2004 as a Myspace page — one of the first mainstream social media networks — for Iraq veterans, and the message board took off.
One of the issues that first galvanized the group was the lack of body armor in Iraq.
“We had a limited number of chest plates for our vests. We would swap 10 chest plates among 40 guys — that literally meant the difference between someone taking shrapnel or not,” Rieckhoff said.
“It was the first example of how unprepared our country was for the war we got ourselves into.”
He said what is happening now in Iraq is “tragic, disheartening, but predictable.”
“It’s been such a divided, tumultuous place for so long. Even at its best, it was still incredibly fragile,” said Rieckhoff.
He said Iraq has been violent since U.S. troops left there in 2011, but a lot of people just weren’t following it.
“It underscores how disconnected America is from conflict,” he said, adding that some vets refer to the current Afghanistan War as “Forgotistan.”
“It underscores why we have to stick together and to look out for each other.”
Rieckhoff said the idea of sending troops back to Iraq is not a popular one among the Iraq vets he’s talked to.
“Right now, we can’t even handle the demand we have,” he said of assistance to veterans returning home from war. “We haven’t taken care of veterans from the first time.”
He said there are big challenges ahead for the small staff at the IAVA. The group now devotes itself to a range of issues that impact this generation of veterans.
The IAVA worked on the post-9/11 G.I. bill, which it wrote and helped push through. The group considers the measure to be its biggest legislative success.
This month, the IAVA hopes to roll out a bill aimed at curbing veteran suicides, which occur at an alarming average of 22 per day.
The group has also been at the forefront of pushing reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rieckhoff says he is dismayed that reform is not moving at a faster rate, even after former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign last month amid revelations that department employees across the country hid long wait times that could have led to veterans’ deaths.
“I think the White House continues to bungle this entire situation. It’s been weeks now, and we don’t have a replacement [for Shinseki] in place,” he said.
“The White House was behind the curve on this entire issue,” he said. “It is a tremendous disservice to veterans that [the White House] haven’t moved faster ... they can’t keep their eye on this ball.”
Rieckhoff said veterans groups are still waiting to meet with the president on the issue.
A roundtable meeting last week with Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson was illustrative of the type of reform the VA needs, Rieckhoff said: Of about 20 representatives, few were under 40, few were not white, and none were female.
“The old structures at the VA are still in place. The whole structure needs to be revamped. There is a major cultural crisis at the VA.”
The IAVA has put forward a “Marshall Plan” to reform the VA. It said two of its points have been adopted, and it is waiting for six more.
Rieckhoff, whose name has been floated as a replacement for Shinseki, said he loves his current job, but wants to meet with the president to offer suggestions.
“There’s got to be a youth movement inside the VA,” he said.
He lives in New York and comes to Washington on occasion.
“I’m not a big fan of Washington,” he laughed, but hastened to add, “We need more vets in Congress.”