Letting off steam at the range

Everyone had their reasons to be at the Army’s second annual Weapons Day, where Capitol Hill aides fired machine guns and tested out Army gear over the Easter recess.

Some staffers lined up to shoot 10 rounds from a M-4 Carbine machine gun just to let off a little steam. After one of the busiest legislative beginnings for Congress in many years, one Senate staffer, who shot a nearly perfect score, joked that she imagined her boss’s head was the target.

While arguably therapeutic, many staffers at the shooting session last week descended three floors underground in the Rayburn House Office Building to gain a better sense for how the Army works and to meet young men and women charged with protecting the country.

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With bagels and jam interspersed among boxes of bullets and ammunition clips on broad polished-steel tables, about 300 staffers filed through the doors of the U.S. Capitol Police’s shooting range last Wednesday. The police department lends it to the Army, which is trying to forge better relationships with congressional staff.

“This was a great experience for us,” said a staffer for a senior Republican House lawmaker who spoke anonymously because he did not have permission to talk to the press.

“It’s a great break from the office and a great way to understand what the Army does and understand how much better it is than what we do.”

This is music to Col. Chris Hughes’s ears. Hughes is chief of Army liaison to the House and the architect of the shooting-range outing.

“The most important thing on the Hill is to build relationships,” he said. “Staffers are very important people. No matter how well I might know a member personally, I can’t get the access I might need sometimes to help solve a problem if I don’t know the staffers in the office. We would like to be as approachable as we possibly can.”

Dressed in fatigues, members from the 3rd Infantry Regiment (the Old Guard) were on hand to give safety instructions and let staffers try out some of the Army’s equipment, like the 40-pound flak vests soldiers wear in combat.

Some aides took the shooting practice more seriously than others. A staffer for Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who was waiting for his turn to shoot, said he’d rather not talk because he was trying to lower his heart rate to get as steady a shot as possible.

Another said he’d spent all last night playing the video game “Call of Duty” to prepare.

In the evening, staffers and soldiers reconvened over pizza and beer, and bragged about how well they shot.

“Like us, most of them don’t make a whole lot of money up here, so we try and compensate them in what ways we can,” Hughes said, laughing.

Hughes’s office assisted with more than 47,000 inquires last year from the public on Army-related matters, so it’s important to know the staff, he said. In addition to the day of shooting, Hughes’s office offers movie nights and two-day physically intensive training trips.

Most recently he took 38 staffers to Fort Irwin in the Mugabe Desert, where the military has built realistic Iraqi villages. Aides took part in intense role-playing exercises from both the Iraqi and the U.S. military perspective.

With Arabic-speaking people all around them in mock cities, staffers experienced a simulated riot and bombing with real amputees playing the roles of the injured.

“When a constituent comes [to a lawmaker’s staff] with an Army-related question, they’re better prepared to help that constituent, and that’s our goal,” said Hughes. “Things that were ‘cool’ in the beginning [of the trip] by the end were very real.”

While some staff at the firing range had been on similar trips through the military liaison offices, not all were so brave. Some even had a tough time handling the M-4 Carbine, which is a lighter and shorter version of the better-known M-16 machine gun.

In an attempt to assuage a young staffer who sat through the shooting session with her eyes closed and without firing a shot, a sergeant shared his first experience shooting a weapon of that caliber. He noted how shocking it was when the gun nearly leapt out of his hands.

“I got laughed at for nearly three weeks after that [by fellow soldiers],” he said to the staffer, adding in a whisper: “But truth be told, women are better shots than men.”