What's harder than jumping out of airplanes?

But the two soldiers have traded in their fatigues for well-pressed suits as they face one of the most challenging aspects of their careers: a military fellowship on Capitol Hill.

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Martin and Rubio are military fellows like no others. They are the first noncommissioned officers to participate in the Army’s congressional fellowship program.

The Army’s leadership has coined 2009 the year of the noncommissioned officer, in recognition of the significant role these soldiers have played in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Noncommissioned officers rise through the enlisted ranks and are considered the backbone of the military, not just in day-to-day operations but also as crucial links between officers and the enlisted troops.

The Army has a longstanding military fellowship program for officers, in effect grooming them to become the service’s legislative liaisons on Capitol Hill. Now, noncommissioned officers will also have the chance to work in those positions and leave their imprint on issues of importance to the military.

Before ending up in the halls of Congress, Martin, a sergeant major, and Rubio, a master sergeant, took different paths in the Army.

Martin, who is working in the office of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), started as a parachutist with the Army 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1980. He then became an Army recruiter before deciding to leave the military. He used the G.I. Bill to get a commercial pilot license, ultimately moving with his Australian wife to her homeland to become a bush pilot. But after three years, Martin decided to return to the Army Reserves as a full-time recruiter in Arizona.

Martin later decided to switch his Army career focus to human resources. In 2004, he deployed to Afghanistan, and when he returned a year later, he went to the Sergeant Major Academy and transferred to the Army’s Human Resources Command in St. Louis. From there he went to the Pentagon, where he became an enlisted promotion policy writer, a position focused on the long-term career development of noncommissioned officers.

Martin considered helping noncommissioned officers develop their careers as a chance to “shape the future force for generations to come.”

For someone who previously followed Congress only when it broached issues of importance to him and his family, working for Warner has been baptism by fire. He has so far waded through appropriations requests for Virginia in the 2010 defense appropriations and authorization bills, and he also has his hands full with constituent issues, military issues and veterans’ issues. Foreign policy is also on his plate with Afghanistan and Iraq, as is Cuba, with a focus on trade and energy issues.

Martin can’t say he hadn’t been forewarned about the fast pace of Capitol Hill. He recalls one of his higher-ups telling him, “Be careful, it’s going to be like drinking from a fire hose; try not to drown.”

Several months into his yearlong fellowship, he has been able to draw at least one conclusion.

“Jumping out of airplanes is pretty easy … you just step out,” he joked. “The office here is a great challenge, but I am willing to take that challenge.”

Meanwhile, Rubio says she has always relied on her ability to adjust well to new situations. Before coming to Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-Colo.) office, she was one of the few female paralegals who worked with the military intelligence and special operations units. And she is adjusting in Congress, with a good dose of amazement at the pace and the expanse of issues that lawmakers and their staffers have to know.

“In the military you can always break things down to a lower level,” she said. “In Congress, they have to be an expert in any category. The toughest job is that you have to be able to juggle and be flexible for whatever kind of information may come in. You have to react and be prepared for it.”

Rubio said Udall’s office has brought her up to speed quickly.

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“I assist with national security and foreign affairs issues for the office, not just military or Army related things. His office has made me a part of his team,” she said.

Rubio joined the Army five years after she graduated from high school because she wanted to travel and get a college degree but realized she could not do it on her own. Apart from high-profile bases such as Fort Bragg — where she was the first female paralegal of the 82nd Airborne Division — and Fort Benning, Ga., Rubio’s Army career has taken her to Panama, England, Japan, Iraq and Afghanistan. For years, she had wanted to be based in Hawaii. After she returned from Afghanistan she got the chance — only to leave for the fellowship in Washington.

By the time she came to D.C., in March, she had read all the websites of members of Congress who did not have military fellows. Udall stood out. Not only did he have various military bases in his state — he is also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Sen. Udall really impressed me,” she said. And she impressed the senator and his national security adviser. She now runs from briefing to briefing for him, taking copious notes, distilling issues dealing with nuclear nonproliferation to North Korea and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

All the while, she is grateful that her commander decided to nominate her for the fellowship. She said that higher-ups need to keep nominating their noncommissioned officers for the program.

“If they are not nominating people to come here, they are doing a disservice,” she said. “It’s phenomenal. It opens your eyes.”