Veterans shift from military strategy to campaign strategy

At The George Washington University’s Center for Second Service, a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are learning how to run for Congress. 

The Second Service Fellowship Program, which is designed for military veterans who want to run for Congress or continue a career in public service, welcomed its first class of six fellows in January. Their backgrounds range from the Air Force to the Army, and they come from places like Butler, Pa., and West Point, Miss. They all share one goal in common: to make sure the voices of veterans get heard in Congress. 

“My dad used to always say to me, ‘Only 1 percent of the American population are military. So the other 99 percent don’t get it. And those 99 percent are the ones making decisions where the money’s going,” said Tammi Lambert, a Second Service fellow who is the third generation in her family to join the military. 

By the end of this year, Lambert and the other fellows will have been coached on how to launch a political campaign from the ground up, from raising funds to building coalitions. All the fellows have full-time jobs during the day. By evening, they take courses from GW’s School of Political Management. Fellows are also matched with mentors in the political arena and attend weekend-long workshops that cover the obstacles veteran candidates face.

The term “second service” describes veterans who choose to go into public service rather than return to civilian life. It’s a calling many veterans throughout American history are familiar with. But unlike their predecessors, the new crop of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking office hope to change the status quo.

“You get there as a junior officer and you see how decisions being made in Congress affect you. Or you’re flying in airplane that is 60 years old for 24 hours in a reconnaissance operation, and the next thing you know they’re cutting a billion dollars from the Defense budget,” said Patrick Garvey, a former Navy reservist who went on to serve as former Sen. Dick Lugar’s (R-Ind.) point man on Iraq. “You get to wondering whose making these decisions.”

Veterans from the later wars can also count more women and minorities in their ranks, and have joined the forces coming from a wide array of career paths. Lambert, a native of Washington, D.C., was a single mother and had already finished college when she decided to enlist in the Army as a behavioral therapist. On the day the war in Iraq was announced, Lambert and her combat stress unit were en route to Iraq. Treating soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder gave Lambert a perspective into the condition that not many in Congress have. 

“Until you’ve actually experienced it, you won’t really understand what PTSD really means,” Lambert said. “You won’t understand why all those undiagnosed soldiers with PTSD can’t get a job. 

The overall number of military veterans in Congress is the lowest it has been for the past 40 years —a cause of concern for many in the defense community. And few are like Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who’s experienced the complexities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars first-hand. 

“What ends up being lost is the ability to understand how the military works, how the military makes decisions, how the Pentagon works,” Garvey said.

For the last class before finals week, Lambert and her fellow students in professor Mark Meissner’s “Campaign Strategy” class met in a conference room in the lush offices of lobbying firm Holland & Knight, where Meissner works as a senior strategist. The entire semester, the students had been at work designing a campaign plan to run for office in their hometowns or districts. That night, students were grilled by Meissner and fellow students in a simulation of an interview with the editorial board of their hometown newspaper. Everyone had come dressed in professional attire. 

“I’m hoping to give you more of an authentic experience,” Meissner joked to the class. 

Rob Joswiak, a Second Service fellow, simulated a run for office in his home district in Pennsylvania. At one point, Meissner asked Joswiak what his being a veteran would bring to the table. Joswiak’s response was that he felt that it was his status as a new veteran specifically that would make him a valuable voice in Congress. 

“How many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans do we have in Congress right now? How many people do we have that have lived abroad and actually spent time in these countries where we’re spending billions of dollars?” Joswiak asked.

When it comes to politics, veterans aren’t a unified group. Meissner, who has also taught veterans in the center’s campaign training workshops, says his classes are equally split between Democrats and Republicans. He said he’s found that even if veteran students differed in their political beliefs, they shared a certain camaraderie. 

“They had a bond that went beyond politics,” Meissner said.

He pointed out that while voters will likely find the veterans’ military background appealing, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will be at a disadvantage when it comes to professional contacts. 

“Especially if they’re younger, they don’t really have that networking base that a lot of people in politics would have,” Meissner said. 

Both Joswiak, who just became a presidential management fellow at the Office of Personnel Management, and Demond Matthews, another Second Service fellow who is a former commissioned officer in the Air Force, are worried that finances will affect their run for public office. While Joswiak is planning on running for Congress in the coming few years, Matthews is on the fence. 

“Politics — in me — has always been a life ambition. But as you get older you start learning the schematics of politics,” Matthews said. “One of the things you notice is that it’s a little less about the issue and more about the money and the alliances you form.”

—This post has been corrected from an earlier version.

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