Creating a future for vets in DC

Creating a future for vets in DC
© Greg Nash

Justin Brown is all about helping his fellow young veterans get more politically involved, half a dozen at a time. 

At least that’s how many the organization Brown founded, HillVets, currently has in Washington working as paid fellows in government positions. 

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Of those six, five are living together in the newly launched “HillVets House” — a three-bedroom apartment near the Capitol — as they gain firsthand experience in politics. 

Brown, HillVets’s board chairman and executive director, couldn’t be prouder.

“They seem to love it. It’s like ‘Jersey Shore’ meets ‘House of Cards,’ and sprinkle veterans on top,” he said recently with a laugh. 

The residential base is a testament to how far HillVets has come in just three years. 

What started as a small and determined network of veterans on Capitol Hill has turned into a full-fledged foundation with former Defense Secretary and Nebraska Sen. Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelWhite House aide moves to lobbying firm Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces Five takeaways from Pentagon chief's first major trip MORE as its advisory board chairman. The August launch of HillVets House brought together a number of big names in the Washington veteran community and featured remarks from Hagel and Veteran Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald. 

HillVets’s growing presence has made Brown, just 33 years old and currently the minority staff director of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, a rising star in the D.C. veteran sphere. 

He sat down with The Hill at Southeast Washington’s Bayou Cafe, which was converted from an old Navy hospital stable, to discuss his journey.  

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Brown joined the Navy at 17 years old. He served as an aviation electronics technician on Marine helicopters, deploying three times on the USS Boxer amphibious ship, including twice in support of the Iraq War.

After his service, Brown obtained two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Utah, one in political science and the other in sociology. There, he met Kay King, a former aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who encouraged him to make his way to D.C. to work in Congress.

He first worked for Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), now deceased, and then former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired Navy admiral. Brown then became the youngest All-American district commander and department chief of staff in the history of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). 

While at the VFW, he worked on passing the post-9/11 GI Bill, which helped student veterans pay for their college education directly, as opposed to getting a flat stipend every month, and helped increase veteran attendance at Ivy League schools.  

Brown then went to work at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from 2010 to 2013. He worked for the undersecretary for benefits — not the undersecretary of health, who oversees the VA clinics that were embroiled in scandal in 2014.

Employees at clinics were found to have doctored records to hide long wait times for veterans receiving healthcare, something Brown called “horrifying.” 

But he did see the huge backlog in claims and offered to work as the portfolio’s lead congressional liaison. 

“I thought that was where the action was, and I wanted to be in the action,” he said. 

Brown said the department whittled down the backlog from more than 600,000 to 50,000. 

In 2013, as a senior staffer on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he founded HillVets, a nonpartisan, issue-oriented group to “empower the community to empower itself.” 

One of the factors driving the group is that, despite lawmakers regularly voicing strong support for veterans, less than 3 percent of congressional staffers have served in the military. 

Brown said his goal is to get more veterans to work in D.C. and create a “revolving staircase” for them. 

Asked whether he meant a “revolving door” or a “staircase,” he stuck to his own metaphor. 

Instead of a “revolving door,” where veterans go in and out, Brown said he wants them to stay involved and continue to climb, which is what the six-month, paid HillVets House fellowship is about. 

“It’s the epitome of what we’re trying to do,” Brown said, noting that someday he hopes the HillVets House will be an actual house.

Brown said the next application deadline for a HillVets spot is in February.

“It takes your resume up a notch,” he said. 

Currently, the primary legislation Brown is working on is reforming the VA appeals process for veteran claims, known as the Appeals Modernization Act of 2016.  

Veterans now wait three years on average for a decision on their appeals, and without change, that would increase to 10 years, Brown said. There are currently 462,777 veterans’ appeals pending, and the inventory has grown by 43 percent in the past three years.

Brown also currently serves as an appointee to Fairfax County’s Economic Advisory Commission.

Brown has considered a career in public office himself, and in 2015 he ran his first race, unsuccessfully, for the Virginia House of Delegates.

“Humility is a good thing,” he said.