October 10, 2010
A Year on the Hill
What the Fellows Say
Payback and Beyond
Wounded Warrior Program
By Gina DiNicolo
Each year they ascend Capitol Hill, 100 strong. They hail from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and beyond. They’re called fellows — Defense Legislative Fellows, to be precise — and they have a coveted opportunity.
Though there are assorted fellowships around Washington, D.C., military officers, government civilians, and senior enlisted leaders can compete to work inside Congress for a year. The fellows and their services, lawmakers, and congressional staffs reap rewards.
DoD is responsible for the Legislative Fellows program and has overseen its recent metamorphosis. DoD needs must be met first, but Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates — whom many credit with the program’s resurgence — has extended the military fellow opportunity to 14 congressional committees. The program has surged in popularity.
In the 1990s, the services had just one-third the fellows they place on the Hill today, according to Suzanne McCollum, the Army’s congressional fellowship coordinator. In the late 1990s, the Army embraced the program and ratcheted up its efforts; the Army placed 13 fellows with Congress in 1999.
The Marine Corps experienced a similar surge, thanks to then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James L. Jones, according to former fellow Marine Master Sgt. William “Spanky” Gibson. By 2003, the program hit another low across DoD, for reasons unknown. Army ranks dropped to just six, according to McCollum. The program languished until Gates breathed new life into it and set ambitious goals. Defense fellows increased from 26 to 100 in three years.
DoD sets the number of fellowships allotted to each service. The Army’s share is 24 servicemembers and one civilian. The Navy may send 20 servicemembers and two civilians. The Marine Corps’ share is 13 servicemembers and two civilians, while the Air Force is allotted 32 servicemembers and four civilians. Two remaining civilians come from other defense agencies.
Participant selection today is exacting and varies to meet the needs of each service. Gone are the days of congressional by-name requests bypassing the selection process. With some exceptions, the program is open to the ranks of captain through lieutenant colonel (lieutenant through commander for the Navy). The Marine Corps allows first lieutenants. The Air Force is looking for promotable captains and majors, or those selected for their next rank. According to Army fellow Maj. Chunae Zoh, ARNG, the services are choosing younger officers. “The active-component officers are captains and junior majors,” he says. Zoh notes the more senior officers tend to be from the National Guard and Reserve.
“The move to junior officers happened quickly and is apparent in Army,” adds Army Lt. Col. Paul Taylor, who is in the “payback,” or utilization, phase of his Army fellowship. “With the younger [servicemembers], there is more opportunity for them to serve in future legislative tours,” Taylor says.
Beginning in 2009, the military congressional fellows program was opened to senior enlisted servicemembers for each service. Rank varies by service, with the Corps giving the nod to E-6 through E-9 and the Army targeting E-8 through E-9.
According to McCollum, the Army wants soldiers with multiple and recent deployments. “They also must be articulate, with strong interpersonal skills,” she says.
“We want to showcase the soldier and the Army. Fewer members and staffs have served in the military. Our fellows can help with knowledge and insight these offices may not have,” says McCollum.
Wounded warriors also are a part of the program. McCollum says one applicant wanted the opportunity to share his experiences with congressional leaders to help them better understand wounded-warrior challenges. “He wanted to put a face on the issue,” she said.
For the few civilian slots, competition is stiff. Eligible grades vary by service, though typically the program looks for grades GS-12 and GS-13 or the equivalent. A few civilian fellows have gone back to the Hill to permanently work for the congressional member they served during the fellowship, according to Taylor.
All applicants must include a résumé and a writing sample. One important component is an essay explaining the relevance of the program to the applicant’s work. Final selections are made by DoD.
Then the real work begins.
A Year on the Hill
The fellows draw up a list of congressional members with whom they’d like to serve and interview office to office until chosen.
Despite limitations, choices have exploded. At one time fellows were restricted to the Armed Services and Defense Appropriations committees, recalls McCollum. Today, according to Eileen Lainez with the office of the secretary of defense for public affairs, fellows may work with members of the Senate and House Armed Services committees; the Senate and House Defense Appropriations subcommittees; the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; the House Committee on Homeland Security; the Senate and House Foreign Relations committees; or the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs committees or with the staff of the speaker of the House or with the House or Senate majority or minority leader. A member on the agriculture committee, for example, is not someone DoD targets.
On rare occasions, a fellow will join the professional staff of one of the committees. Gibson, a veteran of two wars who lost a portion of his leg in Iraq to a bullet in 2006, was sent to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “They had me slated without a single interview,” he says.
Beyond service on the Hill, each service’s fellowship regimen varies. For example, the Army recently has added a master’s degree to its program and is the only service to offer such an opportunity. Fellows earn an advanced degree in legislative affairs from nearby George Washington University. Soldiers and civilian participants spend their first six months studying before heading to Capitol Hill. They continue their studies during the evenings the rest of the year.
Other services offer a certificate from a two-and-a-half-week orientation given by Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. Fellows in this program receive a crash course in testimony, the appropriations and authorization processes, the congressional committee process, and other topics concerning the legislative branch of government.
Following their work at Georgetown University, Marines, for example, spend a few weeks in the Corps’ legislative affairs office learning the congressional ropes. They might answer congressional inquiries — something they perhaps will continue to do in a member’s office.
In an effort to expose more officers to the workings of Congress, the Army created an 89-day fellowship program in 2007 in addition to its one-year program. It has been open to “action” officers at the Army’s Pentagon headquarters, according to McCollum. “We’d like to expose as many soldiers as possible to working with Congress,” she says.
Once the fellows arrive in their congressional offices, many find they are the most knowledgeable person there on military matters and quickly become valued members of the staff.
What the Fellows Say
That has been the experience of Zoh, an Army fellow for a second time. Zoh took part in the Army’s 89-day program and was so excited about his experience, he applied for the yearlong fellowship.
Zoh was commissioned from ROTC, served three years as an armor officer, and later joined the National Guard. He became a full-time guardmember at the Army National Guard Headquarters in Arlington, Va. With self-deprecating humor he refers to himself as a “cube rat.”
The 11-course master’s program has been crucial, he says. “I think we are so well-prepared. We gain an understanding of the complex relationships between the executive branch — our branch as military officers — and the legislative branch, where we work. That knowledge puts us way ahead. We participate at a deeper and more meaningful level,” says Zoh.
Zoh works on the staff of New York Rep. Steve Israel, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee and previously served on the House Armed Services Committee. Zoh also worked for Israel his first time on the Hill. Though officially he is a defense fellow, Zoh works as Israel’s military legislative assistant or MLA. He is immersed in the daily workings as Israel’s military point man, and Zoh’s satisfaction is evident. He spoke of an encounter with representatives from activist group Code Pink who were calling for the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq: “It could have become hostile, but I listened to them and they listened to me. While we did not agree, I think we walked away with a better understanding of one another’s positions on this issue,” Zoh recalls.
Taylor, who worked for Texas Sen. John Cornyn, says generally those on the House side might handle the entire defense portfolio. “On the Senate side, that’s rare. Staffs are much larger,” he says.
“No matter your role, you are an emissary for the Army on the Hill. Later, the relationships and knowledge will help the Army,” Taylor says.
Gibson’s experience is a rarity. He spent a year as a member of the professional staff for the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Given my military experience and that as a wounded warrior, the members and the staff saw me as credible. I was involved with veterans’ legislation from the beginning,” he explains.
He says he was able to affect legislation. “I helped get funding for veterans to participate in the Paralympics,” Gibson says.
Gibson’s view of his role on the Hill differs from those expressed by the other fellows. He and other Marines are there “to communicate the effect of actions by the Hill on the operating force,” he says. He also says he sees it as his responsibility to explain to members of Congress the transition of wounded warriors.
Payback and Beyond
After their time on the Hill, Zoh, Taylor, and Gibson, like most fellows, will spend two years putting the skills and relationships they’ve gained to work for their services. Taylor and Gibson already have started their utilization phase working in their services’ legislative offices.
Zoh, who has not yet finished his congressional assignment, has ideas of how he can help the Army.
“I’ve seen what the committees and members expect. I feel like I have good information on how to prepare senior leaders. I think I can show them how to interact with members [and] how to talk to them in terms they appreciate,” he explains.
But it is the little things that count, Zoh says. “I hope to bring back the small things, the subtleties, the nuances that this time on the Hill has afforded me.”
Wounded Warrior Program
A distinct Wounded Warrior Program provides two-year fellowship opportunities within the House of Representatives for wounded veterans. To be eligible for the program, applicants must have a 30-percent or greater service-connected disability rating, have served on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, and have less than 20 years of service. Though some fellowships are located in Washington, D.C, most are at the district offices of representatives.
The program was established at the direction of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Committee on House Administration Chair Rep. Robert Brady.
About the author: Contributing Editor Gina DiNicolo is a retired Marine Corps officer.
Copyright Gina DiNicolo and Mlitary Officers Association of America. All rights reserved.