Award-winning Hill Staffer Fights for Veteran Benefits Behind the Scenes

Award-winning Hill Staffer Fights for Veteran Benefits Behind the Scenes
(Photo by Mike Morones for MOAA)

[Note from MOAA: Tony McClain is a recipient of MOAA's Colonel Paul W. Arcari Meritorious Service Award, which honors congressional staffers who have made significant contributions in support of the military community. Read about all of MOAA's 2019 award winners here.]

By Kristin Davis

On the desk inside his office on Capitol Hill, Tony McClain keeps a framed photograph of his grandfather taken 80 years ago, when the world was at war. Like many in McClain's generation, he grew up with grandparents who answered their country's call to service.

When McClain left his native Kansas for Washington, D.C., 15 years ago, he brought the memory of his grandfather with him, first as an unpaid intern and then as a legislative assistant.

Later, as a staff director assigned to the Subcommittee on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce, he looked at ways government agencies could collaborate more on veterans' issues like mental health care, disability claim backlogs, and VA access.

He relied on experts - including many at MOAA - to educate him on the issues and help find solutions. The knowledge and experience he gained left him well-positioned for his latest role as staff director for the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee (SVAC) under Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.

“Veterans issues are among those that everybody likes to claim they support,” McClain says. “But it's more a matter of rolling up your sleeves and working hard to find solutions.”

McClain would know. As minority staff director, he actively facilitated roundtables with military and veterans service organizations. He helped pass legislation to reform community care and expand caregiver support programs and was instrumental in increasing health care funding for veterans. He also kept VA health care discussions bipartisan and bicameral.

All the while, the image of his grandfather, Cecil McClain, seemed to keep watch.

“When the end result is good policy and not a political outcome, it's much easier to find a path forward,” says McClain.

McClain credits Tester and SVAC Chair Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) for setting a tone that led to 25 pieces of major legislation that ultimately will improve the lives of veterans. All have been signed into law.

The award from MOAA, he says, is humbling. “People in my position are most comfortable working behind the scenes on behalf of our bosses. We take direction and guidance from them, and work to carry out their agendas. This award is something I am honored to receive, but I do so on behalf of a team of my colleagues.”

And the work isn't over yet.

“We've accomplished a great deal with MOAA's help,” McClain says. “Moving forward, we will work diligently with them and other advocates to ensure the VA implements those reforms as veterans expect and deserve.”

Related reading: MOAA's 2019 Award Winners.

Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe

Sen. Jon Tester

Distinguished Service Award

Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Dana Bowman


Colonel Paul W. Arcari Meritorious Service Award

Former Staff Sgt. Ray Kelley

Tony McClain

Retired Lt. Col. Dan Sennott