As a girl, Samantha Gonzalez already was part of the political machine - the roofless type, rolling slowly along the parade routes of her hometown.
Her mom was the first female city judge in Hammond, Ind., and that early introduction to government had a lasting effect.
“My family has been very service-oriented, very civic-minded,” says Gonzalez, who is senior professional staff member for the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
MOAA will present Gonzalez on April 17 with its Colonel Paul W. Arcari Meritorious Service Award for her outstanding contributions in support of the military community. The Arcari award, which honors congressional staff members who have made significant contributions to the uniformed services community, is named for the retired officer who led MOAA's Government Relations Department from 1990 until 2001.
While studying political science and government at Indiana University Bloomington, Gonzalez attended the university's Washington Leadership Program - a semester in the capital - her junior year. She had a pick of internships, including veterans' affairs.
“It seemed like the most hands-on of the internships they offered,” she says. “It was my first time getting a feel for what Congress does - what policy is.”
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It also was her first exposure to veterans.
“I just really fell for it,” she says.
Following the internship, she kept in touch with coworkers in Washington, and early on as a staff assistant, she found “lots of opportunity to get involved,” she says. Of course, she also answered phones and took care of the mail.
“From there, I got more involved in the health policy,” Gonzalez explains.
The first time she drafted questions for testimony - and they got asked - stands out.
“I really thought that was just the coolest thing,” she says.
When the Affordable Care Act passed the House was another defining moment. Though that law had little to do with veterans, it was enough to call in the staff on a weekend. It gave her the feeling that the work she was doing was important to the national conversation.
While conducting field hearings on what to do with a historic VA facility in South Dakota, Gonzalez was surprised at “how incredibly engaged the community was - that they feel very passionate about their facility.”
During her time as a research assistant and now as senior professional staff member, she's been there for the issues surrounding mental health, suicide, community care, wait times, homelessness, and facility construction.
“Part of why I've stayed this long and still feel passionate about doing it, after eight years, is it keeps me thinking fast - keeps me on my toes,” Gonzalez says.
The issue of VA accessibility hasn't slowed down and doesn't promise to.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez has had something on her mind that's not easy to articulate: how we, as a nation, talk about servicemembers and veterans as though they're “a needy population in some ways,” she says - when in reality, those people are highly skilled and motivated. Rather, she'd like to see Americans emphasize the positive side of military service.