In June 2001, a young Ryan Croft watched as President George W. Bush dedicated the National D-Day Memorial in his hometown of Bedford, Va., which suffered the highest percentage of casualties per capita on June 6, 1944.
Croft, a Capitol Hill staffer, is now being deployed to the Middle East with the same regiment — the 116th Infantry Regiment with the Virginia National Guard — that “The Bedford Boys” made famous. Being from Bedford "made me have not only a sense of pride, but also determination to do my part as they did, and to help protect this country from threats that we face at home and abroad,” Croft said in a phone interview.
The 30-year-old sergeant will deploy to the Middle East this month, leaving behind a job as a legislative assistant with Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis. Croft hopes to return to Capitol Hill, but he is fulfilling a lifelong dream of serving in the military.
"I was thinking, 'When I’m 50 years old, how would I look back on the time I’m spending right now?'" Croft said, explaining his decision to enlist in the National Guard in 2013. "I felt that something was missing in my life.”
Croft said that despite his interest in the military, he began working for a mortgage company after graduating from the University of Virginia. He also had a passion for politics, leading him to a job with the College Republican National Committee and later with the National Republican Congressional Committee.
When he realized he wanted to explore policymaking, he began networking with Capitol Hill contacts and landed a job in Grothman's office. Then, over the summer, he found out he was going to be deployed with the National Guard.
“When I enlisted and I swore an oath to the Constitution, I knew that this was a possibility, and I knew that we’ve been at war constantly since 2001," Croft said. "And I knew the call would probably come at some point, for whatever reason.”
Croft could not disclose many details about his mission, but said he would be in the Middle East working as a fire team leader with an infantry unit. Croft explained that he was looking forward to gaining a new perspective on the region, which he studied in college.
He would like to return to Capitol Hill when his deployment ends in the fall of 2016 and hopes to continue working with a focus on foreign policy.
“I like the fast-paced nature of the Hill,” Croft said. He later added, “I love policy and I love politics, and it’s a good mixture of all of them, and that’s why I want to go back when I come back.”
For Croft's former boss, his deployment brings the sacrifices of servicemen and women close to home.
"His deployment is a vivid reminder that so many great servicemen and women put their lives on the line so that we can enjoy the freedom of living in the greatest country in the world," Grothman said in a statement, adding that he and his staff look forward to welcoming Croft when he returns.
If Croft returns to Capitol Hill, he would be among 98 veterans working in congressional offices, according to HillVets, a group focused on boosting veterans' participation in government.
According to the Legistorm database, more than 16,000 people work for House and Senate offices, so veterans comprise less than 1 percent of congressional staff. The figure is also indicative of a national trend.
“Our modern conflicts, it’s a very, very small percentage of the population who actually deploys and fights in the country’s wars," HillVets board member Sean Foertsch said in a phone interview.
Asked about the ramifications of those small percentages, Foertsch said, “Part of it is I don’t think people feel the immediacy of the conflict. ... That affects policy as well. When the American public feels distant about a way, we make our decisions differently."
Foertsch currently works at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but he spent over a decade as a congressional staffer. He has been deployed overseas with the Navy both during and after his stint on the Hill, including a deployment to Afghanistan.
In Foertsch's view, veterans bring a unique set of skills to congressional offices, including the ability to be flexible, work well in a team, multitask and work effectively under pressure. Each returning veteran faces his or her own challenges, Foertsch said, but Capitol Hill is well-suited for veterans looking to continue working with a sense of purpose.
"That sense of purpose certainly exists on Capitol Hill." Foertsch said. "[Hill staffers] all feel like they’re working for the American people.”
That sense of purpose and patriotism is also what moves Croft to return to Capitol Hill when he comes home.
“Will I be different? Sure," Croft said, reflecting on his return. "I will have a different world of experience under my belt.”
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