On a Mission to Draw In Veterans

Posted March 3, 2008 at 6:38pm

The long hours and high stress of working on Capitol Hill tend to create a lot of close-knit staffs. But the bond formed in the office of freshman Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) goes far beyond shared work experiences in Washington.

Webb’s D.C. office includes eight military veterans — “It’s nine if you count the Senator,” staff assistant Greg Willett points out — ranging in responsibility from intern to legislative assistant.

So the relationships in the office stretch not just around Virginia and the country, but around military posts across the world.

Webb sets the tone for the office with his service as a Marine in Vietnam and as assistant secretary of defense and Navy secretary.

“People naturally gravitate toward people with a similar experience, and we share what Sen. Webb went through when he came out of Vietnam,” said Will Wyche, an intern who served five years in the Army, including a year in Iraq. “It’s pretty cool to share that with a Senator.”

Two members of Webb’s staff share connections with the Senator’s son, Jimmy. Intern Ryan Kennedy, 28, served as a Marine alongside Jimmy Webb in Ramadi, Iraq.

And Rafael Anderson, a 23-year-old staff assistant who is in the Army Reserve, had a brother who was a close friend and high school football teammate of the Senator’s son. Anderson’s brother, a combat engineer, was killed by artillery fire in Iraq in 2006.

Anderson said both the Senator and Jimmy Webb attended his brother’s memorial service.

“Sen. Webb understands,” Anderson said. “His son went overseas, and he understands the day-in, day-out worries of, ‘Is my son going to make it through the day?’”

Concerted Effort

It’s no coincidence that the veterans have landed in Webb’s office. Rather, it’s in keeping with the Senator’s overall effort to integrate veterans back into civilian life.

“Veterans have gone through experiences and know how to get things done,” Webb said. “They also deserve the opportunity. … You’ll see when you talk to them the type of service they’ve given our country.”

Webb was a staffer on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee from 1977 to 1981, and he hopes to form a clearinghouse through which veterans can get jobs on Capitol Hill.

He said he has spoken with other Senators and encouraged them to reach out to veterans to spread the word through the military that veterans can find work in Congress.

“My philosophy when it comes to staff is I wanted to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally be on Capitol Hill,” Webb said. “We’ve got some community college kids working for us. I wanted my staff to reflect the society at-large.”

The veterans appear to relish the chance.

“This was a great opportunity for me to get in the door up here on Capitol Hill,” Willett said. “As a veteran, it’s a real jump-start for me, to be able to work for someone I can really get behind. It’s been great for me.”

Webb is helping them because he understands the difficult transition from soldier to civilian, the veterans said.

“For a lot of people it’s a big decision to figure out what they’re going to do when they get out of combat,” Wyche said. “Sen. Webb’s been a proponent of veterans ever since he got out of Vietnam.”

Shared Mission

Webb’s staff members said they are on board with the legislative agenda their boss is pushing. That includes a new GI Bill — which Webb introduced on his first day in office and refined last week — to increase educational benefits for veterans.

“Sen. Webb was fortunate enough to get his law degree after Vietnam courtesy of the World War II-era GI Bill,” Willett said, noting that fellow Virginia Sen. John Warner (R) got his bachelor’s and law degrees on the bill, too. Webb “wants us to receive the same benefits they received.”

The legislation would provide the equivalent of four years of in-state college tuition for veterans who have served three or more years of active-duty service since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Any veteran with at least three months of active-duty service would qualify for some benefit.

The bill also includes a new program in which the government would match any additional money a private college donated to a veteran’s education.

Veterans today receive only a fraction of the educational benefits they used to — an average of $6,000 per year, Webb said, “which in some cases isn’t enough to cover community college.”

Warner, a former Navy secretary and former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, signed on to the bill just last week.

“I would not be a United States Senator if not for the GI Bill,” Warner said Thursday in a colloquy on the floor with Webb and two other veterans and co-sponsors of the legislation, Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

The bill, which is supported by a number of veterans’ groups, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, now has 34 Senate co-sponsors. Webb said he expects it to move forward soon.

Webb also is pushing legislation to guarantee soldiers a 1-to-1 ratio of combat time to “dwell time.” Wyche said a lack of time stateside is causing soldiers — himself included — to leave the military. The bill received 56 votes in September but succumbed to a Republican filibuster.

Familiar Faces, Common Experiences

The legislative assistants crafting Webb’s military and veterans agenda are all military men, too. Gordon Peterson, who knows the Senator from their days as classmates at the Naval Academy in the 1960s and, like Webb, served in Vietnam, handles the Senator’s Armed Services Committee portfolio.

And William Edwards, 33, a 10-year veteran of the Army who still is in the reserves, staffs Webb’s work on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and is managing the GI Bill.

(Edwards, incidentally, replaced Phillip Thompson, a former Marine and friend of Webb’s who was arrested last year for carrying Webb’s loaded handgun into the Russell Senate Office Building. Charges against Thompson eventually were dropped, and he left Webb’s office in the fall.)

Finally there is Nelson Jones, who said he has “known Sen. Webb basically forever.” They met at the Naval Academy in 1968 (Jones was the first African-American from Texas to graduate from the Navy) and reunited at Georgetown law school in the 1970s. Jones, 58, works on judiciary and banking issues.

“We’ve got incredible breadth and depth in our veterans’ experience,” said Peterson, 61. “We’ve walked in one another’s shoes — or boots, as the case may be — and that’s the cause of our common empathy.”

All of the veterans but Jones are native Virginians.

Webb has interviewed every staff member he has hired, interns included. These talks gave the staffers a chance to share their military experiences with the Senator.

The younger staff members who served in Iraq said they share many views on the conflict with Webb, who opposed the war from the start and has been a vocal critic in the Senate.

“I was in Iraq early on and I saw how poorly planned the administration was,” said Wyche, 27. “The body armor issues … nobody knew what an IED was. Nobody knew the difference between Sunni and Shia. It wasn’t the Army’s fault, but the administration was just unprepared for what we were going to see in Iraq.”

Have the staff members taken any criticism from fellow soldiers about working for a critic of the war?

“A lot of my peers and junior officers actually share my opinions,” said Wyche, who went to West Point and was a captain when he left the Army. “A lot of them are impressed by my work with Sen. Webb.”

“Over the years, there’s been a lot less pushback,” Kennedy added. “I mean, we’ve been over there what, five years?”

Grateful to Serve — Again

The staff members said they are grateful to Webb for bringing them on board. But besides the work opportunity, Anderson has another reason to be thankful.

“Sen. Webb has always taken time to introduce me to figures from higher up in the military and let them know the sacrifice people like my brother gave to our country,” Anderson said. “It really touches me every time he pulls me aside and tells my story.

Webb introduced Anderson to Gen. David Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq.

“It’s one way Sen. Webb’s always keeping my brother’s name out there,” Anderson said. “One thing I asked Sen. Webb was to never let my brother’s name be forgotten, and he’s taken ahold of that.”

The younger veterans have a range of career plans.

Willett, who joined the Marine Corps straight out of high school and served in Iraq, is hoping to get his undergraduate degree at Georgetown.

Wyche said he will pursue a master’s in national security and hopes to return to Capitol Hill or elsewhere in the government.

“This is a great launching pad for everyone to move into this office,” Wyche said.

Webb has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick. So, what are Anderson’s future plans?

“Following Sen. Webb to the White House,” he said with a smile.