In just a few short weeks on Capitol Hill, Majid “Sal” Salahuddin drafted and garnered enough bipartisan support to pass his first piece of legislation.
The measure, which reinstates a reporting requirement for the Department of Veterans Affairs, was adopted as an amendment in the Senate’s version of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs spending plan.
But Salahuddin is neither a sitting congressman nor a senator – he’s a 25-year Army veteran who is part of the Vet Voice fellowship program that aims to let post-9/11 service members lend their military experience to elected officials on the Hill. Citing a congressional report, Vet Voice said only 98 veterans from that period work among the more than 6,000 employees who work on the hill.
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] Salahuddin, 42, says veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bring a unique skill set that adapts naturally to congressional work, given their interaction with locals and other workers during deployment.
“The 10-year war has made us become efficient in so many different things that we didn’t have to do in previous wars,” he said. “We didn’t have to negotiate contracts. We didn’t have to speak to tribes.”
In his case, Salahuddin helped steer a measure on behalf of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. While Salahuddin worked behind the scenes with staff to secure the support of four additional senators – including presidential contender Bernie Sanders – and a companion bill in the House, he credits the approval to his boss.
“I was the rookie in the room, so I definitely didn’t make anybody vote on my bill,” Salahuddin says with a laugh. The amendment requires the VA to report to Congress on the number of beds and employees it assigns to care for severely disabled veterans.
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] Brown said the bill Salahuddin worked on was particularly important to Paralyzed Veterans of America, a contingent of military members who don’t always get their voices heard on Capitol Hill since the nature of their injuries make travel difficult.
“We’re always looking to people who can give us kind of real world expertise,” Brown said. “There aren’t nearly enough veterans on congressional staff.”
Known as the snazzy dresser in the office – he rarely shows up without a pocket square – Salahuddin, who goes by Sal, rattles off the acronyms of veteran organizations and talks legislative policy with ease.
He served in roles in the Army ranging from administrative assistant to human resources sergeant. During a one-year deployment in Iraq, Salahuddin said he was in charge of all of the mail that came into and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, a job he called “all about morale.”
He retired as a sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank in the branch.
The D.C. native is one of five fellows working in five separate Senate offices — four Democrats and one Republican. They are a mix of service members mostly from the Army focused on foreign policy, defense and national security issues.
Citing a congressional report, Vet Voice said there were only 98 veterans working among the more than 6,000 employees who work on the hill.
Retried Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, the managing director of the Vet Voice Foundation, said many elected officials are interested in hiring veterans but often don’t because they need also need people with experience working on the Hill.
The program, Eaton said, can fix what he called “a systemic problem.”
Eaton said the program received 38 applicants for the five openings it had funding for. Fellows are paid a $5,000 monthly stipend from a donation made by the foundation. It hopes to open a second application process in August for fellowships next year.
Salahuddin, who hopes to find a more permanent role on Capitol Hill, said military experience is easily transferable to working for Congress.
“We look for the best way to come to a solution that’s going to be as non-confrontational as possible. And that works perfectly on the Hill,” he says with another laugh.