Speaking Up

April 2017

By Cody Erbacher
(read online digital version)

Personal calls, letters and emails from Guardsmen to Congress can provide the extra push required to get legislation considered

When Capt. Brian Neurohr was a young soldier, he didn’t know how to voice his opinion to his elected representatives in Washington when a legislative issue emerged that affected his National Guard unit.

Nearly 20 years later, he recognizes the same problem in young Guardsmen.

“They don’t know how to voice their concerns in the right route,” says Neurohr, a legislative representative for Army matters with the Iowa National Guard Officers Association (INGOA). “There’s a lot of people that are either uneducated or fearful so they just kind of keep it inside.”

Younger officers, he says, are often unaware that they can seek help from their state associations or a congressional office, Neurohr says. He says he understands why they feel that way since regulations prohibit service members from engaging in “political activities.”

Defense Department Directive 1344.10 states, “all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause.”

But the same directive says military members “may, however, express their personal opinions on [political issues] … when not in uniform.”

Senior military leaders have made it clear that service members may participate in the democracy they have sworn to defend.

Last June, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army chief of staff, pointed out the value of membership in associations like NGAUS. In a memo, he said they “foster military professionalism and development” and “increase the American public’s awareness of our mission.”

A couple years ago, the National Guard Bureau chief, Gen. Frank J. Grass, signed a similar memorandum.

Despite such messages, Neurohr says the number of Guardsmen contacting state associations is underwhelming.

“I’ve met a lot of my colleagues that are company-grade officers that are just like, Oh, you can do that? and I’m like, Absolutely you can,” he says.

Junior leaders are able to get involved in the political process, says Neurohr, but senior leadership must be flexible. He suggests allowing company commanders the flexibility to build this into officer professional development at the end of a training day.

Encouraging young Guardsmen to communicate with associations would strengthen state associations like INGOA, but also NGAUS. That, in turn, would benefit the Guard.

Retired Col. John Angelloz, the executive director of the National Guard Association of Louisiana, says he didn’t fully realize the benefits of these associations while in uniform.

“Your state association may already have an answer to an issue or can get the answer,” he says. “If they don’t know the answer, they have the tools to find out.”

Talking to the Hill

While state associations and NGAUS have influence, so do individual soldiers and airmen. Grassroots contact with members of Congress can be the extra push needed to get legislation across the finish line.

NGAUS provides such a conduit through its Write to Congress feature at www.ngaus.org.

But the most effective way to get attention from a congressional office is to pick up the phone, especially in concert with others, says Matt Pincus, the NGAUS senior legislative affairs manager.

“Most members of Congress care about how many calls they get on a given issue. It’s a lot easier to ignore mass emails,” says Pincus, who came to the association after working in the office of Rep. John Carney, D-Del. “When we would get like 300 letters on Obamacare and they were all the same, it didn’t look like it took any time or effort. But if you make it look like you put in the time and effort, that’s helpful.”

He also says many staffers are eager to see things for themselves. Inviting a staffer from the district office to your wing or armory can be immensely effective, he says. Even better, take them for a ride in an aircraft or vehicle.

“Those are easy things they can do, but they go a long way,” he says.

Reaching the people who work for the member of Congress is also important to getting through to the lawmaker.

Tim Bertocci, the legislative director for Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., agrees that building those relationships matters. But Bertocci, a former Army armor officer, knows that military members are often uncomfortable communicating with Congress.

“A lot of times in the military, it’s seen as a bad thing to get involved in politics,” he says. “But this isn’t politics. This is getting involved in your democracy because your voice needs to be heard.”

Congressional offices make a record of every constituent contact. Whether it is an email, phone call, tweet, website post or face-to-face chat, Bertocci says staffs monitor and track them all.

Bertocci emphasizes the importance of getting to know the staff, which is most easy to do in district or state offices. The senator or representative may never know your name, but it is not a bad thing if one of their staffers can greet you in a personal way.

“A member of Congress has to rely on their staff,” Bertocci says. “First thing, you’ve got to do the homework on what office you’re talking to. Know who you’re talking to and what their level of experience is.”

That staff carries the information to the boss, according to Bertocci, who adds that an outsider may not realize the “surprisingly big role” staffers have in the legislative process.

Staffers in the office of Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, seek out opinions from National Guard members and other constituents in their state.

According to Ernst’s communications director, Brook Hougesen, the best way to make sure the senator is aware of your concern is through the office website (www.ernst.senate.gov). Most lawmakers have similar online portals.

“Our office works to keep track of all incoming communications from constituents,” Hougesen says. “[Ernst] hears daily from folks on a variety of issues.”

But every office is like its own “kingdom,” Pincus says. Each office has a different organizational setup and its own priorities and philosophies. Because of this, Pincus suggests contacting a congressional office in a variety of ways to ensure your voice is heard.

Another NGAUS staffer with experience on Capitol Hill is Elle Ross, the legislative affairs manager for Army programs, who worked for Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. She advises those planning to reach out to a congressional office to make sure you “create relationships, communicate and participate.”

Ross recommends drafting a well-thought-out letter or email, or just setting aside time to make a phone call. Adding that sense of personality, she says, will go a long way.

“Those are the things that if you do properly,” she says, “you can be extremely effective.”

CODY ERBACHER can be contacted at 202-408-5892 or at cody.erbacher@ngaus.org.