Tired of Being Ignored by Washington, Military Families Are Taking Charge in Politics

Out-of-touch policies that don’t do enough for our veterans may have met their match.

(Photo: Daniel Bendjy/Getty Images)

Jun 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

Last winter, as Congress debated cutting retirement benefits for America’s veterans, Patie Powers started listening. She’d never been one for engaging in politics or lobbying for a cause. For most of her adult life, Powers had been too busy pursuing a career, raising three kids, and moving around the world with her Navy pilot husband.

But as the wife of a recently retired veteran and a professional financial advisor to military families, Powers realized her own family’s fate was in the hands of people who knew little or nothing about the sacrifices and realities of military life.

Generations ago, the campaign trail was rife with uniformed members of the armed services—a stint in the military was practically a prerequisite for getting elected to political office in America. Among the members of the 95th Congress serving in 1978, 77 percent were veterans. By 2013, a Brookings Institution report found that only about 20 percent of U.S. Senators and Representatives had ever served. These days, the Senate and House are filled with lawyers, businesspeople, and professional politicians.

These are the people who decide whether our nation goes to war. They choose how the country will support the thousands of troops coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq, bearing visible and invisible battle scars and seeking employment. And Patie Powers isn’t the only one worried about them.

During those same weeks when Congress was dancing around cuts to veterans’ benefits, an attorney named Mary Reding and two defense consultants, Lauren Weiner and Donna Huneycutt, were also listening carefully. Together, these military spouses discussed the challenge of getting Washington’s predominantly civilian elite to make truly informed decisions about military matters.

Within days, something fascinating started brewing that may transform the face of future congressional classes. Harnessing the let’s-fix-this attitude so common within military families, Reding, Weiner, and Huneycutt formed an organization called Homefront Rising.

Mobilizing friends and colleagues, they garnered support from the American Military Partner Association, the Military Officers Association of America, and the nonpartisan Women Impacting Public Policy, all with one goal in mind: To prepare ambitious, accomplished military spouses to run for political office.

In the past decade, Congress has depended on advocates to explain the needs of the military community to them, said Lori Volkman, a Navy Reserve spouse and a spokesperson for Homefront Rising. “Wouldn’t it be so much more powerful if we had some congressionals who already had that base knowledge, and had that experience?” she said.

Today’s military spouses are as likely to be physicians or lawyers as they are to be stay-at-home parents, Volkman said. America would benefit if these accomplished people who know military life and have built thriving careers in law, business, or other fields could get elected and take a meaningful seat at the table.

At the first Homefront Rising event, held in Washington, D.C., this past February, a crowd of 75 military spouses took notes and seized the chance to network. The speakers included Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), along with influential political consultants and campaign communications directors. The blunt discussion covered building a public image, financing and managing a campaign, and effectively pitching policy to lawmakers.

One supporter of the event was She Should Run, an organization that coaches women on how to seek elected office. Several groups also offer guidance to women and to veterans who want to get elected, Volkman said, but Homefront Rising is the first to offer training sessions specifically designed for military spouses who want to wade into the political process.

Powers was among those who attended the event in February, and she said it was enlightening to hear how Washington really works from the people who run the place. She has signed up to attend Homefront Rising’s second training session in Tampa, Fla., on June 19, and she’s curious to see how many future candidates will emerge from the process.

Some military spouses who attended the first Homefront Rising event are looking to campaign for office in 2016, Volkman said. Others aren’t sure they’ll run, but they are committed to learning more about the ways things actually work in our nation’s capital.

“Right now,” Powers said, “I really want to learn more about how to become a part of the process as an active participant.” She’d never seriously considered holding political office before discovering Homefront Rising. But the knowledge and inspiration she’s gaining has her open to the possibility.

“I’ve never been someone who doesn’t take an opportunity,” she said.