Marine climbs ladder to success with fellowship
August 3, 2012
Almost two years have passed seemingly, at warp speed, for Master Gunnery Sgt. Julius D. Spain Sr. On Oct. 1, 2010, Spain departed the Henderson Hall portion of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, where he served as battalion adjutant/ S-1 chief, Headquarters and Service Battalion, Headquarters Marine Corps.
The noncommissioned officer was selected as only one of two staff NCOs Marine Corps-wide, for the 2011 Marine Corps Congressional Fellowship Program on Capitol Hill. He was in the third fellowship class of Marine staff NCOs ever to work there.
Spain completed his assignment and is now assigned to the Pentagon as the enlisted advisor for Brig. Gen. Steven R. Rudder, legislative assistant to the commandant of the Marine Corps.
"We made a conscious decision a few years ago to put staff NCOs on the hill in fellowship positions. It started with Master Sgt. Spanky Gibson," said Rudder. "First, there were people both in the Marine Corps and on the hill who were a bit reluctant to take staff NCOs because everybody wanted a major or lieutenant colonel. However, the Marine Corps had enough trust and confidence in our staff NCOs to represent the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense on the hill."
Spain worked at the Marine Corps office of Legislative Affairs in the Pentagon for three months of congressional training prior to his fellowship on Capitol Hill. "During that time, I was interviewed for a tentative assignment to an elected member's office on the hill," said Spain. "A couple of months after I went to the Pentagon, I received confirmation from Senator [Johnny] Isakson's office inviting me to be a part of his staff."
On Jan. 3, 2011, Spain traded his Marine Corps uniform for business attire when he went to work in Isakson's office as the Georgia senator's defense legislative fellow.
"Senator Isakson sits on the foreign relations and veteran affairs committees," said Spain. "The foreign relations committee suited me well because I did an extensive tour at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium."
The Marine also said he was able to offer different perspectives in the area of veterans' affairs. "He [Isakson], along with his military legislative assistant and staff want to know what we [servicemembers] think is important," Spain said. "The fellowship program is a learning process. We're not there to implement any policy. We're there primarily to learn and assist.
"It was a great tour," he said. "Senator Isakson is one of a kind -- a gentleman, a family man and he served in the Air Force as a staff sergeant. He appreciates what we do as members of the military and he also knows what our Families go through."
Spain said what impressed him most about Capitol Hill was, "Although we have our elected members working on policies, who are casting the votes, we have a lot of patriots -- American citizens, young and ambitious -- out there doing a lot of good work day in and day out. You find an appreciation for them and what they do.
"Every day is different," he continued. "Keep in mind with 535 people on the hill, there's a lot of different personalities. When the time is called, they are able to come together to support the senator and go forth with his mission and desires. That was in unison here in Washington, D.C., and back in his home state."
Spain said he was impressed with the professionalism of the staff and learning the ins and outs of Congress. A University of Maryland graduate with a degree in political science, he understood the process of how bills become laws and the intricacies of how government is operated.
Spain also left the hill to travel to Georgia twice to visit military installations and constituents there. "What I enjoyed was having the opportunity to speak with defense industry officials about their concerns and give them some advice back in [Isakson's] home state," he said. "They would come up with some initiatives that they'd like to see happen, and I was able to talk with them about it, advise the appropriate staff members and just hear their concerns. What we do up here affects not only the installations in the state but the constituents around the installation as well as jobs and schools," said Spain.
He also went on a trip to Georgia for a military day. "We went to Dobbins Air Force Base and the senator and the entire Georgia delegation brought in representatives from the service academies to meet-and-greet high school seniors," said Spain. "We went on another trip to six installations to see if there were any concerns and issues on the bases that the senator should be made aware of. I was the Department of Defense lead for that trip."
In addition to the specialty areas Spain was assigned to help with during his fellowship in Isakson's office, the Marine said, "There are a number of other areas the senator works in. For example, he's on the ethics committee -- and just to be able to observe and sit in on some of those meetings was great." He said he enjoyed it and he learned a lot during his year on Capitol Hill. "I was honored to be up there. Those experiences I gained will help me out in the Marine Corps," said Spain.
Spain said this year the fellowship program selected three staff NCOs to work on Capitol Hill as well as about 12 commissioned officers from the ranks of captain to lieutenant colonel and there is usually one federal civilian employee in a government service grade GS11 or higher. "We go through a number of classes at Georgetown University, including introductory classes about rules, sessions, bills, appropriations and how things work on Capitol Hill to familiarize us with everyday life there," said Spain.
Spain has been working at the Pentagon for about five months. The current master gunnery sergeant working at the Marine Corps OLA is about to retire, said Spain. "I'll be the first [congressional] fellow to assume the role of senior enlisted advisor, upon his retirement.
"He'll be the face of those portfolio items that affect our Corps on the hill," said Rudder. "Master Gunnery Sergeant Spain will project himself within the Marine Corps as the senior enlisted advisor for the sergeant major and commandant [of the Marine Corps], for initiatives and events that will require him to weigh in at the bigger level," he said.
Rudder explained there are both civilians and Marines employed at the Office of Legislative Affairs who work a specific portfolio, including programs, logistics, and military construction. "Master Gun's portfolio will be wide, mostly focusing on enlisted Marine issues whether it is transition assistance programs, post traumatic stress disorders or wounded warrior care, it will be a diverse portfolio," he said. "If you step back from all the media attention on Congress and the elections, the one thing continues to resonate with Congress, and that's taking care of our servicemembers in general," said Rudder. "I hope we bring in more enlisted fellows to work here in the future," said Spain. "I feel if you're going to be the senior enlisted advisor for the legislative assistant to the commandant of the Marine Corps, you should have some hill experience.
Fittingly, Spain was frocked to the rank of master gunnery sergeant July 26, and at his ceremony, was pinned by Isakson.
"Spain went to work for Isakson, a senior senator from Georgia and having the successful year that he had with the senator, the senator took the time out of his day [July 26] and came over to Henderson Hall and was our senior official for the promotion," said Rudder. "That says a lot about the senator's character and it says a lot about the bond these two men have."
Spain was also nominated by Lt. Col. Marcus Hewett, executive officer of H&S Bn. HQMC Henderson Hall, and Capt. Neville Welch, financial analyst at the Pentagon's HQMC programs and resource division, to be Marine Corps Times Marine of the Year. Spain was one of two honorable mentions in the competition. He was nominated because of his professional achievements and his off-duty mentoring abilities, including spending time volunteering with local youth in his Arlington, Va., community. Spain advises any staff noncommissioned officers who have an interest in working with Congress to apply for a fellowship on Capitol Hill. "Your perspective, thoughts and concerns are genuinely listened to there," he said.
"I was able to diversify my career. Whether it was operational, a training command, special duty, joint service, I did just that. I think by doing that, it made me more competitive at the congressional fellowship selection board. My advice to young Marine NCOs who may want to consider applying for a fellowship is reach out, do more than the minimum, diversify your career, get the various experience, including combat under your belt. Get your college degree as well."