By John R. GuardianoOctober 21, 2008
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 21, 2008) -- When Col. Chris Hughes heard that Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio had died of an aneurysm, he didn't wait to be called into action. He volunteered.
"I wanted Army uniforms to be seen memorializing her, because she was, in fact, an extremely important member of Congress," Hughes said. "She had great love for her community, her country, and the military in general. She advocated military service as an honorable profession... We would have walked over glass to support her after the tragedy of her death; that's the kind of person she was."
Rep. Tubbs Jones passed away Aug. 20 after suffering a sudden and unexpected cerebral hemorrhage caused by a burst aneurysm in her brain. She was just 58 years old and had been found unconscious in her car before being taken to East Cleveland Hospital, where she died.
As an Army legislative liaison, Hughes had formed a close friendship and a strong working relationship with the congresswoman, despite their divergent backgrounds.
Divergent Backgrounds, Common Values
Hughes is a 25-year Army veteran and a former brigade commander who just spent a year in the jungles of Honduras commanding Joint Task Force Bravo. This after commanding an infantry battalion in the 101st Airborne Division during the initial liberation of Iraq.
Tubbs Jones was a genteel congresswoman with no military experience; she didn't serve on any of the Congressional defense committees. A former judge and prosecutor, she devoted herself, instead, to domestic stateside service. Hughes, by contrast, is a graduate of the National War College who has steeped himself in military history, tactics and strategy.
Hughes is a generally conservative white male; Tubbs Jones was a liberal African American female. Hughes is apolitical; Tubbs Jones was a politician. Hughes was raised in rural Iowa; Tubbs Jones represented inner-city Cleveland. Hughes believes in the American mission in Iraq; Tubbs Jones was strongly against it. And yet, the two clicked and bonded. And to hear Hughes explain it, all credit is due to the congresswoman.
"Her personality and persona were infectious," Hughes said. "She was like your favorite aunt Aca,!aEURc the one who would grab you, hug you, kiss you, and make you feel like you're the most important person in the world. She put her heart and soul into every conversation that she had with you. All of the guys here [in the Army's House legislative liaison office] just loved her. 'Anything for Ms. Tubbs Jones,' they would always say."
That's why, when the congresswoman unexpectedly passed away in August, Hughes didn't wait for a direct order or tasking. He volunteered his services and the services of his fellow Soldiers. This wasn't politics; this was a calling.
"We didn't want anyone else to have this mission because we respected her that much," Hughes said.
"Our military is subordinate to our civilian leadership," Hughes said. "We are subject to them because they represent the people..."
In fact, American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines don't take an oath to a government leader or a political party; they take an oath to the Constitution. This distinguishes them from most militaries past and present. The Constitution specifies that power resides in the three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.
"Our duty," Hughes said, "is to protect the integrity of the Constitution and ensure that these powers remain unchallenged."
Problem is Army culture has historically frowned upon service in Washington and has taken an especially dim view of service on Capitol Hill. Serving as a legislative liaison officer was viewed as unhelpful and even counterproductive to an officerAca,!a,,cs career prospects. Consequently, Hughes said, many Army officers tended to retire after their tour of duty coordinating with Congress.
Best and Brightest
That was then. This is now: Today, the Army is sending its best and brightest brigade and battalion commanders to do tours of duty on Capitol Hill. The head of the Army's legislative liaison office, for instance, is Maj. Gen. Bernard S. Champoux. Prior to coming to Washington, Champoux was the deputy commanding general of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Deputy Chief of Army Legislative Affairs Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges commanded the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Brigade during the invasion of Iraq. Hodges also was the operations chief for the 18th Airborne Corps in Iraq. And the newest addition to the Army's legislative liaison team, Col. Marty Schweitzer, spent 15 months in Afghanistan commanding the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team.
"What's changed," Hodges said, "is that so many senior leaders in the Army have been in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past six years, and have seen Congressional delegations come through, in theater. It's a lot more personal for them. They see [Congressional] staffers and members [of Congress] and the important work that they do; and they realize that it's important. Relationships are important."
Hodges and Hughes credit Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Army Secretary (and former Congressman) Pete Geren, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. for fostering Army relationship building in Washington and on Capitol Hill.
Secretary Gates, they noted, recently expanded the Army's Congressional fellowship program from three officers to 25 officers annually. Army Congressional fellows work for a member of Congress in the member's Washington, D.C. office.
Gen. Casey, moreover, is a former Army legislative liaison (when he was a lieutenant colonel) and before becoming chief of staff, he was the commanding general of Multi-National Forces-Iraq. Thus, he's seen, firsthand how miscommunications and misperceptions can confuse and distort decision-making.
"General Casey gets it," Hughes said. "He's trying to change [this aspect of] our culture; and from my foxhole, it's making a huge difference in how the Army is viewed and supported on the Hill and in the Pentagon."
Sometimes, it's the smallest changes that make the biggest differences. For example, Army legislative liaison officers used to wear civilian business suits and some still do Aca,!aEURc but not Hughes and his team. They recently, and self-consciously, switched to wearing the Army Combat Uniform, which is the same uniform Soldiers wear in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The uniform change has identified Hughes and his fellow officers as Soldiers. This, in turn, has precipitated much greater communication and dialogue with Capitol Hill staffers and members of Congress.
"I can't explain how powerful it's been," Hughes said. "It's been a real ice-breaker. We've been involved [in]and invited to so many new meetings and events because people now know we're Soldiers. They'll say hello, introduce themselves, thank us for our service, and ask about our service. It's really helped [aid and abet communication]."
Congressional staffers seem to agree.
"Having them wear the [combat] uniform helps me learn about the Army," said Capitol Hill staffer Amanda Rogers Thorpe. (She handles military issues for Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland.) "I wish all of the services did that, because you get a much better understanding of the military."
Thorpe added: "I want the (Soldiers) to share their knowledge and give me their opinions. Having more knowledge and insight from people on the ground facilitates better decision-making by the civilian leadership."
Rep. Tubbs Jones' legislative aide, Aaron Wasserman, echoed this sentiment and credited the uniform change for having helped foster the budding relationship between his boss and Hughes.
Wasserman said the congresswoman knew that Hughes was a Soldier whose "boots were on the ground," so to speak. Thus, she figured that she could always get from him straight, candid and illuminating insights about any and all things Army.
"Colonel Hughes is a Soldier's Soldier, and the congresswoman liked that about him," Wasserman said. "When you see them in uniform and you see the combat badges, you know they've been forward deployed. You know they've 'been there, done that' and know of what they speak. It just gives them tremendous credibility."
(John Guardiano serves as a plans officer in the Army's Office of the Chief of Public Affairs.)