Hill Climbers: Army Put Staffer on the Path to Public Service

Posted April 5, 2011 at 4:35pm

Correction Appended

Belonging to a Congressional office is a little like serving in the Army: The job requires patriotism, passion and a penchant for long hours.

Active-duty experience in the Army helped Legislative Director Erik Elam adapt to the rank-and-file order of Capitol Hill, where he works for Rep. Don Young. Since starting on Capitol Hill in January 2008, the 25-year-old has noticed both similarities and differences between the two institutions.

“Everybody’s serving the country, just in a different way,” he said. “But it’s a completely different mindset and pace” on Capitol Hill.

Before he started his gig with the Alaska Republican, Elam always thought he would make the Army his full-time career. The Ohio native enlisted in the Reserve Officer Training Corps while a student at the University of Dayton. But he also got started on the path to his current job, majoring in political science and becoming involved in student government.

After he graduated in 2007, Elam was commissioned to serve in the Army. He spent several months in Fort Knox, Ky., where he learned to command tanks and cavalry fighting vehicles.

But Elam quickly realized he didn’t want to commit to the military for the rest of his life. His interest in politics fed a desire to pursue a career in government and get a graduate degree. Still, he didn’t want to leave his military roots behind entirely.

As a compromise, Elam chose to enlist in the U.S. National Guard in Virginia, which allows for an outside career because it only requires training once a month and two weeks during the summer. He was also accepted to George Mason University, where he recently received a master’s in public policy.

“I pigeonholed myself purposefully. I almost had to be here,” he said. “It was an added motivation that I couldn’t go home.”

With his eyes on the Capitol, Elam packed up his pickup truck and headed for Washington in 2007. He found an apartment on Craigslist and met his roommates ­­— three 35-year-old bachelors — the night he moved in.

Sleeping on a couch and not having a job quickly grew old. Living off savings, Elam searched tirelessly until he was granted an internship with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). But just two weeks later, Elam received more good news: He was offered a job in Young’s office.

“The ongoing joke was that I had the record for the shortest internship, but then some other kid came along and he was there for three days,” he said.

Elam was sad to cut his internship short but knew that a legislative correspondent gig with Young was a better opportunity.

And perhaps he was right; after a year in the Alaskan’s office, Elam was promoted to legislative assistant. He took on energy and resources issues for the Congressman, who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Elam was just promoted to legislative director in February. Although he is taking on a more managerial role, he still handles most of the same issues he did previously.

Since working for Young, Elam has had the opportunity to travel to the Congressman’s district, which encompasses the entire state of Alaska. Although the 10-hour flight can be difficult at times, Elam said it’s necessary to do his job effectively.

“We can talk about conditions in a village on the North Slope, but until you’ve actually been there and until you’ve had to go to a bathroom in an outhouse, you don’t know,” he said.

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Correction: April 6, 2011

The article misquoted Legislative Director Erik Elam. He said, “We can talk about conditions in a village on the North Slope, but until you’ve actually been there and until you’ve had to go to a bathroom in an outhouse, you don’t know.”