There is no one quite like Tulsi Gabbard in Congress, and she felt that acutely when she first came to the Hill. She had just returned from Iraq and would soon leave again for Kuwait. In the meantime, she was working as an aide to Daniel K. Akaka, the legendary Hawaii senator.
Her brief back then was veterans issues, but when she looked around, she didn’t see many staffers who knew what it was like to serve in a post-9/11 military.
That was a problem, she says, if only because bosses could easily miss how much things had changed. Not Akaka. Whenever she got back from drilling with the National Guard, she gave him a report. “My boss had a front-row seat,” Gabbard says of the World War II veteran.
That was all before the Hawaii Democrat became a lawmaker herself. Now she’s getting ready to leave Congress behind, after opting for a long-shot presidential bid over a fifth House term.
I spoke to Gabbard by phone in late June, as she was “battling jet lag” from a long Hawaii flight.
Q: How did you come to work for Akaka in his Washington office?
A: I was serving as a state representative in 2004 when I volunteered to deploy to Iraq with my Hawaii National Guard unit. It was the first deployment that our brigade combat team had had since Vietnam, really. And I was one of the few people who was not on the mandatory deployment roster, but I knew there was no way I could stay home.
So I stepped away from my reelection campaign at that time and volunteered to deploy, got trained in a job in a medical unit that they needed filling. All in all, we were away from home for 18 months. When I came back, my life had changed. Every day, I was confronted with the high human cost of war and the reality that death could come at any moment.
I wanted to take those experiences and do something positive with them. At the time, Sen. Akaka was the chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and he was facing a tough reelection — a primary campaign [in 2006]. He was one of the few senators who had voted against the Iraq War, and while I really didn’t know him personally, I went and I volunteered on his campaign for several months because I felt his voice, especially as a veteran, was critical.
He won, and when he returned to Washington, he asked if I would go and work with him as a legislative aide.
Q: Were you working on Veterans’ Affairs issues?
A: I was. I worked in the personal office and very closely with the professional committee staff. It was an important time, relatively early in that post-9/11 period. Reservists were being activated. I was in the National Guard — I still am in the National Guard — so I knew what happens when you come home, what kind of services are available. A lot of the programs were relatively new.
Q: What kind of conversations did you have with Akaka, knowing that he voted against the Iraq War in which you had just served?
A: He was someone who was very, very principled. He’s still known throughout the Senate, if you talk to his colleagues, as the [greatest] man they ever served with.
He shared stories with me of his own service in World War II. I guess he would have been a senior in high school when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, and they saw the planes come in, flying near where their boarding school campus was.
Making the decision about whether or not to go to war — that’s a responsibility Congress has, and he took it very seriously.
Q: What were some of the things he said to you about women in combat?
A: He saw me as a daughter almost, and was very proud of my service. My time [as a staffer] was bookended by deployments, because I ended up leaving his office when I left on my second one.
The actual policy change that would open combat arms jobs to women wouldn’t come until shortly after he left office, which was the catalyst that allowed for an open seat in Congress, which I then ran for.
Q: What were some of the issues he worked on, and what is left to do?
A: One of his main priorities was seeing that veterans would have a seamless transition into civilian life. From the time the GI Bill was passed to the post-9/11 generation, that was a long time. It was long overdue for updating.
Another area he focused on, and frankly still needs work, is documents — medical records and service documents. Someone should be able walk out of their uniform one day and walk to the VA for their benefits, and not have to face obstacles because they haven’t collected every single piece of paper throughout their 20 years of service in a binder. Those documents should be kept and digitized by the Department of Defense.
Q: How did you balance working on the Hill with your National Guard commitments?
A: Um, time management? [Laughs.] And a very understanding and supportive boss. The chief of staff and Sen. Akaka, they both supported me. When I would have to leave for training, we made sure I was covered down in the office.
I would go to my drills, my training weekend, and I would come back to my boss and say, “Hey, here’s what we did this week.” He was always really interested.
It was eye-opening, and just a reminder that this is the same thing all National Guard members go through, whether they’re in school or with their employers or families. Our lawmakers who make decisions affecting these people need to understand that. And you know, my boss had a front-row seat.
Q: Did you find that other staffers understood the military experience?
A: At that time, this was back in 2006 through 2008, there weren’t a lot of Guard and reservists working as staffers on the Hill. Or if they were there, it wasn’t an organized network.
Now, it’s really incredible. I have a few reservists who work on my staff and I have throughout my entire time as a member of Congress. We bring in military fellows. There are organizations like HillVets that actively help veterans get placed into internships or jobs.
It can shorten the learning curve that a member of Congress might have when they first come in without any kind of military background.
Q: How do you see the National Guard deployments happening this year, first to address the pandemic, and then later at protests?
A: When servicemembers are sent out, you’re going to see people you know. You’re going to see family, cousins, people you went to school with. It’s just really important that communities recognize that the National Guard is there to support them and that trust and that bond is maintained.
Q: How does your community see you, whenever you’re in uniform?
A: They see a soldier first usually, and then they say, “Hey, you look familiar.” [Laughs.] “You’re my congresswoman!”
Q: Since we’re talking about the arc of your career, what is next for you when this Congress ends?
A: I’m going to continue to look for ways that I can serve. Stay tuned. I’ll let you know when I know.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.