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Gold Star families find a place (and a desk) in House offices

‘We are normal people,’ says the Gold Star wife who pushed for a new fellowship program

Jane Horton, widow of Spc. Christopher Horton, walks through Arlington National Cemetery in 2015.
Jane Horton, widow of Spc. Christopher Horton, walks through Arlington National Cemetery in 2015. (Daniel Hinton/Department of Defense)

Jane Horton is used to seeing others tiptoe around her when they find out she’s a Gold Star wife.

“We are normal people,” Horton says, but that’s not how it felt after her husband was killed in Afghanistan nine years ago.

She had just returned from a summer in Washington working as a Senate intern when she got the dreaded knock on her door.

Hearing the news changed everything, including the look in friends’ eyes as they suddenly avoided her. She wanted to talk about her husband, but they clearly didn’t.

“It’s almost as if I’m a leper,” she wrote in a 2012 blog post. “I was a fresh open wound. I represented their worst fear.” 

That’s part of why Horton pushed for a way to make Gold Star families constantly visible on Capitol Hill, a place where the adage “out of sight, out of mind” can have far-reaching consequences. 

“It’s important for members to have Gold Star families around them” as issues are debated and policies are made in Congress, Horton says in a phone interview. Lawmakers should have to see the human face of military service, even if friends turn awkwardly away.

Now that goal is becoming a reality, as a fellowship program approved by the House in 2019 gets off the ground in time for a new Congress and a new year. 

The idea is to embed Gold Star family members among congressional staff, where they can see the inner workings of legislating and, just as important, educate Hill types who may not know exactly what happens after a soldier is killed in action. 

Fellows will start as early as January, either heading to Washington or staying closer to home to work in lawmakers’ districts. The yearlong positions are open to spouses, kids, parents and siblings of armed forces members who died in the line of duty or of veterans who died from service-connected disabilities within four years of discharge.

“Our hope is to have a fellow selected early in the next Congress,” said a spokesperson for Rep. Michael Waltz, one of the first lawmakers to sign up for the program. A combat veteran himself, the Florida Republican continues to serve in the Army National Guard.

Just 10 fellows will make up the initial class, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, but the program will eventually include up to 40 at a time, spread out over the same number of offices, said Kyle Anderson, communications director for the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer.

The CAO will keep things running, vetting candidates for eligibility, but picking the fellows will be left to the office of each lawmaker, along with deciding exactly how much to pay — anywhere within a preset range of $41,134 to $54,324.

The program resembles a similar one established in Congress over a decade ago, the Wounded Warrior Fellowship. Together the two programs got a combined $3 million in the enacted fiscal 2020 appropriations package that included funding for the legislative branch.

More than 60 lawmakers have expressed interest in hosting a Gold Star fellow, Anderson said, and calls for applicants will appear on a rolling basis. As of early November, the CAO website listed openings in the district offices of Rob Wittman of Virginia and Trent Kelly of Mississippi.

“No one is more qualified to assist our military members, veterans, and their families than the family members of our fallen heroes,” Wittman said in an email. Tasks for a typical fellow might include constituent services or reaching out to veterans groups.

As for Kelly, he was the congressman who introduced the measure last year to create the program, bearing the name of two members of the military who died in the line of duty.

One is Sgt. 1st Class Sean Cooley, who served with Kelly in the Mississippi Army National Guard. He died in Iraq in 2005 when his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.

The other is Spc. Christopher Horton, the husband Jane Horton lost in 2011 in Afghanistan and has been striving to honor ever since.

“For about three months, I went up to the Hill after work every single day and met with as many offices as I could. Just walked in and asked people to support it,” Horton said of her efforts to promote the idea starting in 2018. By then she was a well-known advocate for Gold Star families and working for the Trump administration at the Pentagon, after advising the Defense Department during the Obama era.

Her own “amazing” early days as an intern (for Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma) convinced her that however unglamorous some jobs on the Hill may be, there’s patriotism in this kind of public service.

“Kids who lost a mom or dad want to make a difference and be engaged,” says Horton, now a senior adviser to the assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs. “Gold Star families want to create a way to further their loved ones’ legacy, and this is one way to do it.” 

Seeing the program go up in the House has made Horton wonder if a similar measure, introduced by Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, could make it through the Senate, even if administering fellowships in that chamber would be a logistical challenge.

“I still hope the Senate will look at it,” Horton says.

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