Serving the Country in Multiple Ways: Veterans Reflecting on the Journey from Military Service to Public Service
By Chris Díaz (he/him)
Ahead of Veterans Day, Chris Díaz, Deputy Chief of Staff and White House Liaison at the Department of Veterans Affairs and a U.S. Navy veteran himself, spoke with four appointees about their motivations to serve in the U.S. military, how their military service informs their public service, and what being a veteran means to them.
In honor of Veterans Day, I had the chance to speak with four appointees who served in the U.S. military before joining the Biden-Harris Administration:
Jimmy Anderson, Deputy White House Liaison at the Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Air Force reservist
Ben Cobley, Senior Director of Digital Strategy at the Department of Education and U.S. Army veteran
Maria Carolina González-Prats, Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Army veteran
Claire Russo, Senior Advisor in the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization at the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Marine veteran
Our conversation, below, has been edited for clarity and length.
Chris: Veterans Day honors the sacrifices and service of our nation’s veterans and their families. As veterans yourselves, can you tell us what motivated you to serve in the military?
Carolina: After finishing college, I was working as a social worker at a high school and trying to figure out what to do next in my life. I knew I wanted to work with students, specifically elementary school students, so I joined the military to eventually continue my education and become a teacher. Since then, the military – and the desire for service it inspired in me – became my career.
Claire: I was motivated to serve by a sense of duty and service that my parents instilled in me. My father is an immigrant. Coming from a lower-class, he grew up an orphan without the opportunities provided by a democracy. His experiences remind me every day that I can’t take for granted anything this country has offered me.
From a really young age, I wanted to serve. I grew up in a family with four girls, and I was like my dad’s son. I wanted to join the toughest service out there, and I wanted to be treated the same as the men. It was at a very young age – I think I was ten – that I decided I wanted to become a Marine. My motivations to serve run deep for me.
Ben: I don’t think my answer is all that inspiring. I saw military service as a duty to my country – and I felt like I had to serve that duty. I also saw it as a challenge. I was never the toughest guy or the top athlete, but serving in the military – and specifically, serving in a combat role – was a challenge that would help me live up to a personal obligation of mine to earn freedom rather than simply inherit it.
Chris: You said you didn’t think your answer was inspiring, but I want to note that less than 1% of Americans are active-duty service members – you answered a personal obligation and duty that very few people do. And of that 1%, only 10% of people serve in direct combat arms. That is very worthy of mentioning, and that is part of what this holiday is about.
Now Jimmy, since you’re still serving in the military in a reserve capacity, I should ask: what motivates you to continue to serve?
Jimmy: I tried college for a semester and then decided to serve. For me, it was more of a survival thing – I just wanted a paycheck and to be taught a trade. But, there’s a reason why people serve, and there’s a reason why people stay in. I stay in because I’m serving something higher than myself – there’s a real impact that people are feeling because of our military service. That same sense of service is interconnected with my work at the VA. I’m not doing this for myself anymore; I’m not doing this for a paycheck anymore but rather, for a higher calling and impact.
Chris: What I’m hearing from you is that you took this opportunity to serve in the military and made something out of it. You’ve all served your country in multiple ways, first as service members and now as political appointees. How does your military service inform your public service today?
Claire: I’ll just throw it out there that the hardest thing I’ve done in the military is be a spouse – I’m eighteen-and-a-half years in for my husband’s service. Being a veteran makes it a little harder as a spouse because I know what could be happening when I don’t get a call for a few weeks at a time or when I’m reading the news.
Serving in the Administration, there is not one word that hits the paper without me considering that policy is way more than words – on the other end of that policy, someone has to implement it. At USAID, a lot of our work happens overseas, very much in conflict spaces, spaces that often overlap with the places military service occurs.
People live in the countries we’re serving – and there are American citizens who are offering their lives to serve, giving up a great deal. As we’re writing policy, we’re always considering the lives of the people who are impacted on the ground and the impact on the lives of those who have to implement the policy.
Chris: For readers who may not know, every Marine is considered a rifleman, first and foremost – and now Claire, you’re at the front end of the peacemaking process. Your range of perspective is poignant.
Carolina, what about you – what lessons from your military service do you carry in your work now?
Carolina: One of the most important lessons I learned is being grounded. There can be a lot of noise in life – I learned from the military and mentors to quiet the noise around me and focus on what needs to be done. My work today focuses on helping veterans transition to civilian life, and I always think about the impact my work has on veterans’ daily lives. I try to go back to the basics of what the mission is.
There’s also a common humanity in the military – service members have different personalities and come from different walks of life, yet we all come together as one. Even in communities that have experienced war like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a common humanity amidst all the chaos.
Chris: And as a service member that has transitioned to civilian life, your lived experience also directly impacts the work you’re doing today to help veterans make that same transition. It’s not just an abstract concept for you – it’s your life experience.
Ben, how does your military service inform your public service?
Ben: During my deployment, I saw women and children desperately looking for a chance to learn – that experience makes fighting for things like universal, high-quality education and investing in educators even more important here in America, having seen the other side of the coin.
When I was in the Southern Kandahar Province of Afghanistan, infrastructure was almost non-existent and almost always structurally deficient. Buildings were absolutely destroyed – seeing all of this makes building up our country’s infrastructure seem that much more vital.
There are of course many differences between those areas and the United States, but the motivation to better the lives of people fuels my fight every single day.
Jimmy: When you first enlist, you’re an E-1 at the bottom of the totem pole. Folks will tell you, “You can’t make any changes; you’re executing.” That experience of enlisting informs my public service because when you’re an appointee, you’re not solely in an execution role – you’re building partnerships, during a high impact time in a high impact space. You’re definitely doing high impact work in uniform, too, but it’s a different type of impact.
Chris: Equity and access is so important because we need to ensure the leaders that serve in these capacities look like America. Jimmy, in particular, I know that you’ve worked a great deal on making sure our workforce reflects the diversity of our nation – and now we have the most diverse and competent workforce of political appointees we’ve ever had at the VA.
To frame this, I want to note that veterans don’t work solely in the VA – Ben and Claire are examples of veterans working at agencies across the Administration. Being a veteran is a part of our identities, but it’s not the only part.
As veterans – with such a diverse range of experiences and the shared experience of serving in the military – what message would you like to share with our fellow appointees who aren’t veterans? What would you tell them about what your service means to you?
Jimmy: I would say as veterans, we aren’t looking for any special treatment; we aren’t looking for any handouts. Veterans have a certain lived experience, and we have a certain set of skills that aren’t necessarily aligned with any specific place or line of work. We have a broad set of skills that come from our service, such as engaging with others in a very collaborative way, or sitting back and listening before we act. I would hope that our colleagues can see the level of value-add that veterans bring to the Administration and other organizations.
Ben: Serving is about more than just putting on a uniform – it’s a mindset of leadership. It’s an ethos that we live and breathe, that makes us stand out amongst others. That dedication to service is a trait that helps build up our agencies and teams – it’s something that I feel is an important trait to lean on as we keep working for the best version of our country.
Carolina: When it comes to transition periods, there are opportunities for members of the Administration to be partners and allies. I’ve benefitted a lot from non-veterans who took the time to reach out to me and try to understand my experience.
Veterans are neighbors, friends, and community members – we’re not meant to be pathologized or stereotyped as broken. Veterans are humans first.
Claire: Veterans have a distinct shared identity – there are things that are specific to the experiences of veterans and their families. The lifestyle can be very isolating if there aren’t people around you who understand what you’re going through.
My husband is stationed at Fort Belvoir – this is the first time we’re not living in a neighborhood where every other household is a military family. There are times when I’m at school picking up my kids, and the other moms introduce me, “This is Claire. She has three kids, and her husband is always gone. She moves all the time. It’s crazy – she’s Superwoman; we don’t know how she does it.” It’s painful to hear my life described that way and to be constantly reminded that the people around me don’t really understand who we are as a family. These moments can really demonstrate how the lifestyle of military families and veterans can seem so foreign, even to their own neighbors.
It’s important to foster partnerships between veterans and the rest of the community that go beyond, “Thank you for your service.” It takes a deliberate recognition of the value of having service members in conversations and as members of our community.
It’s also important to know that on the other end of policy, people are enacting that policy – whether it’s teachers at the Department of Education or caregivers at the VA. Veterans are people who have had experiences that are far beyond what we know here in Washington, D.C. – they have perspectives that are important to take on and understand.
Chris: This is just a small microcosm of what this community brings to the conversation around public service – whether men, women, Black, Brown, white, enlisted, commissioned, or across different branches, there’s a through line here of continued service. Despite taking off your uniforms, you’ve never stopped serving.
James “Jimmy” Anderson currently serves as Deputy White House Liaison at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Anderson previously served as a prior-enlisted Air Force intelligence officer at U.S. Air Forces Central Command. He founded the University of South Carolina’s Veterans Alumni Council, a 200-plus membership-based organization with an endowed scholarship for military members and their families. Anderson has held fellowships with the Center for a New American Security, Truman National Security Project, and Veterans in Global Leadership; he was also a Fulbright Scholar in Canada. He continues to serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He completed master’s degrees at Queen’s University in Canada and American University’s School of International Service, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina.
Ben Cobley serves as Senior Director of Digital Strategy at the Department of Education after serving in numerous digital roles on the Biden-Harris Presidential Inaugural Committee and Presidential Campaign. Prior to that, Cobley developed and implemented digital and communications strategies for candidates and causes at nearly every level of state and federal service. Cobley holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in International Relations, and served our country as a non-commissioned officer in the First Infantry Division of the U.S. Army and deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Chris Díaz is Deputy Chief of Staff and White House Liaison at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and a U.S. Navy veteran. During his service in the U.S. Navy from 2007 to 2012 as an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate and then as a Fleet Marine Corps Hospital Corpsman, he saw duty aboard the USS Harry S. Truman and, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, deployed with the 6th Marines to Marjah in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. After leaving the Navy, Díaz graduated from Drexel University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in Psychology. At Drexel, he joined other veterans to revitalize the school’s veterans’ group, gaining national recognition from Student Veterans of America (SVA). Additionally, Díaz was the recipient of the Pat Tillman Scholarship, awarded to veterans and veteran family members with a commitment to strengthening communities at home and around the world. He was the founder and former executive director of the veteran-led Action Tank – a Philadelphia-based nonprofit leveraging veterans’ experience, leadership, and relationships with service-minded citizens to tackle challenges like the opioid crisis, gun violence, and food insecurity. A native New Yorker, Díaz lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Jennifer; his son, Rain; and his dog, Upa.
Dr. Maria Carolina González-Prats currently serves as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She is a proud Operation Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) War veteran, educator, and Latino youth and family advocate. Dr. González-Prats served as both an enlisted soldier in the Army Reserves and as an active-duty officer in the U.S. Army. As a member of the Third Infantry Division, she deployed to Iraq, leading thirty soldiers who led 24-hour warehouse operations in three concurrent locations in Kuwait and Iraq, supporting over 10,000 soldiers with mission-critical supplies for combat operations during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. She then led a company of 155 American and Korean soldiers in the Republic of Korea. Dr. González -Prats recently completed her doctorate in Social Work and Social Research at Portland State University.
Claire Russo serves as Senior Advisor with the Biden-Harris Administration at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization. Russo started her career in the Marine Corps as an intelligence officer. During her time in the Marines, she served with the First Marine Expeditionary Force, First Marine Air Wing, and First Intelligence Battalion. In Fallujah, Russo led a team of Marines in targeting critical nodes of insurgent networks across Anbar Province. Following her deployment, Russo worked with the Joint Task Force for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, assisting in the writing of the first-ever Department of Defense-wide assault prevention and response policy. After leaving the Marines, Russo took a position with the Department of the Army as a civilian advisor to infantry brigades operating in Afghanistan. Russo spent over a year in Afghanistan building the Female Engagement Team program and increasing women’s participation in the counterinsurgency campaign. After a year in Eastern Afghanistan, Russo moved to Kabul to serve as a special advisor to General David Petraeus. Upon her return from Afghanistan, Russo served at the Council on Foreign Relations as an International Affairs Fellow. Russo served as Chief of Staff for Veterans for Biden. Russo’s husband Josh currently serves in the U.S. Army, and they live in the D.C. metro area with their three children.