BTU #166 - Marines to Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs (Steve Colley)

I applied to a bunch of law schools and while I was waiting for the their responses, I went to work on Capitol Hill. I went from being a Marine Captain in charge of 50 Marines to becoming an intern. So it was quite the experience to say the least. But I really enjoyed it. And it was really eye opening for me.
— Steve Colley

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Steve Colley is a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Committee On Veterans’ Affairs. He started out at the Naval Academy, after which he served in the Marine Corps for six years. After his military service, he worked as a Congressional Fellow at the U.S. House of Representatives, as a Researcher at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, and attended the Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Why Listen: 

After his military service, Steve sought out a career in Public Service, and has worked as a Staff Member on the Senate Committee On Veterans’ Affairs. For those of you who are interested in a career in politics or public service, this is a great episode. Also, if you’re curious about what is going on in Capital Hill as it relates to Veterans Affairs, this is also a great interview to check out.

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Selected Resources: 

Transcript & Time Stamps:


Joining me today from Washington DC is Steve Colley. I want to give special thanks to Steve’s wife from Episode #144 Kristen Sproat Colley. Steve is a staff member on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. He started out at the Naval Academy and then served in the Marine Corps for six years. He then left the military and completed a fellowship with the House of Representatives. He also received a graduate degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.


How would you explain what you do on the Senate Committee for Veterans Affairs?

It’s important to understand the inner workings of Congress. Congress is run not just by the actual members but also by their staff. Each member of Congress has their own staff and the committees themselves also have a staff. The Senators that serve on a committee decide how much federal money should be appropriated and oversee the action of respective agencies. For example, the House Armed Services Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee oversee everything the Department of Defense does. They authorize actions taken by the DOD as well as appropriating funds. On our committee we oversee the Department of Veterans Affairs. We have counselors, analysts, and legislative aids. My job is to analyze policy and determine the best policy prescription. After talking to many folks, we put bills together if it gets that far. We also meet with stakeholders. In a nutshell, it’s the inner working of Congress that I truly enjoy.


What does your day-to-day look like?

No day is the same, it’s a rollercoaster ride. It reflects what’s going on in Congress for better or worse. Some days you’re up until 3 in the morning to see if the federal government is going to be shutdown. And then you have days in August when Congress is in recess when you’re sitting back and trying to plan more for the future. On a day to day basis, it’s a lot of meeting with people and building a network. We talk to stakeholders, advocates, legislative aids, and federal employees. It’s trying to make compromises that I feel like the American people don’t often see. We also read a lot of reports and write memos for our bosses. It’s a combination of reading, writing, and interactions. It’s difficult but it’s also really rewarding when you see something beneficial happen for veterans across America.


How did you make your way from the Marines into what you’re doing now?

I had no idea I would be where I am today. I knew that I wanted to do some sort of public service. I wanted to serve in the Marines the day after 9/11. I ended up going to the Naval Academy and met a lot of great folks there including my wife. I ended up as a Logistics Officer in the Marine Corps. I deployed as part of the surge in 2010. That moment in my life was something that lead me to wanting to serve veterans. I got back from Afghanistan and moved to California with my wife and got out after 6 years in the Marine Corps. I knew I wanted to be involved in politics but not necessarily as a politician. I thought law school would be the best route. I applied to a bunch of law schools and while I was waiting for the their responses, I went to work on Capitol Hill. I went from being a Marine Captain in charge of 50 Marines to becoming an intern working with a sophomore in college. So it was quite the experience to say the least. But I really enjoyed it. And it was really eye opening for me.

At this moment in my life I had transitioned into the civilian world. I was born and raised on a military base and then went to the Naval Academy. After that I spent 6 years in the Marines. So finally at 29 years old i was experiencing civilian life for the first time. I interned with a Congressman in California. During this time I ran into a former classmate and he told me that there was an open position in a DOD fellowship. I applied and was accepted. Then my eyes really opened up to the world of policymaking. So I decided against law school and stuck with the fellowship. After that I spent time with the Center for Strategic and International Studies focusing in the Chinese military.


Is that flow typical for someone working in this field?

When I was hired as a military fellow at the Congressional office, I asked a few months into the fellowship who else had applied. They told me I had been up against Ph. Ds and people with 20 years of experience. They told me that they had chosen me because someone on the staff knew you and recommended you. It was at that moment that I realized that you develop credibility and loyalty through your network. Developing these relationships in the right way can be very valuable.


Can you share what your experience was like working for a think tank?

The think tank world is really cool. It really puts you at the crossroads of university research and federal agencies. My boss has been working in intelligence and military issues for 50 years. He would go brief various agencies and bring along his research assistants. Some of these assistants ended up getting really good jobs. Working for him I got a lot of autonomy in terms of how I wanted to do my research. We ended up writing a book on the Chinese military. It was an incredible experience and set me up well for graduate school.


You ended up getting a graduate degree at the Harvard School of Government. Did you know what you wanted to do after that?

I was looking at different routes to get back into public policy. One was to go back to Capitol Hill. But I was also looking at the Presidential Management Fellowship. I highly recommend this to veterans looking to get into federal work. In this fellowship, you’re put at a high GS level in a federal agency. This gives you a stepping stone that other federal employees don’t have. I didn’t end up going that route but I highly recommend this fellowship.

I thought about running for politics toward the end of my time at the Kennedy School. After the election in 2016, there was a lot of discussion about avenues people could go down working in politics. I considered running for Congress. I didn’t end up doing it but a lot of my classmates have run for Congress. It was eye opening for me to see everything they went through during their campaign.

At the Kennedy School we received a great sense of empowerment and support from other students and staff members.


What’s going on currently in the Department of Veterans Affairs?

My committee looks to hold the VA accountable. We passed a big bill last year which stems from the 2014 VA scandal. Another big one we’re working on right now is health care. We have our Caring for Veterans Act. It looks like the White House could support this. If it’s passed, it would cut out a lot of the bureaucracy in veterans getting healthcare. It would also provide caregiver assistance to older veterans in need.

I would say another big issue that I care a lot about is mental health. You hear statistics about 20 veterans every day committing suicide. We think a lot about how we can attack this so veterans get the care that they need. A lot of these veterans have other than honorable discharges and there’s a stigma on them. They have limited access to health care. This can be a hard balance to make but it’s very important.

The other big issue we’re working on is veteran homelessness. A study by HUD showed that homeless in veteran populations has gone up in recent years. So we look at ways we can reach veterans.


Are there common career paths in this field?

In DC there’s the private sector, federal agencies, and Capitol Hill. From what I’ve seen in the past, professional staffers usually either stick with it for several years and eventually get picked up to be appointees of some sort in a specific federal agency. I’ve also seen when people start in a federal agency and then jump across to Capitol Hill and eventually to the private sector. Some people stay at a staff position for 20 years and then eventually oversee a staff.


What advice would you give someone that wants to be more involved in politics?

First, don’t lose that sense of service. If public service is something that you think you might be interested, you should jump in with both feel. Veteran representation in Congress is dwindling. We need more folks that have served and to understand what the sacrifice of service is. Whether people are Democrat or Republican, more veterans should get involved.

Also in terms of bridging the military/civilian divide, veterans working in Congress is huge.


Can you recommend any resources?

I have a tendency to nerd out a little bit. I like to try to understand things outside national security and veterans issues. I read Issues for Debate American Public Policy. They basically have a rollup of the latest issues and policy debates. It’s published every six months. I like to read The Economist and Foreign Affairs. I keep up with Politico and Roll Call. Working on Capitol, it gives us a good idea of where the political winds are blowing.

I would all say for people to also view things from the other side to give yourself a broader context of what’s actually happening.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

The biggest thing for me is the civilian/military divide. Some policymakers who didn’t serve don’t necessarily have a deeper understanding of national security. I was 29 when I left the military and went to work on Capitol Hill. My first boss was the Military Legislative Assistant. We went out one night and I saw a ring on his finger and asked where he met his wife. And he said, “You mean where I met my husband?” My immediate reaction was that that was wrong. Then I felt horrible for feeling that. I realized I had been in a military bubble and was now just coming out of it. Fast forward to one of my first days in graduate school at Harvard. One of my classmates approached me and told me that she had heard I was in the Marines. She asked me if I had seen American Sniper. She told me that she had watched it with a Jordanian mother and she had hated the movie. It wasn’t until 6 months later and we talked for a couple hours at a happy hour and we were able to share our perspectives. It was because of that that I started a Veterans Impact Day. We go out to the Harvard community and try to recruit students and staffs that have no military background to go out into the community and talk to one veteran. I really believe that if we can bridge this gap between military and civilians it will really go a long way.


That’s great. Thanks so much for being with us Steve.