Melissa Reilly-Diakun remembers her first HillVets event well. She arrived at a gathering hosted by the nonprofit organization and she did not know a single person there. “I couldn’t even recognize (founder) Justin Brown,” she recalls. “I was so shy.”
The first person she met was a HillVets alumni who introduced her around and helped ease her into conversation with Congressional staff, congresspeople and senators.
That “wonderful fellow” was only one of the people Reilly-Diakun met when she joined the LEAD program in 2019, after nearly five years with the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, the army branch concerned with military law. Now, Reilly-Diakun said, she has made friends through HillVets from all over the world. “You make all these connections that last much longer than the program,” she said.
HillVets is a non-partisan, non-issue-oriented organization that works to help veterans take a seat at the table when decisions and policy are made affecting the military community. Founded seven years ago by Navy veteran Justin Brown, HillVets became a nonprofit two years later.
Last year, the nonprofit moved to Capitol Hill to get participants closer to congressional offices and celebrated their first anniversary at the HillVets House (127 12th St. SE) this past July.
Despite the challenges raised by COVID, they say they are as committed as ever to the Hill community and the veterans who come here to make a difference on their street, in the District and for the nation.
A Seat at the Table
Fewer than two percent of Capitol Hill staffers have military experience, a statistic that HillVets is fighting to change. To that end, said HillVets Director of Programs and Congressional Engagement Jena Doyle, HillVets offers both a fellowship program for veterans interested in working on Capitol Hill and a LEAD program designed to provide additional skills and networking for mid-career veterans.
The fellowship program is designed to help veterans get a foot in the door on Capitol Hill. Up to eight fellows live in the HillVets House at once, finding temporary positions with one of the organization’s thirty-five congressional office “ambassadors.” A stipend from HillVets helps with basic needs. More than fifty fellows have completed the program, going on to permanent roles in policy or as Capitol Hill staff.
The HillVets LEAD program is a twelve-week program that trains mid-career veterans and service members in policy, defense, and communications and media. Participants are put in “fireteams” of six that can continue to motivate each other in their careers.
“These are leaders in our community who are looking to take their leadership skills to the next level and really gain new skills that will allow them to be better voices in this community,” Doyle said.
‘I Grew Personally Through the Program’
Now a Legislative Assistant in the office of Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Melissa Reilly-Diakun said the LEAD program really changed her. “I grew personally through the program,” Reilly-Diakun said. “I built the confidence and the network to be someone who could walk into a situation and handle it with confidence I didn’t have before.”
She said one of the reasons she entered the program was because she wanted to “reorient” her mind. “You have a clear path when you’re in the military,” she said, “but when you go into the civilian world, you can go in any direction, which can be pretty overwhelming.”
Reilly-Diakun said she knew she was interested in work on Capitol Hill. For her, the best part of the program was the mentoring LEAD protégés received, often at events held at HillVets House, from people like former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel or former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James. Protégés can ask specific questions about how ambassadors came to be in their current roles, or how they made decisions.
The list of HillVets ambassadors, who create opportunities for veterans and mentor participants in the LEAD and Fellowship programs, is impressive, including General George Casey, Senator Mark Rounds (R-SD) and Dr. Phil Roe (R-TN), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Paying it Forward
The house on Capitol Hill brings together the community of veterans united by their service to their country, their past and present experiences and the house that is their temporary home. When HillVets moved to 12th Street, they immediately “adopted” their block south of Lincoln Park, engaging in outdoor clean-up three times a year. A coat drive organized by HillVets donated more than 1,000 winter coats to local organizations.
The first anniversary of HillVets House on Capitol Hill has prompted both reflection on the past and contemplation of the future. But Doyle said that one thing is clear: community remains key to the work of HillVets.
“Everyone is connected through this community and through the fact that they are veterans, but in addition through all the things they now realize they have in common,” she said. “It’s really something special, that we’ve been able to bring together so many people.”
Learn more about HillVets by visiting https://www.hillvets.org/. For more on what HillVets has in store: https://youtu.be/ZoRlZEK5ahk