Urge to Serve

A new program helps veterans convert their sense of community investment to civic engagement and political office.

Participants Listen to John Rogers, cofounder of Torchlight Strategies
John Rogers, co-founder of Torchlight Strategies, leads a session on campaigning.

In December 2018, Adrian Perkins was elected mayor of Shreve- port, Louisiana, unseating the incumbent. Perkins is a West Point grad who served four years as an Army company commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star. He’d then gone to Harvard Law School and received a lucrative job offer at a prestigious firm. He turned it down.

Instead, Perkins chose to turn his leadership to the community where he’d grown up. “Just because I took off the uniform didn’t mean I wouldn’t continue to serve,” says Perkins.

He was elected at the age of 31. But it wasn’t easy. “Running for office was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” he says. Then, reconsidering: “Second to Ranger School.”

Perkins told his story in November to a group of 19 fellow veterans — and aspiring politicians — who had gathered for the inaugural Veterans Program for Politics and Civic Engagement (VPPCE). This intensive training program was created by Maxwell and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), to help veterans get elected to office at all levels. "[Veterans] have been shown to be more likely to vote, contact public officials, volunteer, give to charity, and work with neighbors to fix problems in their community."

It fits alongside other IVMF programs, which have helped more than 125,000 veterans, transitioning service members, and their families with all aspects of their post-service lives. Maxwell and IVMF designed VPPCE to help veterans assess their viability for election, to develop knowledge and skills to mount a campaign, and to expand their network of support. Thanks to generous support from JPMorgan Chase, participants paid only for their travel.

“Many veterans are a natural fit for public office,” says Nick Armstrong '08 MPA/'14 PhD (SSc), IVMF senior director of research and policy. “They comprise more than one-third of the federal work force and have been shown to be more likely to vote, contact public officials, volunteer, give to charity, and work with neighbors to fix problems in their community.”

And yet, in recent history, veteran involvement in politics has declined. Veteran representation in Congress, for example, has declined from more than 75 percent in the 1960s to 19 percent today, largely because World War II led to a brand of post-service engagement that is less common today.

According to Steve Lux, director of executive education programs at Maxwell, it makes sense to reverse that trend, and help veterans provide the public service they are uniquely qualified to give. Maxwell faculty offer practical, evidence-based knowledge about the issues and about voters candidates need to persuade. Maxwell also has “contacts with working politicians we bring into the classroom,” he notes.

Participant Stewart Payne asks a question at a session on local elections.

The program actually started at home, where participants completed a month-long online regimen of lectures and webinars; homework included a “stump speech” that students wrote and recorded. They then came to campus for the week of Veterans Day for “boot camp” with faculty, who discussed political communication, organizing campaigns, political fragmentation, public speaking, and such; and with guest speakers, most of whom were elected officials. Among those participating: state representatives, city mayors, a country legislator, a judge, and political consultants.

The 19 students (chosen from among 150 applicants) traveled to Maxwell from all over the country. Navy veteran Marcee Davis, from Galena, California, became interested in politics while working in the office of Congresswoman Julia Brownley. Her interest in VPPCE is, in part, a reaction to the perceived under-engagement of vets. “California has the largest population of veterans but the smallest percentage of representation in the State Assembly,” says Davis. “Having that representation could make a big difference in terms of veteran’s issues.”

Pamela Hunter and David Knapp
Session on local elections led by New York state assembly member Pamela Hunter and Onondaga (N.Y.) County legislator David Knapp.

Lou Luba ’93 JD/MPA, a retired commander with the Coast Guard Reserve, had been involved in two congressional campaigns as a volunteer and manager. While he was applying to VPPCE and waiting for it to start, he was appointed to fill a vacant town council position in Tolland, Connecticut, and then was elected to fill it. While this was going on, “the online component of the program gave me the opportunity to exchange experience and ideas with other veterans who had run or were running for office, as well as guidance on how to shape and hone my platform and message,” says Luba.

Former Army helicopter pilot Matt Van Epps works for the Tennessee Department of Transportation and is now interested in running for state office. He found VPPCE’s networking opportunities as impactful as the training sessions.

In fact, one of VPPCE’s advantages was how it tapped into a community. The vets recognize one another’s outlook. Someone asked Perkins about forming a campaign team and he said it’s imperative to have a chief of staff or campaign manager. “Vets tend to be self-sufficient. We don’t like to ask for help,” he said. “Get over it. You’re going to need lots of help.”

By Renée Gearhart Levy

This article appeared in the fall 2019 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail