Politics & Policy

Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport

Leaving Washington behind.

Bill Novotny missed his graduation ceremony at the Naval War College this summer because he was beginning Officer Candidate School at Quantico Marine Base. It took the 27-year-old three years of night school to complete his Masters degree in National Security Strategic Studies, and he did it by studying on the weekends while working full time on Capitol Hill as an aide to Sen. Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.).

“Joining [the military] has always been in the back of my mind as something I needed to do,” Novotny said. His grandfather served in the Navy during World War II. Novotny also had a great uncle in the Army and one in the Marines during the war. It wasn’t until he worked in the Senate that it became clear which branch he would join. “In the Senate I worked on defense issues for my boss, and in working with all of the military branches, I was thoroughly impressed with the Marines.”

Between 2004 and 2006, Novotny trained for three marathons with a running club organized by members of the U.S. Senate Marine Liaison Office. He grew close with several Marine officers in the club, and sought their counsel about Marine life, the training, and being in combat.

Life in Washington, D.C. can be pretty exciting for Hill staff and hard to give up between endless party invitations, the opportunity to mingle with and meet some of the world’s most powerful people, and the chance to witness and possibly contribute to world-shaping decisions and events.

Most congressional staffers work on Capitol Hill for a few years before “cashing in” at one of the downtown lobbying firms. Not Novotny. Last year he turned down an attractive offer from a downtown firm so he could join the Marines to become an infantry or intelligence officer.

When asked about his motivation to join the Marine Corps in the middle of a tough war that will likely last for decades, Novotny replied, “If not me, then who [would go instead]? We all have an obligation to step up and serve our country, whether as a teacher, a first responder, or…a Marine. This was the right choice for me. Democracy is not a spectator sport.”

In addition to Novotny, the Marine Corps recently commissioned four political aides–turned–Marines who had worked for senior congressional leadership and leading presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle. One of the four new Marine officers was enlisted before working on Capitol Hill. He decided to return to the military because he felt he was not finished serving.

In our nation’s Capitol, where the war debate can be shrill and discouraging, these five men answered the call to service, leaving behind a comfortable life in Washington for the battlefield. Godspeed.

– Emily Cochran lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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