Veteran on The Hill

UND Law student Ryan Rehberg travels to Washington, D.C. to advocate for rights of those who served

Ryan Rehberg

UND Law student Ryan Rehberg recently returned from Capitol Hill as one of just 10 in the nation chosen for a VFW fellowship. Rehberg, a U.S. Army infantry vet who served 12 months in Iraq, spent five days in Washington, D.C., advocating changes to a veteran policy to make it easier to claim medical benefits. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Ryan Rehberg has learned how to effect grassroots change. At warp speed.

“To succeed in D.C., you have to be able to have a conversation and explain your points quickly. That’s half the job,” said Rehberg, a second-year UND Law student who was awarded a VFW fellowship and trip to Washington, D.C. to advocate a change in veteran policy.

“Be brief and be effective,” Rehberg said. “You have to be able to explain your policy in 60 seconds. There’s a lot of interacting with people. I learned to advocate.”

Rehberg, a U.S. Army Infantry veteran who served 12 months in Iraq, was one of 10 legislative fellows chosen by the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) in a national and worldwide competition.

He spent five days on in Washington, D.C. and on Capitol Hill advocating a simple but important change in veteran policy: to extend the 72-hour time limit requiring a veteran to report non-VA emergency room visits. If they miss the deadline, reimbursement is now delayed or even denied.

“When veterans need to visit the E.R., the nearest VA facility may be miles away,” Rehberg said. “They can go to a non-VA facility, but have to report it within 72 hours or they have to pay the entire cost. Extending that deadline could relieve pressure on veterans and their families, and let them recover.”

Ryan Rehberg and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

Rehberg presents U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., with a UND flag during Rehberg’s recent visit to Washington D.C., to advocate for veteran rights. Left to right: Loretta Wall, VFW Auxiliary President; Shaun Shenk, VFW State Commander; Senator Hoeven; Rehberg; John Hanson, State Chair, National Legislative Committee; James Markey Sate Adjutant and Quartermasater; Jim Hapala, member of the National Administrative Council. Image courtesy of Ryan Rehberg and John Hanson.

Staying on point

In a whirlwind five days, he met with the North Dakota Congressional delegation and their staffs, met with the chair of the Veteran Affairs Committee, met with the Department of Labor, toured landmarks and always, always was on point promoting change in veteran policy.

He was able to visit with Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven and meet with Representative Kevin Cramer’s staff. Cramer was away because of a family emergency.

“They listened and asked questions,” Rehberg said.

He was able to attend testimony before Veterans Affairs Committee, where he and the other VFW Fellows sat in the front row and appeared on CSPAN.

The biggest experience, he said was a meeting at the White House.

“The VFW set it up, and I was able to speak with two staffers,” Rehberg said. “It was great to defend our policy. It went well. There was a lot of pressure, and it was all business.”

Another highlight was a visit with the Department of Labor, where they discussed job outlooks for veterans. Staff at the Labor Department was impressed by how well the VFW fellows, all veterans, had re-entered civilian life.

“They asked for our feedback about how we transitioned so well,” Rehberg said.

Ryan Rehberg

Rehberg stands in front of the White House during a recent visit to Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of Ryan Rehberg and John Hanson.

Making a difference

Rehberg is the second VFW Fellow from UND, which is highly unusual for such a competitive program, said John Hanson, district commander and a member of the VFW National Legislative Committee, who oversaw the trip and accompanied Rehberg.

“The VFW Fellows program enables students to gain a new perspective and help get laws passed,” said Hanson. “They bring their ideas to elected officials and talk about what they see needs to be done for veterans.”

And they make a difference.

“Every time we go to The Hill, something happens,” Hanson said. “In the past, legislation has passed quicker if it comes from a vet. Bills have been passed and are now law.”

“Ryan has a goal, a different vision from other people,” said Hanson. “He will push things forward. He’s aggressive in what he believes.”

Rehberg hopes so.

“We all have great ideas, but I didn’t know how to implement them,” Rehberg said. “We started at entry level and were guided by the VFW and the Student Veterans of America. I got a preview of what it means to create change from grass roots.”

And his work isn’t done, said Rehberg. He will put together a community action plan and hold policy forums in Grand Forks.

“This doesn’t stop with D.C.,” he said. “I will take what I learned and apply it to the local community. An ordinary citizen can effect change, but can’t do it alone.”