By Jeremy Herb - 01/28/14 06:00 AM EST
Ten months after leaving the Army, Tom Tarantino could not find a job.
But thanks to a fortuitous television appearance by his future boss, he is now tasked with helping veterans who are stuck where he was.
Tarantino, 36, runs the Washington office for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), an advocacy group for the country’s newest generation of veterans.
“I was about to start selling fruit on the side of the freeway. I was in trouble,” Tarantino said in a recent interview with The Hill.
“And it was just a very fortunate coincidence that I saw him, liked what he had to say,” he said. “I looked at the organization and saw that it was nonpartisan, working on policy. They were really focused on getting stuff done, as opposed to just choosing a side.”
Tarantino has risen through the ranks over the past six years to become IAVA’s chief policy officer, as the advocacy group itself has grown from 15 to about 50 employees in both New York and Washington.
Though young, the 9-year-old IAVA has gained attention and stature by speaking out on issues like repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” holding an Iraq War “victory parade” and taking sexual assault cases outside the chain of command.
The group’s aggressive advocacy has been criticized at times, but it’s an ethos that Tarantino embraces.
“We have an aggressive urgency to everything we do,” he said. “We’re not content to wait two or three years and do incremental change. The reality is, people are going to stop caring about this very soon, and we have to make sure that the system is in place to take care of this generation.”
Tarantino says his move to IAVA was a natural transition for him after leaving the Army in 2007, following a yearlong deployment to Iraq as a platoon leader and then running a headquarters company.
Tarantino, a captain, had served in the reserves and then the Army for 10 years, when he decided to change career paths, knowing he was in line for a desk job if he remained in the military.
Like many leaving the military, he was “ready to take the civilian world by storm” — but in 2007, many of the resources now available to unemployed veterans did not exist.
“Essentially, I was 28, 29 years old, and I was starting over as a 21-year-old and had a college degree in international relations and global studies.”
Ten months later, after he spotted Rieckhoff on television, Tarantino landed an interview in IAVA’s D.C. office, where he was promptly thrown into the deep end to see if he could swim.
The 20-minute conversation turned into a daylong audition, when the group’s legislative director asked Tarantino to join him to lobby on Capitol Hill.
“He said ‘grab your coat,’ and we walked over to the House,” Tarantino said. “We were there until 18:00, 19:00 at night, hitting offices about the GI Bill.”
Three weeks later, Tarantino was hired and moving from California to Washington, where he’s been ever since.
As chief policy officer, he brings a military-like focus to IAVA’s work, as well as a dry sense of humor that stems from his Army days.
Outside Tarantino’s office, the numbers 689,893 and 408,028 are written on the window in dry-erase marker — a reminder to both him and his staff of, respectively, the number of pending disability claims and the number of backlogged claims the Department of Veterans Affairs has yet to process.
That was IAVA’s primary advocacy issue last year. This year, the group is focusing on suicides, and soon, new stats will be up on his window.
Inside Tarantino’s office, memorabilia from Iraq and Bosnia hang on the walls alongside parody newspapers created by his soldiers. A Nerf gun is not far from his computer.
“Everyone has a fully armed Nerf gun at all times,” Tarantino said of his office. “You never know when you’re just in the mood to ambush somebody, and you have to fight back.”
Tarantino says he still tries to keep his idealistic sense that a “good policy should still be a good policy,” but he knows things don’t always work that way — pointing to the recent cuts to military pensions as the latest example.
Working with veterans, he said, is both incredibly rewarding and emotionally taxing.
“I don’t think there’s any other field in the policy space, except maybe mental health, where you have your members commit suicide,” Tarantino said. “I have a least one or two people I know from this job that have killed themselves. These are the stakes we are playing with.”
At the same time, Tarantino recalled how enjoyable it was to have dinner at a conference with 900 veterans all using the new GI Bill, the legislation he had lobbied for in his job interview.
“I talked to guys a lot who do this for a year or two, and they burn out,” he said. “For me, that hasn’t happened yet. Even on the worst days of doing this, I still get to do really amazing stuff and I get to have a great impact on people’s lives.”
Along with Rieckhoff, Tarantino has frequently become the face for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, making TV appearances on everything from PBS to “The Daily Show,” where he was part of a comedy bit last year highlighting the serious problems with the claims backlog.
Tarantino, with colleagues decades his senior at many other veterans organizations, said making the connection with popular culture is going to be more important than ever as the war in Afghanistan comes to a close.
“I think the most difficult thing of being in Washington is we are constantly fighting for the attention of a constituency that doesn’t understand us. And that’s not just the American people; that’s also Congress,” Tarantino said. “Whenever you can bring veterans issues into the popular culture, it’s a win.”