This Salty Former Marine Corporal Now Grills Generals on Capitol Hill
Ruben Gallego is a Marine Corps veteran and a rising progressive representing a deep-blue district in the Phoenix area. And he is quickly becoming one of the most high-profile lawmakers who works on military and veterans issues on Capitol Hill.
Part of what makes Gallego successful in the military policy arena is his unique background. He served as a grunt in the profane, coarse and often lewd culture of combat arms, which gives him street cred in D.C. military circles. He now serves in the clean-cut halls of Congress and leads a newly formed subpanel overseeing intel and special operations.
“I do have Marine Corps grunt life gallows humor,” Gallego said. “During the Jan. 6 insurrection, I was talking to [Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.], and he asked how I was doing. I told him, ‘Well, it isn’t my first riot,’ and this was after we were in a secure location and everyone probably thought I was a little crazy.”
When the pro-Trump mob assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6, Gallego went into noncommissioned officer mode, instructing lawmakers to the exits, helping calm his colleagues and assisting them to don their masks to protect against chemical attacks.
He’s an enlisted man to his bones. While the small veteran population on Capitol Hill is monopolized by officers, he’s an infantryman who served as a corporal in one of the most kinetic deployments for Marines in the Iraq War. He’s also a Harvard alum and is now responsible for grilling generals in D.C. to hold the Pentagon accountable.
He says civilian oversight of the military is critical. One of his biggest irritations with other lawmakers is when they respect military courtesy, referring to generals in congressional hearings as “sir” instead of “general.”
“Most of the guys died because we had really bad armor,” Gallego said. “Our unit didn’t even have armor; we had amphibious vehicles in the middle of the desert. I remember it was generals who made those calls; it was generals who made those bad decisions to send us in undermanned. The people who actually fixed it were politicians.
“Politicians get a bad rap,” he added. “The reason we got [Mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles] and all these armored vehicles was because politicians mandated it. I remind myself I need to be that person, thinking about these young men and women. The generals have their jobs, and we in civilian oversight have our jobs. We need to be on the lookout for the little guy. I don’t look at myself just as a congressman, but as a congressman that looks out for the enlisted because they’re often overlooked.”
There were some growing pains in politics. When Gallego was chief of staff for a Phoenix city councilmember, he yelled at a staffer and still regrets it. “The corporal did come out,” he said regretfully.
“I’ve tried to bridge both worlds,” Gallego added. “Sometimes I’ve failed, like when I yelled at the young staffer is a good example. And you learn what the appropriate things to say are and when to say it … but you just learn to temper yourself.”
Gallego is one of four kids. One of his sisters also attended Harvard and is a doctor. His father walked out of his life when he was 11. His mother, a Colombian immigrant, raised Gallego and his sisters mostly on her own in a small apartment while working full-time as a secretary and going to night school, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.
“I was the odd man out, sleeping in the living room in a pullout [mat],” Gallego said. “Money wasn’t always there, but we always had food in the fridge. She [his mother] was a very good role model … loving but tough. I am the man I am because of all the work she did.”
Right now, Gallego’s mother works for an immigration nonprofit.
Gallego went to Harvard while serving in the Marine Corps Reserve. The two environments couldn’t be more different, but he said he felt more at home in the grunt life.
“It was a crazier move going from high school to Harvard and Harvard to the Marines,” he said. “The Marines was more akin to what I was used to. I didn’t have a real bed until I got to college, when I got to my dorm room. It was a luxury compared to the austereness of when I grew up.”
Gallego deployed to Iraq in 2005, serving with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, in an assistant machine gunner role. His company saw some of the worst fighting of the Iraq War, losing 22 Marines and a Navy corpsman over eight months.
“Unfortunately, I saw a lot of combat in what I think was the most KIAs of any unit in the war. I lost my best friend there, a lot of crazy s—,” he said.
Yet the Marine Corps was home, as opposed to the Ivy League. Gallego is a part of a generation of post-9/11 reservists and National Guard troops who juggled war with their civilian life.
“I felt more at home in the Marines than I did at Harvard. Growing up, I could fit everything I owned into a bag,” Gallego said. “Going to the Marine Corps, you get two seabags. It just seemed very natural to me. At Harvard, I had all these things I wasn’t used to.”
The intense fighting largely motivated Gallego’s current role on Capitol Hill, where he serves on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees.
“I think because I’ve lived in both worlds, they’ve merged and I can move in between the two,” he said. “So I can talk to the people at the Council of Foreign Relations, while at the same time I can talk to a grunt about the world they live in.”
It’s that ability to talk two languages that some veteran advocates say has elevated Gallego beyond most other lawmakers in the military and veteran space. Wanting a better military and supporting veterans is an easy talking point for politicians, but living it from the enlisted point of view and using that experience as fuel is unique for him, compared to other lawmakers.
“He’s an enlisted troop’s congressman, and I mean that as the highest form of compliment,” said Alexander McCoy, a Marine Corps veteran and political director for Common Defense, a progressive veteran advocacy group. “He fights for the little guy, standing up to the brass when they’re throwing us under the bus. He is the kind of battle buddy who you go to when you need help, and who comes to you when he needs help. Out of all the elected officials I’ve met, he’s one of the most down to earth.”
Gallego, who’s in his fourth term, has been a part of multiple major pieces of legislation, including a provision last year that would have limited former President Donald Trump’s authority to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany.
He is also one of the newest members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is second only to the Defense Department in size and budget. He joined the committee seeing a gap in the enlisted perspective.
“I had really bad experiences with VA when I got back. They wouldn’t even let me in when I tried to get PTSD counseling because my paperwork didn’t show I had a Combat Action Ribbon. That’s how messed up things were back then.”
But Gallego did indeed have the ribbon, which is awarded to Marines who participate in ground combat. He even showed VA providers video of him in firefights.
Gallego eventually got care for PTSD and a knee replacement for what he described as grunt “wear and tear.”
He also now chairs the newly formed House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, where he said a big focus would be on trying to reorient special operations for a fight with China and not spending all their time training other militaries.
Gallego noted that training other nations in basic military tasks and marksmanship could be done by any unit. He said the time and money invested in special operations need to be reexamined for the long term, adding that the huge volume of deployments is an unfair burden on the special operations community.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect description.
— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
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