WASHINGTON — Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is no longer a part-time soldier with the Hawaii Army National Guard. Instead, she’s a major in the U.S. Army Reserve at a command post in Silicon Valley.
Gabbard, who opted against running for reelection after a failed presidential campaign, made the transition over the summer with little fanfare.
In August, her congressional office issued a press release saying that the 17-year National Guard veteran would be joining a Civil Affairs reserve unit on a deployment to Alaska to work with Alaska Native tribes. Last week, her office issued a press release saying she would go on four weeks of active duty with the reserves to train as a Civil Affairs officer.
Neither press release explained that Gabbard had transferred out of the Hawaii Army National Guard or that she was assigned to the Army Reserve’s 351st Civil Affairs Command in Mountain View, California.
Neither the congresswoman nor her office responded to Civil Beat’s requests for comment.
Jeffrey Hickman, a spokesman for the Hawaii Army National Guard, said Gabbard left the unit for the Army Reserve in June, but that he only learned about the transfer after seeing Gabbard’s August press release.
Gabbard’s political future has been a subject of speculation ever since she decided not to run for reelection in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. Her transfer to a new unit at least provides some clarity.
John Hart, who’s the chairman of the communication department at Hawaii Pacific University, doesn’t see Gabbard’s latest maneuver as a sign she’s leaving politics. Being in the reserves is part time after all.
The congresswoman, who’s twice been deployed to the Middle East, has been unafraid to reach for lofty goals. She also recently turned her presidential campaign account into a leadership PAC, which indicates she still plans to raise and spend money for political purposes.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that she plays for the long ball,” Hart said. “She always takes jobs with an eye for future growth, whether as a presidential candidate or a vice presidential candidate. So, why should her experiences in the armed services be any different?”
Colin Moore, who directs the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, said it can be hard to divine Gabbard’s political future based on the switch from the Hawaii National Guard to the Army Reserve.
The only takeaway, he said, is that transferring to a mainland unit indicates she is not interested in running for local office, such as governor, in the near future.
“If she wants to return to politics she’s setting herself up to run for a bigger race maybe further down the line,” Moore said. “It may just be that this is another career move, which is totally sensible given that she will be out of Congress relatively soon.”
Moving from the National Guard into the reserves provides Gabbard with more opportunity for career advancement.
Jeff Jacobs, who’s a retired major general in the Army Reserves, said Civil Affairs is a good fit for someone like Gabbard.
Jacobs was in charge of the Army’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Affairs Command before retiring in 2014, and he said plenty of politicians have made their way up through the ranks, including late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
The command’s mission is to engage with and influence civilians, whether it’s helping to build schools, repair infrastructure or, as Jacobs did in Iraq, prop up local governments.
“Someone like Tulsi Gabbard would be valuable in a mission like that,” Jacobs said. “When you’re talking about setting up a city council, how it should work and what the council members should do, et cetera, who better to advise on that than someone who’s actually been in that arena.”
It’s not uncommon for soldiers in the National Guard to transfer into the Army Reserves, he said, because there are more opportunities for promotion, especially if someone is willing to travel to where the openings are.
“The Army Reserve is a federal force so depending on your personal situation you can live in Hawaii and be assigned to a unit in California, or live in California and be assigned to a unit in Virginia,” Jacobs said. “The more senior you get, the more common that is in the Army Reserve.”
Jacobs himself used to fly from his home in South Carolina to Washington, D.C., for his twice monthly battle assemblies.
Civil Affairs, in particular, provides more chances for upward mobility, Jacobs added, because there are more senior level positions relative to other commands.
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