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Longtime key House staffer John Chapla dies

Jan. 8, 2014 - 05:46PM   |  
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The Jan. 5 death of Vietnam combat veteran and longtime House Armed Services Committee staff member John D. Chapla has left the influential panel without its longtime expert on military personnel and benefits policy.

Chapla, a rifle platoon leader with the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the Vietnam War who later wrote a book about sacrifices and heroism of his company, was an example of someone dedicated to public life.

He spent almost 22 years in the Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, and worked for the House Armed Services Committee almost uninterrupted from 1994 until his death from cancer at age 66.

His long tenure on the staff — from the finishing stages of the post-Cold War drawdown through the buildup in forces for what was called the Global War on Terrorism, and now the post-Iraq and Afghanistan drawdowns — provided lawmakers with a steady hand and quiet adviser on key issues.

“He was the compass and guidepost for the military personnel subcommittee,” said Jeanette James, a fellow staffer on the personnel panel.

Bob Simmons, the House Armed Services Committee staff director, said in a statement that Chapla “was not only a close friend but served as the conscience of the committee. His vocal commitment to the men and women of the military and the mission always held the committee and the staff accountable to the higher calling without politics.

“We all knew and supported John as he struggled with health,” Simmons said. “Right up to the end, he never failed in his dedication to his daily work. We were just not prepared to begin this year without him.”

Paul Arcangeli, the armed services committee’s Democratic staff director, said Chapla “will forever be my inspiration for how to continue to live when faced with adversity.”

“He was incredibly tough and stoically fought his cancer for many years, never letting it stop him from living his life,” Arcangeli said. “To the end, John was more concerned about those around him than himself.”

Chapla was one Capitol Hill staffer who worked to slow down Defense Department efforts to cut military pay and benefits. While the Senate Armed Services Committee was willing to accept a Pentagon initiative that would fast-track changes in military retirement and other benefits based on recommendations from an independent commission, Chapla cautioned members of the House committee against going along with anything that would limit their ability to alter the commission recommendations — the position that ultimately became law.

That was not a matter of politics but rather of who should oversee policy changes, Chapla told lawmakers.

“John was a behind-the-scenes hero who worked incredibly hard for more than 20 years on the Hill to see that Congress did the right thing by troops and families. We owe him a great debt of thanks,” said Steve Strobridge, a retired Air Force colonel who worked as government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America and co-chairman of the Military Coalition, a group of more than 30 military-related organizations representing the interests of current and former service members and their families.

Former Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former House Armed Services Committee chairman who served on the panel from 1981 until his retirement in 2009, said Chapla was perfect example of a “good government” veteran who put his dedication and experience to work in a second career.

“I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a John Chapla on the committee,” Hunter said.

He also couldn’t think of a single occasion where Chapla provided any politically tinged advice.

“When he spoke up at meetings, it was always to talk about the pros and cons of doing something or not doing something. I never heard him speak of the political ramifications of such-and-such, and I appreciated it,” said Hunter, whose son now serves on the committee.

Former Army legislative liaison chief Guy Swan III, a retired lieutenant general who is now vice president for education at the Association of the U.S. Army, said Chapla “was a true professional and patriot.”

“A distinguished former Army officer and recognized legislative expert, John was completely committed to the welfare our troops,” said Swan, the Army’s top liaison to Congress from 2002 to 2005. “Few on Capitol Hill have done more to see that America's all-volunteer force remains the best in the world. He will be profoundly missed.”

In addition to The Men of Alpha Company: Combat With the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Vietnam, 1969-1970, Chapla was the author of other books, including a history of the 42nd, 48th and 50th Virginia Infantry Regiments, part of a series of books about Civil War units from Virginia.

He self-published the book about Vietnam after his cancer diagnosis, saying he was doing it partly for himself and partly for his family. The book covers his years as a Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet preparing for the military to his combat experience with a unit made of soldiers who volunteered for airborne training. It focuses on his unit of paratroopers surviving under arduous conditions with acts of bravery and stupidity, heroism and substance abuse.

Chapla had an English degree from the Virginia Military Institute and a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An Ohio native, he lived in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Lee, and his two daughters.

Charlie Abell, a former Defense Department undersecretary for personnel and readiness, worked with Chapla as the Pentagon official responsible for military personnel policy and also when Abell was Chapla’s counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“John was my friend as well as a colleague,” said Abell, now executive vice president for policy and government affairs at the Wounded Warrior Project. “He was a dedicated professional who cared very deeply for those who served their country.”

Abell recalls Chapla as “always serious and focused,” especially during negotiating sessions between the House and Senate committees to work out differences on the annual defense policy bill.

“His intensity was something on which we depended to make the conference agreements better,” Abell said.

It also “provided us opportunities to enjoy moments of fun in which John would listen to a tongue-in-cheek proposal and react predictably before he realized we were pulling his leg. He gave as good as he got during those late evening and weekend sessions, helping all of us get through the stressful process of producing a quality defense bill.”

John Molino, the Wounded Warrior Project’s chief of staff for programs, who also worked with Chapla in variety of professional relationships, agreed he was “always serious.”

“This was a quality man who dedicated his life to service, and the American service members and their families,” said Molino, who worked with Chapla as a Defense Department staff officer and later at the Association of the U.S Army, where Chapla briefly was the government relations director and Molino his deputy.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the House Armed Services Committee chairman, said Chapla “shaped two decades worth of defense authorization bills,” while serving as an “island of calm in turbulent waters.”

“He was ever sensitive to how congressional policies impacted the military,” McKeon said. “And the troops, not politics, were always his first concern. The hole John leaves in the committee is immense. He was that rare blend of wisdom, pragmatism, and experience, yet good natured, well humored, and patient.”

“We need more John Chaplas in the world, not less,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the armed services committee’s ranking Democrat.

Rick Maze is editor in chief of ARMY Magazine, a monthly publication of the Association of the United States Army, and a veteran Capitol Hill reporter who has covered the House Armed Services Committee since 1980.

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