Karthik Venkatraj, a 30-year-old Westminster resident, has spent the last decade seeking ways to serve his country, including serving six months in Iraq in 2015 and earning the title of captain in the Colorado Army National Guard.
After returning from the Middle East, with American soil back under his feet and a deployment under his belt, Venkatraj was inspired to tackle his patriotic ambitions from a new angle — a reform in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Currently studying law at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Venkatraj was selected from dozens of applicants across the nation to be one of 10 exemplary student veterans to participate in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Student Veterans of America’s 2017 Legislative Fellowship program. He has made himself heard not only in his community, but at Capitol Hill.
The program’s mission is to get young veterans involved with the VFW, and allows student veterans to meet with policymakers from federal agencies to discuss certain VA policy issues.
Venkatraj has proposed a plan that he believes can improve the hiring process at the VA. His “Executive Management Fellowship Program” would allow a one-year exchange between a senior VA manager and someone in a comparable position within the private and public job sectors.
For example, Venkatraj explained, a CEO from an information technology firm would learn the role of a VA management member, while the VA employee learned the trade of the IT employee, allowing both employees to boost their skill sets.
“It’s a very nuanced, targeted way to get extraordinarily talented individuals within a specific hiring pool into (the VA) where they can make systematic and wide-spreading change,” Venkatraj said. “It’s great for the VA because they have an incredible opportunity to get these talented individuals, and it’s great for these talented individuals because they can serve in a very meaningful way.”
In March, Venkatraj proposed his idea to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, who added it to a bill and sent it straight to the U.S. congress. It passed unanimously (412-0) in House and is now pending approval in Senate.
According to Ken Wiseman, associate director of National Legislative Service at the VFW office in Washington, D.C., and manager of the 3-year-old student veteran legislative fellowship program, Venkatraj is the first participant to catch the eye of Congress and get his proposal on a bill. Wiseman thinks that the bill will easily pass through Senate.
“We’re hopeful that this program will create an infusion of talent (within the VA),” Wiseman said.
Denver’s own VFW Post 1, where Venkatraj is a member, is excited and supportive of the young veteran’s ambitions.
“He has a lot of passion and a lot of energy for helping veterans. Ever since the first meeting he came to, he’s been excited about what the Post is doing and we are excited about what he is doing,” said Brittany Bartges, senior vice commander with Post 1. “I have no delusions that we will be able to keep Karthik around here. He’s going to go be a rockstar somewhere.”
A few of the other accomplishments on Venkatraj’s résumé include the current student body president of CU Boulder’s law school, former president of the CU Law School’s Military Law Society, military research intern at the Pentagon, executive editor for the Harvard Jounal of Law and Public Policy’s Symposium issue and managing editor of the University of Colorado Law Review.
Venkatraj’s passion for service started with the story of his parents — Indian immigrants who arrived in the states with $100 and the beginnings of a dream. Within 10 years of arriving in New York, his mother earned her M.D. and his father, his Ph.D.
“Their narrative, going from minimum wage jobs to graduate jobs, that was the American dream to me,” Venkatraj said. “That has been very powerful in my life.”
Venkatraj spent the early parts of his childhood in Brooklyn, until his family moved to Texas in 1996. By 2001, Venkatraj was in his first year of high school, and planned to pursue a medical career. But in September of that year, everything changed.
“When 9/11 hit, I knew this was my opportunity to serve others and protect people,” Venkatraj said. “In the most basic sense, that was my hometown. New York City is where I grew up — in the shadow of the World Trade Centers.”
Venkatraj attended Texas A&M University and was active in ROTC. In his sophomore year, he enlisted in the National Guard. And now after a decade of serving the U.S., he wants to help the U.S. serve their veterans.
“I think it really takes combat deployment to put (veterans issues) into perspective, because before I left … I never understood what it really meant to deploy,” Venkatraj said. “I came back with more motivation to want to work on veteran advocacy.”
Venkatraj believes his bill will pass easily through Senate. He thinks a personnel reform is something the VA has been seeking for a long time, it was just a matter of bringing the right people together at the right time — that, and a set of fresh eyes.
“I do believe that our post-9/11 generation is our next greatest generation,” he said. “And I think they are the hope of our country. They are young and diverse and innovative and creative.”
And when asked what he credits his own successes to, Venkatraj said: “I’ve only stood on the shoulders of the people who came before me.”
Content originally published by the Denver Post on April 18, 2017.