Arizona veterans call out Rep. Juan Ciscomani’s advisory council for lack of diversity

A new veterans advisory council was officially launched by Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., with the aim to create solutions to support Arizona’s veteran population.

However, the council quickly drew criticism from female veterans in Ciscomani’s district and progressive veterans groups over the lack of diversity of its members.

Ciscomani expects to add more members and expand the diversity of the council, which was announced Aug. 28, according to a spokesperson for his office.

Of the 13 members on the council, only one is a woman — Jane Strain, a U.S. Army veteran. 

When JoAnna Mendoza, a retired Marine and combat veteran, first saw a photo of the congressman’s council on social media, she was alarmed.

“There seems to be this perception amongst folks that have either never served or are not familiar with military service, that the only people that bring valuable insight or perspective are officers or men,” Mendoza said. 

Several female veterans, including Mendoza, signed onto an op-ed calling out the lack of diversity in the council and progressive veterans organizations, such as Common Defense and VetsForward, have supported their efforts. 

Of the almost 70,000 veterans that live in the 6th Congressional District, which includes parts of metro Tucson and surrounding rural areas, more than 7,400 of them are women.

The council will focus on specific areas related to veterans: transition to civilian life, mental health and suicide prevention, access to housing and education, and workforce opportunities. 

“This council was formed with the full intention to expand, encompassing individuals that reflect the wide diversity of the over 70,000 veterans in CD6,” said Paige Lindgren, a spokesperson for Cisomani’s office, in a statement to The Arizona Republic.

“The congressman looks forward to building out on the diversity and expertise in this group and partnering with them to fulfill the council’s mission to improve the lives of our veterans.”

Maj. Gen. Donald Shepperd, 82, of the U.S. Air Force, who serves as the council’s chairman, was asked to join the group by Ciscomani’s team, Shepperd said. He has written several books and for years was a military analyst for CNN. 

Allen Kinnison, vice president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and U.S. Air Force veteran, was asked to be on the council because of Ciscomani’s close relationship with the president and CEO of SALC Ted Maxwell, who is also a veteran, Kinnison said.

U.S. Congressman Juan Ciscomani (center), R-Ariz., a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, launches his new Veterans Advisory Council, Aug. 30, 2023.

Another member of the council, Clea McCaa, the mayor of Sierra Vista and U.S. Army veteran, was asked by Ciscomani to join the group after they met on the campaign trail in September 2022, McCaa said.

Ciscomani will use the council to shape policy as a member of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, according to a news release of the council announcement.

Leaving women out of this conversation, especially with so many policy implications, is “extremely problematic,” Mendoza said. 

Women aren’t the only underrepresented group in Ciscomani’s council — young people, individuals of color and enlisted members are either rare on the council or not represented.

“(Veterans) are not this monolith of old white men,” said Scott Bourque, a veteran and director of communications for VetsForward.

“Ciscomani looks like he chose a committee that looks like what somebody who’s never been in the military thinks veterans look like.” 

Issues of importance to women, such as sexual assault and abortion, and younger people, such as transition back to civilian life post-9/11 service, will likely be left behind due to the makeup of the council, said Bourque, 33, who penned the op-ed that four female veterans of Cisomani’s district signed.

“Our perspective, our experience, is different from our male counterparts,” Mendoza said. “If we don’t have those diverse voices at the table and they try to recommend a policy, it may not work for everyone.” 

Shepperd is not oblivious to the lack of diversity. When he walked through the door to attend the council’s first meeting, “The first thing I noticed was there was only one woman in there,” he said. 

Shepperd and Kinnison recognized the potential for more members to be added, including more women.

A spokesperson for Ciscomani said the council plans to add more members but wanted to get the group up and running first. 

Female veterans in Ciscomani’s district hope he hears their concerns.

“Our job as constituents of the congressman is to hold him accountable and to call him out when he’s doing things that seem … biased,” Mendoza said. “When committees or advisory committees don’t represent the people, the makeup of the district, that’s extremely problematic.”

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