From Cuba to Captain to Congress—The Journey of Rafael E. Diaz

Legislative affairs master’s student and U.S. Army captain will begin assignment in Congress as a Congressional Fellow in January.

November 9, 2023

Rafael Diaz

Legislative affairs master's student and U.S. Army Capt. Rafael Diaz will soon begin an appointment as a legislative liaison for a member of Congress. (Photos and illustration by William Atkins/GW Today)

In fall 2009, Rafael E. Diaz landed on the shores of the greater Miami area from Havana, Cuba. He was 19 years old and not fluent in English at the time of his arrival.

Fourteen years later, he’ll land in the halls of Congress as a Congressional Fellow for the U.S. Army, where he has dutifully served as an officer and operational leader.

Diaz is completing a Master’s in Legislative Affairs at the George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, where he will finish the Army Congressional Fellowship Program’s academic requirement in December. After that, he will begin a one-year assignment to a Congressional office, working directly for a member of Congress before being assigned to the U.S. Army as a legislative liaison. He will find out his placement in the coming weeks.

When he immigrated to the United States as a permanent resident with his mother and brother to live with his Florida-residing grandparents who had already escaped Cuba, Diaz experienced living in a democracy for the first time. And while he was relishing this newfound way of life, he swore to pay it back while never forgetting his heritage.

He commissioned with the U.S. Army in 2015, fulfilling a call to give back to the country that allowed him to live out the freedoms and norms he wasn’t privy to in Cuba. And now that he has served the United States wearing the uniform on missions both at home—his one for the past 14 years—and abroad, Diaz is just as eager to represent and advocate in a different area of service for every American whether they were born inside or outside the country’s borders.

“Now I see myself half in a suit, half in a uniform working in Congress not only representing the military, but representing the American people,” said Diaz, who currently holds a captain’s rank in the U.S. Army. “And right in between is my effort trying to represent immigrants.” 

Empathy has long run been a character trait of Diaz. As a child in Cuba, where a human rights report revealed more than 72% of the population lives below the poverty line, Diaz would spend whatever little birthday money he’d receive taking his friends who lived every day not knowing where their next meal would come from out to eat. He sought ways to translate that element of serving others to life in the United States when he immigrated.

He thinks this attitude is one of many reasons it’s imperative to have diversity in both the military and public offices. Diaz believes many immigrants serve because they want to give back to a country that provided them opportunities maybe they once didn’t have.

He himself has seen the benefits of diversity and inclusion on full display. From September 2021 to October 2022, Diaz was a company commander leading more than 150 soldiers in support of joint military operations in Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti. During his deployment, Diaz’s company planned, synchronized and executed security operations with Army, Air Force and Marine elements to deny violent extremist organizations in East Africa.

While he was the only Hispanic company commander of the whole task force, his company had people from 10 different countries speaking more than seven languages. Diaz said there was great benefit to bringing people with different ideas, languages and backgrounds together to lead them toward one objective.

He sees that potential in government, and he is ecstatic to bring his experience as both an immigrant and U.S. Army officer to Congress.

“The main aspect is having an open mind and not imposing what you know or the perspectives that you have on others,” Diaz said. “You have 535 members of Congress trying to work together, representing different people, different views, different political points and different goals. I think it’s one of the reasons that drove me to Congress.”

To Diaz, leadership boils down to two things: not being afraid to fail and having a strong ability to communicate with others. These transcend, he said, to the military—from infantry officers leading soldiers into combat, to civilian jobs and the political arena.

Considering the life Diaz has built as an immigrant and U.S. Army officer, as well as his continued advocation for others, Diaz has lived up to his two standards of leadership and appears well suited for an appointment on the Hill.

Military and veteran student life at GW

GW, a participant in the Yellow Ribbon Program, enrolls more than 1,400 veterans, active-duty service members and their dependents. GW has been an annual recipient of the Military Friendly Award and is also annually recognized as a Military Times “Best for Vets” higher education institution. 

The Office of Military and Veteran Student Services helps these students maximize their educational benefits to prepare for post-military careers. GW Veterans is a student organization that advocates on behalf of all veterans, military dependent family members, active-duty service members and reserve/national guard members currently enrolled at GW.

This week, there will be a Veterans Day ceremony and brunch Friday morning, and through Thursday, members of the GW community could sign a Thank You banner, located in the Great Hall on the first floor of the University Student Center. The men’s basketball game against Stonehill on Monday also featured a Salute to Service.