Dan Helmer and Aaron Scheinberg were among the handful of Jewish cadets to graduate from West Point in 2003.
They went on to serve in the early years of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now they live just 75 miles apart — Helmer in Fairfax County and Scheinberg in Hedgesville, W. Va., population 320.
And they both want a seat in Congress, running as Democrats in traditionally Republican districts.
Helmer, 35, is seeking his party’s nomination next summer in Virginia’s 10th District, to replace Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican who has held the seat since in 2014. Helmer is one of eight Democratic contenders so far in the June 12 primary.
Scheinberg, 36, wants to replace two-term incumbent Republican Rep. Alex Mooney in the state’s Second District. That primary is on May 8. So far, Scheinberg has one primary opponent.
Helmer and Scheinberg met early on at West Point while they were taking an Arabic class, but became closer during their last two years at West Point, when Helmer was the Hillel president and Scheinberg was the choir director for the campus Jewish chapel.
“Between the two of us we were the two guys who ran Jewish life at West Point,” Helmer said.
They say they are running to fix a political system they believe is broken, and one that can be fixed by someone with a background in the military.
“I think we’re in a pivotal moment in our democracy where we’re going to see more service-minded people elected, and I think I’m part of that first wave,” said Scheinberg.
Scheinberg was on active duty in the Army for five years, including from 2005 to 2007 as a civil affairs officer in the town of Haswa, Iraq, where he helped set up a local government and begin work on infrastructure projects.
“I was 24 years old, and my job was basically to be the mayor of a town of 200,000 people while taking care of everyone in my platoon,” he said. “Part of our job was to protect people in Iraq from insurgents, but it was [also] to focus on their biggest challenges and fix them.”
Once, the town council came to Scheinberg and asked if they could make better use of an old police station power plant. He said a team of engineers in the Army worked to double its electrical output.
“You can actually get things done when you get solutions, and if you do fail that’s OK,” he said. “You can correct that.”
Helmer said he, too, learned teamwork during his 11 years of active duty.
“Every day you’re focused on the mission, but every day you get to know each other,” he said. “The essence of being in the military is to put country before self. It’s been something deeply absent from our politics.”
Helmer said his proudest accomplishment in the Army came while he was serving in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. His general called to tell him that Afghan officers were not being trained properly.
“Here we are, several years into a war and we’ve been fighting in the wrong place and just now we’re having to reset the way we’re training people,” he said.
Helmer responded by training Americans, Afghans and coalition partners to work together in solving problems. He said he eventually helped the country establish a national training center for military officers.
Scheinberg said once his platoon returned to the United States, its members were frustrated by the political dysfunction they found in Washington.
“The platoon had people from all over the country, all different backgrounds and political persuasions,” he said. “We were working together as a team. When we came home, we were so disappointed in how seldom that actually happens [in national politics].”
Scheinberg said Mooney’s vote in May in favor of the Republican-sponsored American Health Care Act was an example of the partisan politics he said is hurting West Virginia.
“Mooney said this was good for the people of West Virginia,” Scheinberg said. “The people of West Virginia obviously felt differently and that came out in the Senate vote.” (The bill failed in the Senate).
Scheinberg also criticized Mooney for not holding town hall meetings with constituents. (Mooney held a telephone town hall on Feb. 27 to discuss the healthcare vote and other issues.)
Scheinberg said that if elected, he would go to work to solve the state’s opioid crisis. West Virginia had the highest drug overdose rate in the country in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control. He hopes to bring drug rehabilitation and detoxification centers to the state’s eastern panhandle. The closest drug rehabilitation facilities now are 90 minutes away in Washington, he said.
Helmer said that his priorities include increasing employment in his district and improving infrastructure. Rather than take aim at Comstock, Helmer criticized President Donald Trump for not making good on promises to accomplish these goals, and for dividing the country.
“Trump hasn’t done anything about it,” he said. He can’t bring people toward common interests and we [Democrats] are going to have to reassert congressional authority.”
Helmer and Scheinberg have one other thing in common — family history.
Scheinberg’s paternal grandfather fought in World War II and helped liberate Nazi concentration camps. at the end of the Holocaust. Later, that grandfather advocated for Soviet Jews to be given refugee status in the United States.
Helmer’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors and refugees. His paternal grandmother fled to then-Palestine in 1939 after which the rest of her family was murdered in Europe. After World War II, his maternal grandmother fled to Berlin from Communist Poland. Both sides of the family eventually came to the United States, and their experiences have been large factors in his decision to serve his country, he said.
“This country welcomed my family when they were refugees,” Helmer said. “I’ve watched this president and what this Congress has done, and my wife and I have said, ‘We want this country to be better.’”