Image Tahlia Burton

Lima Charlie News spotlights Political Correspondent Tahlia Burton

Lima Charlie’s Managing Editor and Chief Political Correspondent Mike Connolly, host of the political podcast The Horse Race, sat down with one of our newest team members, Political Correspondent Tahlia Burton. Tahlia, a US Air Force veteran, served six years as a Chinese, Pashto, and French cryptologic language analyst out of Ft. Meade, MD, working real-time intelligence operations supporting special operations units in five U.S. combatant commands. After being honorably discharged, Tahlia was accepted to Columbia University where she serves on the Columbia University Senate, and is the Advisor on Human Rights Coverage for The War Horse, a nonprofit digital magazine focused on Post-9/11 war and trauma.

Tahlia has received national attention for her journalism, which has been covered in the Associated Press “Big Story,” Task & Purpose, The Washington Post, Fox News, and other numerous news outlets. Tahlia’s recent story for Lima Charlie News, “New study: VA care alone may be insufficient in treating post-9/11 Veterans,” takes a hard look at a new survey by the Wounded Warrior Project.

Mike asked Tahlia some questions about her service and new mission assignment here at Lima Charlie News.

Mike: Tahlia, we’re thrilled you’ve decided to join the team of amazing Political Correspondents with Lima Charlie News. What brought about your interest in journalism and writing about the political and policy process?

Tahlia: I’m thrilled to join the Lima Charlie crew! And thanks for having me on The Horse Race following the third presidential debate.

Journalism was a happy accident, more than anything. I’ve always been a painfully slow writer, so I never really considered writing even as a hobby much less professionally. But my first semester at Columbia, I took a course called University Writing and was lucky to have a brilliant teacher — a Ph.D student named Matt Margini — who I really admired and looked up to, both intellectually and personally. He made everything about writing (and reading!) interesting to me. I think when you’re lucky enough to have educators like Matt come into your life, you’re inspired by and drawn to whatever they put in front of you — and in my case it was writing. After that semester, I considered becoming an English major, but realized that it was the research and investigative aspects about writing that I enjoyed so much — not so much the intense analysis of literature and language.

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Lt. Col. Timothy Richardson awarding Tahlia Burton the Air Force Achievement Medal

Towards the end of my junior year, my good friend Brian, who’s the Editor-in-Chief at Task & Purpose, knew that I was looking for a summer internship that would work with my school schedule, and mentioned that he had an editorial spot open on his team. They hired me, and I spent an entire summer learning from their incredible team of editors and writers. It was a really great opportunity for me to be able to punch into journalism and new media within the military space that I’m so comfortable with.

As for writing about politics and policy, my ideology and passions have shifted pretty dramatically over the years because of the power of persuasive journalism and media. Such a tool, in my opinion, can be used for good: to heal divides, expose truths, combat extremism, encourage tolerance, and so on. I love the idea journalism can change the world — and I wholeheartedly believe it. I want to be part of that.

Mike: You served in the Air Force. What is it that drew you to military service and to the Air Force specifically, and what types of things did you do while in uniform that you can talk about?

Tahlia: Ha! What drew me to the Air Force when I was 18 is a completely different reason I’d join today at 27.

For one, I grew up in an aviation family and spent a lot of time on all different kinds of aircraft. I became a student pilot at 15 and graduated ground school shortly thereafter. My dad ran an international aviation organization, so I got to interact with people from all over the world — many of whom were military pilots who had served in combat roles in all kinds of wars. I’d ask them to teach me how to say certain things and I’d practice the accents until they were perfect.

I had always been weirdly obsessed with foreign languages and different cultures. My earliest memory of inspiration is watching a scene in “The Parent Trap” where Lindsay Lohan’s character absentmindedly slips between French and English. I started teaching myself French at the age of 10 —  and every month, I’d spend all of my allowance on Berlitz CD-Roms and French movies and magazines, and I would beg my parents’ francophone friends to practice with me. In high school, I took Spanish, French, and Latin — foregoing electives like golf and yearbook.

What impacted me the most was the time I spent in Quebec and in France as an exchange student — it was tasting that little bit of globalization that made me want to ultimately pursue a career with foreign languages and different cultures.

There aren’t many careers where aviation and foreign language intersect, but in 2007 I discovered the “Cryptologic Linguist” career field in the Air Force after some intense Google-ing… and I was instantly sold. I went to a recruiter the next week and started the long process of entering the world of military intelligence.

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I was a Chinese, Pashto, and French cryptologic linguist. Without giving too much away, my job revolved around translating communications in some of the world’s most dangerous, volatile regions. My unit worked real-time, 24-hour missions supporting special forces and special operations missions, so it was high-stakes and there was little room for errors. It was very emotionally trying at times, and I didn’t get to see my family more than once or twice a year, but to me it was the best job in the world.

Mike: Your career is interesting to me because of the important work you did while in uniform, and the level of responsibility you exhibited which is unusual for someone of your rank. What made you decide to enlist and serve through that path, as opposed to following a path to being a commissioned officer?

Tahlia: Honestly, I was just impatient. I wanted this new picture of my life to start then and there — I didn’t want to wait. I was the typical quixotic 18 year old who wanted to jet off to new and exciting places and leave all my troubles. I told myself that a bachelor’s degree could wait — and that’s been one of the best (and luckiest) decisions I’ve ever made.

Mike: What moments during your career impacted you the most, either positively or negatively?

Tahlia: Wow, that’s really hard to say, there are so many positives… I had such a full, rewarding career. I worked with some of the smartest, most dedicated people and served alongside the most high-quality, competent leaders in the military and intelligence community. My unit was like family to me — and we worked real-time, life or death missions every single night, which brought us all even closer. We were making a huge impact, we were saving lives, and that felt good. When I eventually became an instructor, it was really meaningful to be able to pass on the enthusiasm and see the love of the mission and camaraderie reflected in my students.

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Tahlia Burton with fellow Military Veterans of Columbia University, with former SECDEF Chuck Hagel.

In the linguist career field, you’re given the unique opportunity to learn a foreign language fluently —  and also a new culture and its people very intimately. You really start to experience the world in a new way. And don’t even get me started on the food! I learned Mandarin Chinese and Pashto in the military, so I can make really good Chinese pork dumplings and Afghan mantu.

Thankfully, I didn’t experience too many noteworthy negatives while I was in the military. I had bad leadership here and there like everyone else, but I always tried to stay focused and not let it color my experience.

What really rubbed me the wrong way when I got out of the military though was the trivialization of certain career fields by other veterans. I’ve been told that I’m “not a real veteran” because I was “just intelligence.”  I obviously don’t take insults like that to heart, but I do find it so incredibly disrespectful to all military career fields — and profoundly untrue. The military is a machine made up of lots of moving parts — we all need each other. We need the cooks, the supply, the intel, the mechanics, the admin, the combat arms, and all other career fields to run smoothly as a force. We’d be weaker without all of those components.

Mike: In retrospect, how do you view the profession of arms?

Tahlia: With a deep, unwavering, and unequivocal respect. This is a job that demands immense responsibility, stamina, and heart. It requires individuals who are ready and willing to die for a cause that they deem to be more important than themselves. As Americans, there are few things we can be more proud of than our military members.

It’s also a profession that needs to be taken seriously by all of its members. We often have to represent our nation at home and abroad, and many judge our country solely on their interactions with us. History is watching, so we always need to endeavor to always act with honor.

Mike: You and I first met through your involvement with Veterans in Global Leadership. What drew you to that organization, and how did that shape your worldview and what you see as your mission in life?

Tahlia: I’m very much drawn to international development, diplomacy, and foreign policy. Whenever any of those things intersect with the veteran or national security space, I’m thrilled to sign up. I think veterans are uniquely qualified to serve in those arenas because of our niche skills and knowledge — but also because of our resilience and grit. The world isn’t always a pretty place, and those particular fields require people who can handle all that it comes with.

Mike: Lima Charlie’s core mission is to train veterans and service members worldwide to become journalists, to enable them to report on the world around them. How do you see yourself as a part of this mission?

Tahlia: If anything — I hope other service members and veterans will realize, “Hey, if she’s doing this, I can totally do it, too.”

I also think that there’s something to be said about veterans and service members being classified as one of the most trusted groups in the nation… What better way to re-inspire confidence in the media than through mobilizing this distinctive, trustworthy group?

Mike: As you know, Lima Charlie’s goal is to report the news in an unbiased, non-partisan manner. When we report on the news, unless it’s obviously an op-ed, we try our best to stick to the facts. There’s enough running commentary in the mainstream news today. How do you see yourself reporting on U.S. politics for LC? Especially in the current heated political environment?

Tahlia: Well, first of all, every journalist has their beliefs and their leanings —  and every journalist is allowed to be a concerned voter. But my main concern in my writing is exposing truth, and hopefully persuading others to see it.

I think that one of the most divisive aspects of our society right now is the perception of biased media. Conservatives and liberals have a hard time getting along and discussing the issues. One of the reasons for that is because each side believes that the other’s information is bullshit and biased. What would it take to get these two groups back into conversation with one another? Therapy, maybe. But also perhaps neutral, trusted sources.

Mike: What political issues are of the most interest to you? What made you want to cover those issues in a journalistic outlet, rather than in op-eds or advocacy alone?

Tahlia: National security, foreign policy, the rise of global extremism, human rights, and education. I’m also very passionate about women’s and children’s issues, which each take up a bit of space in the aforementioned areas.

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General David Petraeus, Tiago dos Santos, Tahlia Burton

We definitely need op-eds and advocacy — but I think that if I have any journalistic talent at all, it’s the fact that I can research hard and present facts in a way that’s fair and digestible.  At different points in my life, I’ve identified as many things along the political spectrum, and I feel that I have a decent understanding of how many people think and why they think they way that they do, so I think it makes it easier for me to communicate with all types of different groups. Empathy and respect are paramount when you’re trying to reach your readers — and I’d like to think I know how to employ those factors well.

Mike: What articles are you going to work on first, or are you most excited to dive into in the coming weeks?

Tahlia: Lima Charlie just published my article about a recent Wounded Warrior Project survey  that indicates that, on its own, the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot sufficiently treat Post-9/11 injured service members. The study could reopen questions surrounding the VA’s ability to cover the needs of 21.8 million veterans in the United States. As for future articles, I think for now I’ll stick to the subject matter I know best, which happens to be matters of national security — everything from terrorism and terrorist groups to strategic approaches to fragile states.

Mike: Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten years?

Tahlia: Working to mitigate some of the world’s most entrenched security challenges. Ideally, I’d love to join an organization that works to solve global security issues through diplomatic, humanitarian means.   

Mike: Thanks Tahlia! Looking forward to reading your work! 

[Headline image: General James F. Amos, former commandant of the Marine Corps with Tahlia Burton]

Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

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New study: VA care alone may be insufficient in treating post-9/11 Veterans