Sometimes life really does come full circle – in more ways than one.
As a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet and young TFAS student Ken Rizer (ICPES 86) interned on Capitol Hill in the U.S. House of Representatives learning about the legislative process and gaining a new perspective on liberty and freedom. He spent his time in D.C. like most interns, enjoying the summer with friends and getting an authentic, inside look at Washington.
After his first summer in Washington, Rizer’s interest in politics spiked, but he knew it wasn’t his first career choice.
He served a successful 25 years as an Air Force commander and fighter pilot, completing 15 assignments and leading men and women in combat during tours in Iraq.
“I believe TFAS has an enormous return on investment. I think that the seeds that are planted in young people in the TFAS program can grow to become enormously productive and be of great benefit to our entire nation.”
Rizer also gained a great academic experience while serving his country. He was a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in foreign affairs and was recognized as the top graduate in political science. He also learned Swedish from the State Department’s language school in Washington and then studied international security at the University of Stockholm in Sweden for two years. Rizer recalled defending his thesis in Swedish as a fun and exciting challenge. After finishing his degree in Sweden, Rizer added a follow-on year at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to earn a master’s in public administration in leadership, politics and national security.
During his 25 years in the Air Force, Rizer also commanded an F-16 fighter squadron, an F-16 fighter group and Joint Base Andrews, the home of Air Force One. At Andrews, he was responsible for 60,000 military personnel and their families around the world. There he balanced a $252 million budget, opened the Department of Defense’s first combined charter school, ensured security for all senior U.S. and foreign officials, and procured a $30 million helicopter operations facility. His dedication and service resulted in one of his greatest accomplishments, Andrews being named the #1 Air Force-led Joint Base in the DoD.
“My responsibility was to serve them all and pull them together in a way where we could all work together as a team,” Rizer said. “I was proud of the fact that we created a collegial environment of shared interest where we worked together for things in our mutual interests, and the result was that we did very well.”
In 2012, Rizer retired as a colonel from Joint Base Andrews. He and his family moved back to Iowa to give his three youngest children a stable environment throughout high school. He served as a senior leader of a major nonprofit in Iowa, earned his MBA from the University of Iowa, taught a yearlong bible study, and then he decided to run for office.
“I was unhappy with the direction our country was going,” Rizer said. “I felt equipped to contribute and serve, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring.”
Now he has just concluded his freshman session as a state representative in Iowa where he put into practice the things he learned as a TFAS student. Running on ideas like freedom of economics and personal liberty, Rizer beat an incumbent candidate in a ‘purple region’ to represent his district.
Rizer received a a Barry Goldwater Scholarship to attend TFAS as a college student. He recalls some of the important lessons he learned while taking the comparative economic systems and comparative politics courses.
“Those were absolutely incredible classes,” Rizer said. “They really helped me understand the international environment better than I ever had. For a young Air Force officer, it was really important for me to understand everything at an academic level so I could apply the knowledge at an operational level.”
Rizer says his TFAS professors really gave him the perspective he needed to succeed. He especially thanked TFAS for his time with the well-known and loved, late professor Dr. George Viksnins from Latvia, who had the unique experience of living behind the iron curtain and provided true stories of what it was like to be there.
“It was absolutely invaluable to have that kind of experience coupled with the incredible academic credentials that he brought to the table,” he said. “It helped me to understand the Cold War environment that I was about to enter as a young military officer.”
Rizer’s academic experience with TFAS not only helped during his Air Force career; it also shaped some of the ideals he still holds today in public service. While speaking on an alumni panel at the 2015 Leadership Conference in Colorado Springs, Rizer reflected on how Dr. Viksnins’ lessons influenced his decision to run for office and how he implements those ideas as a representative in the Iowa legislature.
“Dr. George Viksnins planted some very important seeds in a young cadet about individual liberty, free-market capitalism and limited government,” he said. “After I got out of the service and I saw the direction that our country was going, I decided to take some of these principles that I learned in ICPES and jump into the political arena. My platform was actually based on those principles I learned from Dr. Viksnins.”
While he has always been a devoted advocate of these ideas, becoming an elected official hasn’t been his primary goal in life. Surprisingly, one event during his time as a congressional intern initially turned him away from politics.
As an intern, Rizer was fighting for an issue that was important to him, but the bill went against a particular group that supported the congressman. While there, a colleague explained to him “You gotta dance with the one who brung ya” – referencing the importance in making your special interest groups happy. This was a turning point for Rizer where he saw the importance of always doing what is right.
“Now that I’ve gotten in politics, it has made me acutely aware that I need to do the right thing regardless and not let one special interest group dictate public policy,” Rizer said. “That particular bill ended up passing and has existed for a long time, so that story had a good ending, but the lessons I learned about special interest groups was pretty powerful.”
Rizer’s hard work and dedication doesn’t stop at the office. He is a published author and speaker, military division-winning Ironman triathlete and RAGBRAI rider.
“I think it’s important to stay in shape,” Rizer said. “Some of the best time I have for thinking is when I’m exercising, so it feeds both my body and my mind.”
From living, learning and interning in a D.C. congressional office one summer, to serving as commander of Joint Base Andrews near Washington and now becoming a representative of his district in Iowa, Rizer’s professional experience has really come full circle.
Rizer knows the importance of the life changing experience TFAS programs offer and thanks donors for their continued support, which provides opportunities for future generations to benefit the same way he did.
“I believe TFAS has an enormous return on investment, Rizer said. “I think that the seeds that are planted in young people in the TFAS program can grow to become enormously productive and be of great benefit to our entire nation.”
To support the TFAS education of future Ken Rizers, visit www.TFAS.org/Support.