State Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon

Harry Funk/The Almanac

State Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon, was sworn in April 29 for her seat to serve the 37th Senatorial District.

Talk about a transition.

“One day, I was a captain in the Navy,” said state Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon. “And five months later, I was preparing for a Senate confirmation hearing.”

During that short span, a chain of events in 2003-04 led her from wrapping up 23 years of active duty to the U.S. Senate, indeed, confirming her as the assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs under President George W. Bush.

37th Senatorial District map

Iovino’s experience in that position, followed by serving as director of Veterans Services for Allegheny County, no doubt helped convince her colleagues in the Pennsylvania Senate to place her in a leadership role.

Shortly after her swearing in April 29, following her win earlier in the month for the vacant 37th District seat, fellow Democrats tapped her as minority chairwoman of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

“I thought there was a high probability I would be a member,” she said of receiving her committee assignments. “But I didn’t expect, as a brand-new incumbent freshman, to be the chair of it.”

Iovino didn’t expect a career in the military, either.

Her father and uncles served in World War II, but otherwise, she didn’t come from a military family. And when she was getting ready to graduate from Gettysburg College, the United States had wrapped up its involvement in Vietnam and was on the way to downsizing the Armed Forces.

“I didn’t have a real focus yet careerwise, what I wanted to do,” Iovino recalled. “But I had a couple of objectives. One was to start building a résumé and getting some good management experience on it. I also was looking for an employment opportunity that possibly could help me pay for grad school.”

And so she joined the U.S. Navy, which probably raised some eyebrows considering the composition of the military in 1980.

“If a young man had made a similar decision,” she reflected, “no one would have thought twice.”

Iovino attended the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., graduated with distinction and was commissioned as an ensign. In 1992, she returned to Newport to attend the Naval War College, earning her master’s degree in national security and providing her with a broad choice of where her career could head.

“When you get the tap to go to the Naval War College, what they’re saying is not just that you’re going to be a future leader within your branch of service, but within the Department of Defense,” she said.

She drew an assignment on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations, serving as a liaison between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, in part helping to as she said “prepare brass to testify at hearings.”

Later, she joined the Secretary of the Navy’s staff, doing similar work with a higher level of responsibility.

As of 2003, Iovino still was on active duty. Then came an opportunity to apply for the position of deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

She got the job, which required her to retire from the U.S. Navy. And not long after, she was promoted to assistant secretary, serving as the department’s lead advocate on Capitol Hill for the nation’s 25 million veterans and their families.

The Whitehall native eventually returned to the Pittsburgh area to continue to serve the needs of veterans.

“Allegheny County has the largest concentration of veteran population in the state. It’s among the largest in the country,” she said. “We have a propensity to serve, and we have a propensity to come back home.”

Representing the 37th District is something of a homecoming for Iovino.

“During my junior year, Gettysburg offered a program called the Harrisburg Urban Semester,” she recalled, “and I went up and interned for a semester and a summer at the Pennsylvania State Senate, in the seat I now hold.”

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Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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