More Iraq, Afghanistan vets going from service member to member of Congress

Sixteen members of Congress have served in Iraq or Afghanistan – the largest contingent of former service members to come to Capitol Hill since the 1980s. More could be on the way.

Cliff Owen/AP
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois, seen here in 2010 at the World War II Memorial in Washington, lost both of her legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade.

When members of the 113th Congress took their oaths of office earlier this year, they ushered into Washington the largest wave of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans since those wars began more than a decade ago.

Today, a total of 16 members have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, including the first two female combat veterans ever to be elected to Congress.

That makes them the largest contingent of former service members to come to Capitol Hill since the 1980s, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

Since they have been voted into office, these new lawmakers “have been incredibly influential,” in helping to drive through legislation to improve care for veterans and those currently serving in the military, says Tom Tarantino, policy associate for the IAVA.

They have also been among the most vocal critics of costly Pentagon weapons systems of questionable necessity, and they’ve helped to drive debate on national security issues in ways that may seem, at first glance, counterintuitive.

This has included questioning – and, for most, ultimately opposing – US intervention in Syria. Only two lawmakers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, support US military action there. The other 14, who include a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, either remain skeptical or oppose action altogether.

“Anytime someone has been in combat and has been on the ground and knows the net result of these decisions, it definitely gives you a perspective that influences you,” says Mr. Tarantino, a former Army captain who served as a platoon leader in Baghdad. “For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a very visceral and very recent perspective on combat. We know more than anyone what it’s going to look like.”

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois, who lost both of her legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, is a freshman lawmaker and a combat veteran who remains skeptical of US intervention in Syria.

“I’ve heard discussion before that this type of thing is going to be a limited attack and it will be done in a short amount of time,” she told reporters in September. “War is messy. War is never that simple.”

Veterans often bring a similar skepticism to questions about Pentagon spending. That’s often because veterans “can actually stand up and talk about defense spending in a way that will be realistic without being attacked for lack of patriotism or not being strong on defense,” Ms. Duckworth told the Associated Press last year.

During the 30 years he served as an officer in the US Marines, Greg Raths flew fighter jets. Now he is running as a Republican for a seat in Congress representing southern California’s 45th District.

This experience gives him a clear perspective on Pentagon weapons systems like the F-35 fighter jet, he says, which has been plagued with billions of dollars in cost overruns.

“It’s the military industrial machine running this whole thing, but this plane is not performing,” Mr. Raths says. “I’d be more open to cutting some of these programs than pouring more money into them.”

Raths is part of the next wave of veterans running for Congress in 2014. This already-forming group also includes Kirk Jorgensen, a US Marine who deployed to Iraq and elsewhere six times during his 10 years of service and is now running in California’s 52nd District.

Mr. Jorgensen recalls filling sandbags and putting them on the floors of Humvees before they were properly armored, in an effort to deflect the blasts of roadside bombs. His unit put them on the hoods of their vehicles, too, “so the hood wouldn’t fly up and crush you.”

Having dealt with such shortages in equipment during wartime, he is frustrated with the propensity of Congress to fund expensive weapons systems that the military expressly does not want.

“We’re building tanks the Army hasn’t asked for, and transporting them to the desert, so that members of Congress can get themselves reelected and provide the jobs for their districts,” Jorgensen says.

“This frustrates men and women in the military. In some cases, we didn’t even have the proper flak jackets.”

Jorgensen has signed a three-term limit pledge. The point, he says, is to be less beholden to corporate interests that often keep politicians in office, and more responsive to the citizens being represented.

If it all sounds a bit idealistic, Jorgensen says he recognizes the challenges of running for office as a veteran. Often, he notes, because vets deploy and move often, “military men and women don’t establish the roots necessary to build a constituency.”

There’s a perception, too, that “vets show up with big hearts, great ideas, but not a lot of ‘oomph’ when it comes to money-raising.”

But the issues America faces now are too important not to try to get more vets in office, Jorgensen says.

This includes fighting a war on terror that he sees as eroding US constitutional rights.

As a US Marine, Jorgensen was tapped to go to the Central Intelligence Agency’s “farm” to train to be a case officer. He was then assigned to capture “people indicted for war crimes,” or PIFWCs.

He briefed Madeleine Albright, then secretary of State, and other top leaders about an organization called “the base,” later known as Al Qaeda.

Even though he understands the threats posed by terrorists clearly, he says he was “horrified” when he learned that America was using drones to target US citizens in the war on terror.

“A US person is a US person, and at some point we need to draw a line about when we deploy weapons on US persons,” he says.

It is a “red line” that America has crossed, he warns, and it requires more congressional oversight.

“The US Constitution needs to come into play. If we have the capability to use UAVs to take out vehicles in Yemen – if we’re willing to do that, why can’t we drop a team and put [a US citizen] in flexicuffs and drag them away?” he adds, noting that this is what he did when he was assigned to capture PIFWCs, often in the middle of the night.

“And who is it that decides which US citizens get rolled up and who gets killed?”

In addition to questioning American policies with which they are intimately familiar, veterans say they hope they can begin to change attitudes in a bitterly divided Congress.

“You can educate your peers: You can do it over coffee, you can do it by storytelling,” Jorgensen says. “You tell them the way you feel and the way you’re going to vote. You don’t do it in eight-second sound bites that get people all riled up. You have legitimate conversations rather than constant debate.”

Sometimes, they can begin conversations that Congress simply was not having before, says Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain and now executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy organization.

The fact that female combat veterans, for example, are now serving in Congress “is to me the really historic story,” she says.

She cites Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D) of Hawaii, who has supported bipartisan efforts to reform the military justice system in the wake of a surge of sexual assault reports.

As more female veterans run for Congress, that could further spur positive change for the military and for the nation, Ms. Bhagwati says. “We have seen that when there are groups of women legislators working on issues, change happens.”

Indeed, more female veterans are expected to run in 2014. Martha McSally is the first woman to fly in combat, and after narrowly losing a bid for Gabrielle Giffords’s Arizona seat in 2012, Ms. McSally, a Republican, is running again next year.

When McSally was a major in the Air Force in 2001, she brought a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon for forcing her to wear a head scarf, sit in the back seat of cars, and be accompanied by men at all times when she was stationed in Saudi Arabia.

“I’m a fighter pilot, and we tend to have an in-your-face, you know, Type A personality that raises issues and confronts them when they’re nonsensical,” she told NPR in 2002.

The Pentagon changed its policy.

Having someone like McSally on the House Armed Services Committee “would be a huge bonus, even though she may not agree with everything we do,” Bhagwati says.

“One day, when a woman vet takes over the Senate Armed Services Committee – and it’s going to happen – you’re going to see major changes in the national security conversation,” she adds.

Yet even as the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in Congress rises, the overall number of veterans is down.

The Senate has 18 veterans, compared with a peak of 81 in 1977. That’s the lowest number of veterans since World War II, according to the Senate Historical Office.

The House, which has 88 veterans, is down from a high of 347 in 1977, according to the Military Officers Association of America.

Bringing more veterans into Congress could help usher in an era of renewed bipartisan cooperation, candidates say. The military, after all, was designed to build camaraderie and strong units that fight against a common enemy, not against one other.

“Our politics today has turned so divisive it’s no longer leadership; it’s two teams going against each other,” Jorgensen says. “And the military feels like they are caught in the middle.”

Many veterans identify more closely with a fellow vet than they do with a political party, Jorgensen notes.

Having more veterans in Congress who have served in America’s ongoing war could be a valuable reminder, he adds, of “what service is supposed to be.”

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