Freshman Rep. Allen West spent a recent morning meeting with Fran Hunsaker, a Missouri mom worried about her sons imprisonment for war crimes. The Florida Republican had his own brush with the issue while supervising Iraqi detainees.
Desperation has brought Fran Hunsaker here, 1,000 miles from home, to the dark office of a Florida Congressman she knows only from television.
She is trying to save her son. And Hunsaker hopes to find help in the eyes of Rep. Allen West, a military commander turned GOP Representative, who made his mark on the campaign trail as one of the tea party’s favorite soldiers.
“My son says, ‘In order to fight a monster, you have to be a monster,’” says Hunsaker, a Missouri resident whose son, William, has spent the past five years locked in a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., for war crimes. “Congressman West has looked into the abyss. He’s been there. He knows what it’s like.”
Indeed, the freshman lawmaker has been there — closer, perhaps, than he’d like at times during a military career that spanned two decades. And even today, long after he traded his military fatigues for dark suits, it is often difficult to separate the soldier from this Congressman.
The soldier shows himself in the pins on West’s suit jacket, his choice of words, his camouflage tote bag and in his evolution from tea party candidate and political bomb thrower to deliberate Congressman.
But on this day, West cannot do much more than listen to a mother’s pleas and promise to ask questions. It’s the least he can do, he later says, considering his own brush with the military justice system back in 2003.
Navigating the Battlefield
“Of course there’s still people out there who say I’m a war criminal. I can’t change that,” West says, referring to accusations that soldiers under his supervision assaulted an Iraqi detainee.
The episode, in which West fired a gun close to the man’s head, prompted a military investigation resulting in a fine and his subsequent retirement from the Army.
“I was looking at eight to nine years myself,” he adds with a shake of the head.
But it was that experience and others, he says, that prepared him for a different kind of battlefield on Capitol Hill.
“Here, you have to be even more savvy and attuned to the invisible mine fields and the invisible bullet,” he says. “But I don’t find this to be very difficult whatsoever.”
There have, however, been challenges, particularly as the excitement of a campaign became the struggle to govern. West has been forced to adapt to his new surroundings — a skill he says developed in the Army — to become relevant in a system that rewards loyalty and experience, not the anti-establishment fervor that helped him and other GOP freshmen win elections across the nation in 2010.
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