Members Walk in Veterans’ Boots

Posted November 9, 2009 at 6:45pm

Mike Coffman thought he had left his lengthy military career behind. The freshman Republican Congressman from Colorado served in two branches of the military — Army and Marines — early in life, including a stint in Iraq as a Marine in the early 1990s.

After the Marines, he went on to build an impressive career as a politician in Colorado. But just as Coffman had been re-elected Colorado’s state treasurer in 2005, he heard that the Marines needed people like him — those with a military background who also understood government — to go to Iraq. So at age 50, he rejoined the Marine Reserves.

“I was a governance officer for three towns in the western Euphrates river valley,— he recalled earlier this month. Among Coffman’s duties were helping the towns set up interim city councils until permanent councils could be elected and assisting with security during elections.

“I can remember in Iraq where there wasn’t the security there,— he said. “There wasn’t the right troop numbers and the right strategy to provide enough security that would allow the political process to move forward where the Iraqis would have the capacity to take care of the situation themselves.—

At a time when there are fewer military veterans in the House than ever before, Coffman and other veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan bring a unique perspective to Congress, particularly as the country is in the middle of a larger debate about Iraq and Afghanistan and the level of military commitment to those countries. Today, the House has 96 veterans (including two Delegates) and the Senate has 25, according to the House historian’s office.

“The number of veterans in the 111th Congress reflects the trend of a steady decline in the number of Members who have served in the military,— the historian’s office wrote in a report. There were 298 veterans in the 96th Congress (1979-1981), and 398 veterans in the 91st Congress (1969-1971), many of them World War II veterans.

The dropping Congressional numbers matter, veterans say, to those who serve in the armed forces and want to see their ranks represented by men and women who have also served.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a former Navy admiral, noted that even veterans from past wars may not entirely understand the struggles of modern soldiers. One good example is the “don’t ask, don’t tell— policy on homosexuality. Today’s young adults who choose to join the military — in contrast to those who were drafted in the past — show a genuine patriotism that would serve constituents well in Congress.

“They really are in it, I think, selflessly,— he said. He added that veterans have already learned how to execute good ideas and be held accountable, skills that are critical on Capitol Hill.

Recent veterans also take on causes that may not be obvious to other Members. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a freshman who served with the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, introduced a bill that would establish offices in each branch to help those abroad who are trying to vote and to deal with laws unique to each state. Ohio Rep. John Boccieri (D) served as a pilot in the Air Force Reserves through four rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan while he was also serving in the Ohio state Legislature. In that body, he offered a bill that would allow those at funerals for soldiers to have a radius clear of those protesting the war. The issue was personal for him after seeing Americans who had died in battle.

“As a matter of fact, you know, I flew wounded and fallen soldiers out of Baghdad,— he said. “It gave me a deeper appreciation for what the men and women were doing in the country.—

Though all of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are only in their first or second term in the House, four of them have taken seats on the Armed Services Committee. They say other Members often ask for their opinions about what’s going on abroad. Coffman, for instance, recently spoke to the Subcommittee on Military Personnel about post-traumatic stress disorder.

“One thing I mentioned was how positive it was to get a briefing by a mental health professional when I was leaving the theater of operations before I came home about what to expect in terms of changes,— he said.

Despite the value that they add to the Congressional conversation, recent veterans who run for Congress often face an uphill battle. They haven’t been in the district to build a network of supporters, and they aren’t independently wealthy. Unlike Coffman and Boccieri, who served in state-level offices before running for Congress, they often don’t have much political experience.

A few groups try to help. In September, a group in New Jersey called the Veterans Campaign offered its first workshop for veterans of either party who want to run for elected office. Political action committees including VoteVets.org, which tends to support progressive veterans, and Iraq Veterans for Congress, which supports strictly conservative Republicans, have made it their duty to get Congressional candidates early funding.

Jon Soltz, co-founder and chairman of VoteVets.org, pointed to second-term Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) as the model veteran-candidate. Though Murphy, an Iraq veteran who serves on the Armed Services Committee, had no political experience, he was able to raise funds and network quickly in his 2006 race.

“He’s who everybody who doesn’t have any experience in politics wants to be,— Soltz said.

Hunter also had no political experience but easily won a race to replace his father, also named Duncan Hunter. His experiences in Fallujah, where he said political decisions made military victory difficult, led to his passion for the legislative process. He argued that timely decisions affecting Americans serving abroad now may be more critical than decisions about hot-button issues such as health care.

“We need to do what’s right, and one of the things that involves primarily is doing what’s right for who we used to be,— he said.