There are still fewer veterans in Congress than in past decades, but the drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise to a new generation on Capitol Hill.
Last year, Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Scott Perry launched a bipartisan caucus to help post-9/11 veterans transition to civilian life and to draw attention to issues like post-traumatic stress. Both Gabbard and Perry served in the Iraq war.
“If they can get in, they become very well-known quickly because there are so few people who are credible,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets, a PAC that works to elect Democratic veterans to Congress. “Whereas in World War II, you may have been one of 300. Now you’re one of 30.”
That visibility “creates a challenge as well as an opportunity,” said Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard, who cited her war experience when endorsing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.
Even during the Vietnam era, the odds were that a member of Congress was also a military veteran.
The number of veterans in Congress peaked in 1971 . More than seven out of every 10 members of the House had served, and almost four out of five in the Senate.
Today, 101 members of Congress — about 20 percent — have served in the military. Of those, slightly more than two dozen served during the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11.
Veterans on the trail
Yet for as long as there’s been a Congress, military service has generally been a plus for an aspiring candidate.
And with another election approaching, campaign messaging about veterans and service are coming to television stations across the country.
In Illinois, Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee veteran of the Iraq War, has made her military service a central part of her campaign for Senate against incumbent GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk. VoteVets has touted her service in ads defending her from Kirk’s attacks.
Likewise, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander has played up his Army service in Afghanistan in his quest to take down GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, who has never served.
And in a sign of today’s veterans being much more open about their experiences, Marine veteran Sean Barney, who was wounded in Iraq, is talking openly about his post-traumatic stress disorder in his bid for the Democratic nomination to represent Delaware’s at-large House seat.
“Given what’s happened in the last 15 years with so many people serving, hopefully you’ll see us swing back to more veterans in Congress serving,” said Alaska GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, who has served in Afghanistan and the Middle East since 9/11.
It’s VoteVets job to get veterans, at least those who are Democrats, into Congress. But while the veteran experience is a powerful message, it has to be conveyed appropriately.
“The military bio is a very effective introduction to voters because it makes them look like not a politician,” Soltz, of VoteVets, said. Getting too caught up in the “war hero” message often doesn’t work, he said.
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, who served four tours with the Marines in Iraq, never spoke publicly during his campaign for Congress about twice being decorated for valor. It took a Boston Globe reporter to get it out of him.
Other vets in Congress have downplayed their service, too.
“‘Vote for me because I’ve served?’ That to me is in poor form,” said Perry, who doesn’t think military service should be the only focus of a campaign.
Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey agrees.
“If I feel a veteran is dishonest and is trying to get a standing ovation out of me, I resist applause lines,” said Kerrey, a two-term Democrat who received the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam.
Does Congress need more vets?
Veterans who have served in Congress say that there’s nothing like talking to another veteran about veterans’ issues.
“You can make an effort to be sympathetic without having had the experience, but I don’t think you can be 100 percent there. So it matters,” Kerrey said. Their military experience may even make Congress function better.
“Regardless of political party, people who have worn the uniform bring a mission-first experience and mentality to their services generally,” Gabbard said.
Veterans “think of themselves as part of a larger whole and believe to some degree in responding to leadership,” said the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, who studies how Congress does (and does not) work.
The relative lack of veterans today may be one reason Congress isn’t as productive as it used to be, today’s young vets in Congress say.
“There was a real common experience that bound people together, and that doesn’t exist anymore,” Moulton said.
Fewer veterans in Congress today, however, hasn’t necessarily meant that veterans’ issues get less attention, according to Ornstein.
“Some of our strongest supporters of veterans in Congress are people who haven’t necessarily served,” said Sullivan, the Alaska senator.
Society has shifted away from the Vietnam-era scorning of veterans to an almost knee-jerk “support our troops” response whenever veterans issues are raised.
“The ‘thank you for service’ phrase was not something you would have seen 30 years ago,” Ornstein said.
But voicing support for troops doesn’t always translate to policies that actually benefit them, he added. That’s especially the case when members vote against spending — and buck party leadership.
“The people who are most rah-rah about supporting our troops don’t support putting resources in the right place,” he said. Having more of them may not fix the problem, he said.
A unique experience
Yet only veterans and their families know what it’s like to go to war.
“You would ideally like all members of Congress to be veterans because it’s the most important decision we make — between war and peace,” said Kirk, who served in the Navy Reserves.
Only one member of Congress had a child in the enlisted ranks when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.
“Quite honestly, there was no skin in the game,” said longtime political commentator and Democratic strategist Mark Shields, himself a Marine veteran.
It was a very different story during World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s own sons served. “If you have served, especially if you’ve served and seen people killed … there’s a lot less loose talk about war,” Shields said.
Besides being part of the minority in Congress that has served in the military, Gabbard is one of only a handful of female veterans in Congress.
“It’s provided an opportunity, one layer deeper to bring voice to this constituency, to my fellow sisters in arms,” Gabbard said.
That representation, she said, has been particularly important when Congress has debated how to tackle sexual assault in the military .
“You did not have these female service members’ voices weighing in on this issue as it came before Congress in the past,” Gabbard said. “It’s a pretty significant change.”
The military experience, however, doesn’t mean that veterans in Congress always approach issues from the same perspective. Some are Democrats, others are Republicans. And they often disagree.
Former Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, who served in the Navy, said he learned from colleagues in the Senate who had military experience, especially from current Secretary of State John Kerry, a Democrat, and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Republican.
Lugar said Kerry and Hagel, both decorated Vietnam veterans, didn’t always change his mind on specific issues.
But, he said, Kerry’s anti-war efforts following his return, and Hagel’s experience of being wounded and trying to readjust to civilian life, shaped the way he thought about issues of war and peace.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.