This Election's 'Vet Factor'
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Of the 1008 candidates running this election, six have a credential the others can't match: they've served the U.S. armed forces in the war on terror. Among these, you'll find an ex-Recon Marine whose unit rescued 31 wounded men during a firefight with Fedayeen militiamen, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both her legs to a rocket-propelled grenade, and a former vice admiral of the Navy. And if the "Iraq Factor" is as big a factor as the pundits and political strategists would have us believe, the incumbents facing these vets, none of whom have served in the military, should be hard-pressed to retain their seats in the midterm elections. But will serving on the front lines in the war on terror really offer anyone a political advantage this fall?
"Definitely," says pioneering Netroots political strategist Joe Trippi. "The Democrats have been positioned as soft on terror and weak on defense since 9/11. It takes the Republicans' core argument and pulls the rug out from under it. I think they've got a huge advantage." And with Iraq mired in civil war it would appear that Democrats own the "Vet Factor." Why? According to Trippi, Republican vets -- much like the president -- simply can't extract any more mileage from "stay the course" rhetoric. "There's a combination of failed policy and things going badly in Iraq, so it doesn't benefit a Republican to defend the president's policies just because they've served in Iraq."
Author and Iraq vet Nathaniel Fick isn't so sure. "I'm not of the school that says you have to have served in uniform in order to be a good commander in chief," says Fick, who wrote One Bullet Away , about the Marine Recon platoon he led in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003. "Look at Lincoln and FDR -- both exceptional wartime presidents who didn't serve in the military but made a point of surrounding themselves by people who had." As a member of the board of advisers for the PAC VoteVets.org, Fick works to get vets elected from both parties, though he stresses that these candidates need to connect with voters on more than just the war if they want to win. "I think their constituents care more about jobs and healthcare than they do about Iraq. But combat service should mean something. Senior leaders are grown over decades -- if we want to have people with credibility to stand up and make or question strategic decisions in 20 or 30 years, then we need to start grooming them now."
We wanted to find out how a politician's personal war experience fuels his political philosophy, and desire to serve his country once again. We extended interview requests to every Iraq vet in the midterm elections. Maryland's Andrew Duck, and Texas candidates Van Taylor and David Harris answered the call.
ANDREW DUCK (Maryland-6) After serving over 20 years in the Army -- including three tours in Bosnia and one in Iraq, where he acted as an intelligence liaison to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force -- Democrat Andrew Duck, 43, returned to his hometown of Frederick to work as an adviser to the Pentagon on Army Intelligence issues for Northrop Grumman. He's running against Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett.
How has your personal experience in Iraq shaped your political agenda as a Congressional candidate? The fact that I served on the ground in Iraq gives me credibility and a great deal of latitude. You can't tell me I don't support the troops. I am the troops. I was the guy in the 120-degree heat. In the last year 14 years I've spent time in Bosnia, in Iraq, whereas the guy in office now spent the last 14 years behind a desk not getting things done. That presents a very stark choice.
What was the most surprising thing you saw at war? The most surprising moment for me was when we first got word that we were not going to bring back the Iraqi regular army. I was in a tent in with a group of field grade Marines and we just looked at each other incredulous. We were told the Pentagon didn't have a contractor to train them. That just doesn't make sense to me. We have the greatest military instructors in the world, they're called the Army Special Forces. In 2003, I also had a meeting with a guy from the Army Supply Board about getting up armored vehicles and he said the production line was full. I told him to build another production line, we'd use every one that came off the line and he just looked at me like I was crazy. That's the level of corruption I personally witnessed.
What was the most surprising thing you saw when you came home? I wouldn't characterize much as being shocking. I came home and people were very supportive. You had people coming up to you at gas stations thanking you for your service. It's America, there's a bunch of different opinions.
Does being a veteran give you a better sense of the current political landscape? Yes. And the gentleman I'm running against was of age during World War II and avoided service. The big question today is what can you do for national defense; I can speak not from a hypothetical-theoretical perspective, I can speak directly to the situation on the ground. I've looked into the eyes of Iraqis. There aren't enough people with that body of knowledge. It's unbelievable that the president signed a bill establishing one set of laws for enlisted men and another for the men in Washington, and the soldiers are being held accountable for the politicians' decisions. It's indefensible.
What is the most pressing issue facing vets in your district? Healthcare. Providing access for vets who are already here and those coming back from Iraq. They're creating thousands of more vets and Bush is cutting funding to the VA. How are we going to get by if we're going to have an increasing need for these services? Right now, we screen every returning soldier for PTSD, but more than seventy percent of those who meet the criteria are not referred for treatment.
How do you plan to resolve that issue if you're elected? The first thing we need to do is adequately fund the VA and make sure they raise their requirement numbers. Right now, they're saying Iraq and Afghanistan vets are an anomaly. We also need to have a more active screening program. Not only when they come home, but a six-month follow-up, a one-year follow-up, and we need to make sure that we're paying these guys so they're not losing money while they're getting screened. And we need to build long-term care facilities for Vietnam and Korean vets alongside rehab centers for the young guys coming back. You've got two different patient populations, and they'd benefit each other -- it's a great synergy.
Would you go back to war if you were called up again? Why? If my country needs me, of course. A large part of the reason I'm running is to not leave behind the guys I served with. We created a mess. America is about taking responsibility and that's what we need to do in Iraq. I expect to get elected to Congress, and I expect to be over there [in Iraq] again, talking to people on the ground, which is what we need to be doing to get this thing fixed.
DAVID HARRIS (Texas-6) Born in Swarthmore, Penn., Democrat David Harris enlisted in the Army in 1992 then transferred into the Reserves in 2002 just months before he was mobilized for Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Harris served in Iraq for 14 months as a Logistics Officer and is now running against Republican incumbent Joe Barton.
How has your personal experience in Iraq shaped your political agenda as a Congressional candidate? I've always been politically active, but seeing how we were treated, the lack of planning and resources across the board, I never want anyone else to go through that again. I want to make it better for those going to war. I want them to have the right tools in place before we send them out the door the next time.
What was the most surprising thing you saw at war? The biggest surprise was the complete disparity between active duty and reserved forces in terms of training, equipment, quality of life. I served active duty for 12 years. When I was mobilized as a reservist we had to fight for everything we got -- desert camo, uniforms -- we were using 12-year-old Humvees, which we were doing missions with alongside active duty units with new up-armored vehicles and night-vision goggles.
What was the most surprising thing you saw when you came home? Again, how reservists and guards were treated when demobilizing. We got no medical evaluations, no dental or psychological evaluations -- they just passed us off on the VA. We were one of the first units mobilized and one of the first to come home, and there was no plan for us -- no counseling, no support groups for people having marital issues, no health concerns.
Does being a veteran give you a better sense of the current political landscape? I don't think me being in a uniform alone qualifies me for office, but I understand sacrifice, and I have a duty to my country to work for it. Those in Washington who have served are few and far between. I do think veterans in general have a better understanding, and they can ask the hard questions before going into a theater of war. We have been on the ground. We know that anything you do can set off a world event. I understand these consequences, and that the bills you sign in Congress are no different. They have an effect on not only people here, but around the world. I have traveled the world, led people, worked with all types of ethnic backgrounds, so I understand a lot of the issues normal people face -- how to pay for healthcare, living on one income. These issues affect the military, as well as American families.
What is the most pressing issue facing vets in your district? Healthcare. I'm an active believer that if you go and fight for this country, no matter whether you were wounded or not, you should have healthcare for life. People are still battling health concerns from Vietnam, Korea and as recent as the first Gulf War and these guys are still struggling to have their cases heard because there's a backlash between the VA and the three branches. To this day, the VA is still refusing to admit there's Gulf War Syndrome. Congress keeps cutting VA funding, but at the same time they're pushing more guys out the door for Iraq.
How do you plan to resolve that issue if you're elected? The first thing is to prioritize where the money is being spent. Most of the money for defense is caught up in discretionary spending and gets sucked up by the war on terror. Only a small percentage of the $84 billion of Katrina aid was marked for emergency response -- the rest was soaked up by Homeland Security. We need to lock up the money and allocate it accordingly, and it should be proportional throughout the country.
Would you go back to war if you were called up again? Why? I would do everything in my power not to go, but until my resignation is approved I have a duty to go.
VAN TAYLOR (Texas-17) The only Republican vet running for office this year, 34-year-old Van Taylor joined the Marines after graduating from Harvard. In Iraq, he led a Recon battalion with Task Force Tarawa's first platoon and participated in the rescue of Jessica Lynch. He owns and operates a real estate company in Waco, where's he running against Democratic incumbent Chet Edwards.
How has your personal experience in Iraq shaped your political agenda as a Congressional candidate? Having served in Iraq I realize war is a terrible, but tyranny is worse. I realize we need to stop people who want to enslave and destroy us. One of the main reasons I got into running for office was to go and stop liberal Democrats from undercutting our will to defend ourselves.
What was the most surprising thing you saw at war? Two things. One was the terrible price of freedom and how awful the human suffering is in war -- how terrible war really is. The second thing is how awful tyranny is and how grateful the Iraqi people were about what we were doing over there. War is a bad thing, but tyranny is much worse.
What was the most surprising thing you saw when you came home? Coming back, I had a really renewed respect for our country and our way of life.
Does being a veteran give you a better sense of the current political landscape? There was a time in our country when most of our Congressmen were war veterans, but those days are behind us. Today, there's not a single member of Congress who's served in the front lines of the war on terror. There's actually only 25 who've served in battle. And we need more people in office who can speak with a moral authority about the war on terror.
What is the most pressing issue facing vets in your district? Clearly keeping the VA hospital open. That's a key issue here in central Texas. It's been in danger of closing, and it's a center of excellence for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that takes a lot of time to work through. Iraq veterans are really going to need that hospital.
How do you plan to resolve that issue if you're elected? We need to send more people who are committed to veterans and have the moral authority to speak for them. As a combat veteran I'll have a unique voice.
Would you go back to war if you were called up again? Why? Absolutely. In a second. If my country needs me I'll go, and I'll go anywhere. It doesn't matter.