The rise of the new veterans

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A new class of post-9/11 military veterans has begun making a name for itself on Capitol Hill. 

The number of military veterans in the House and Senate has been on a steady decline for nearly three decades. In the current Congress, only about 20 percent of the members in each chamber have military experience.

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As World War II veterans have passed away and Vietnam War veterans are deep into retirement age, the number of service members has dropped. 

But as a new crop of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans look for other ways to continue their public service, many are looking to Congress. In many cases, the service of these elected officials has been a boon to their campaigns and critical to their personal story. 

Veterans groups argue that those with military experience are as important now as they ever have been. The U.S. military is on guard against the threat of ISIS and other terror groups. U.S. intervention is debated in places like Syria and Ukraine, even as the country seeks to separate itself from years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And of course, veterans’ rights are in the spotlight in the wake of the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Here are five newly-elected or reelected officials with important military backgrounds to watch in the coming Congress. 

 

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)

In 2004, the helicopter Duckworth was piloting was shot down over Iraq, sustaining injuries that cost her both of her legs and partial use of her right arm. The Army lieutenant colonel continued to serve as a member of the Illinois National Guard, and later took a position in President Obama’s Department of Veterans Affairs.

After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2006, Duckworth beat out Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) in 2012, making her the first female Iraq War veteran to win a congressional seat. She was easily reelected last Tuesday. 

Duckworth is expecting her first child later this year with her husband, Army Maj. Bryan Bowlsbey, and has been mentioned as a potential challenger to Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkThe Trail 2016: Berning embers Senate Dems link court fight to Congressional Baseball Game Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote MORE (R-Ill.) in 2016.

 

Senator-elect Joni Ernst (R-Iowa)

With her victory last Tuesday in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinDo candidates care about our health or just how much it costs? The Hill's 12:30 Report Mark Mellman: Parsing the primary processes MORE (D-Iowa), Joni Ernst (R) will now become the first female combat veteran in the Senate.

The Iowa Republican has been in the National Guard for more than two decades, and in the early 2000s was deployed to Iraq as a lieutenant colonel. 

Ernst’s service in Iraq and her ongoing National Guard duty were primary touchstones for her Senate candidacy. Over the summer, she made waves in an interview with Time magazine for saying she’d been sexually harassed during her time in the military. Ernst cited that experience as her reason for splitting from many in the GOP, who believe sexual assault investigations in the military should remain under the chain of command.

Ernst was drawn away from the campaign trail on some weekends throughout the cycle for her National Guard duties, provoking a host of high-profile Republicans to fill in for her at events she couldn’t attend. Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioVa. GOP delegate files lawsuit over bound convention votes The Hill's 12:30 Report Rubio Senate challenger drops out MORE (Fla.), Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) and others pitched in under the slogan #OnDutyForJoni.

The day after Ernst’s groundbreaking victory, in which she also became the first female Senator from the state of Iowa, she was back in fatigues for guard duty.

 

Sen.-elect Tom CottonTom CottonGOP senators: Brexit vote a wake-up call Sessions warns of 'radical' Clinton immigration policy The Trail 2016: Berning embers MORE (R-Ark.) 

After easily defeating Sen. Mark PryorMark PryorEx-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Top Democrats are no advocates for DC statehood Ex-Sen. Landrieu joins law and lobby firm MORE (D-Ark.), Sen.-elect Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) will join Ernst as one of the first Iraq War veterans in the Senate.

An Army officer, Cotton completed tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and he’s used his combat experience to cudgel the Obama administration for alleged failures surrounding the 2012 terror attack in Benghazi.

Cotton’s military service was at times a point of contention on the campaign trail. In one of the most controversial exchanges of the race, Pryor accused Cotton of using his service as a shield against criticism from other aspects of his record, calling it a “sense of entitlement." 

 

Rep.-elect Seth Moulton (D-Mass.)

Rep.-elect Seth Moulton shocked political watchers earlier this year when he beat out nine-term Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) in the Democratic primary. He subsequently cruised to victory over Richard Tisei (R) in Massachusetts' open 6th District.  

Moulton served four tours of duty in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, and in the process earned two medals of valor for “fearlessly” exposing “himself to enemy fire” — including the prestigious Bronze Star — according to a Boston Globe report.

Of course, had he not been vetted by the Globe, it’s possible that nobody would ever have found out about the awards. The report said that Moulton sought to hide the decorations, but ultimately revealed them upon pressure from reporters. Not even Moulton’s parents knew, according to the report.

“There is a healthy disrespect among veterans who served on the front lines for people who walk around telling war stories,’’ Moulton said at the time.

 

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.)

For Hunter, military and public service runs in the blood.

His grandfather, Robert O. Hunter, was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, and his father, Duncan Hunter, Sr., earned a handful of medals for his service in the Vietnam War before Californians sent him to Washington, where he rose to the position of House Armed Services chairman.

In 2008, Hunter succeeded his father as representative for California’s 52nd District. He’s also a military veteran, having fought in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. According to his House website, Hunter quit his job to become a U.S. Marine shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Hunter has contributed to the House Republican investigation into the Benghazi terror attack, and has been critical of the Obama administration’s assignment of awards of valor for combat service.

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