Iraq War vet takes his fight to Capitol Hill

Congressmen are generally busy people, but even among this group, Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) has had an active two years.

To break into Congress, he first had to defeat four-term incumbent Jean Schmidt in the Republican primary. Ohio’s March congressional primary was the nation’s earliest, so to do this he had to begin campaigning all the way back in June 2011, a scant five months after the 112th Congress began.

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The preparation paid off, and Wenstrup defeated the controversy-plagued Schmidt by 6 percentage points in one of the notable electoral upsets of 2012. Two months later, in the midst of a campaign, he got married. In November, he crushed Democratic nominee William R. Smith, a truck driver and surprise candidate who won his party’s nomination despite spending no money, giving no speeches, and otherwise not campaigning.

Now, in addition to learning the ropes as a congressman, Wenstrup is preparing for the challenge of parenthood. His wife is expecting their first child in November.

Fifty-five is an old age to be a rookie parent, but it’s not the first time Wenstrup has taken on a challenge usually left to younger hands. In the 1990s, the Cincinnati podiatrist, though busy with a successful practice, nursed a desire to serve in the armed forces that was bolstered by the experience of friends who served in Operation Desert Storm.

With his 40th birthday approaching, Wenstrup decided to go for it, signing on in 1998 as an officer with the Army Reserve. 

In 2005, when he was 46, his unit was deployed to Iraq for a yearlong tour of duty, an experience he has called “the worst thing that ever happened to me and the best thing I ever got to do.” 

Wenstrup’s unit, the 344th Combat Support Hospital, had a challenging assignment, being deployed to Abu Ghraib prison one year after the major scandal surrounding service members  abusing prisoners at the facility. There, he cared not just for American troops but also for the detainees at the prison.

Unsurprisingly, Wenstrup told The Hill, some patients were “not cooperative,” but most were appreciative and thankful for the care they received from Americans.

According to Wenstrup, his experience caring for foes at Abu Ghraib gives him unique insight among members of Congress into the controversy over detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Able to compare Guantanamo’s practices with those he saw in Iraq, Wenstrup says that at least from a humanitarian angle the prison is properly run.

Wenstrup’s path to Congress began shortly after his tour concluded in 2006. After returning home, Wenstrup began giving speeches to Cincinnati-area civic groups relating his Iraq experiences to lessons on leadership, ethics and service. The speeches were well-received, and many listeners began lobbying him to enter politics.

He took their advice and got involved with a policy committee in Hamilton County. Shortly afterward, the committee’s executive director asked him if he had considered running for mayor of Cincinnati. He had not, and was hesitant at first, but was won over after six weeks of lobbying.

“They finally got me when the chairman said, ‘How many people get asked to run for mayor of a major American city?’ ” Wenstrup said. “I thought, that’s true, and why not take advantage of this opportunity?”

The challenge was a steep one.  Like most large cities , Cincinnati leaned Democratic, and the sitting mayor, Mark Mallory, was popular, experienced and a member of an established political dynasty. 

“I was told, ‘You’ll do well if you get 35 percent,’” Wenstrup said, but he made a fight of it anyway. Although he lost, he captured 46 percent of the vote. That was enough for Republicans to continue viewing him as a viable political commodity.

Less than two years later, Wenstrup made his decision to run for Congress, feeling that his background as a doctor and business owner meshed well with today’s major issues of healthcare reform and a sluggish economy. 

With such diverse experiences, Wenstrup likes to compare himself favorably with former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern (D), who failed at business after leaving Congress and later wrote that knowing the difficulties faced by business owners would have made him a better legislator.

Wenstrup’s military background led to his placement on both the Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees. He says a legislative priority for him is boosting cooperation between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, so that soldiers can more easily transition into post-service life.

He remains active with the Reserve, holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and fulfills his service obligations by caring for patients at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“We are still at war, and we still have men and women making tremendous sacrifices of life and limb,” he said. “They need to be remembered.”