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The veteran surge in Congress

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When the 116th Congress is sworn in next year, it will have an unprecedented number of military veterans who served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the number of U.S. senators with war experience in both conflicts will be relatively the same, a surge has taken place for both parties in the U.S. House. The Republicans have increased their numbers from eight members to 19 (a 138 percent increase) and the Democrats have increased from five members to eight (a 38 percent increase) for a total of 27 members of Congress who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Both political parties have encouraged veterans to run for Congress in the past but this year a confluence of factors led to a dramatic increase in veterans. As the number of military personnel serving in Afghanistan and Iraq decreases, more veterans are running for office because they want to serve their country again and are deeply concerned about the polarization of our country. Additionally, efforts to recruit, train, and support veteran candidates have increased significantly and have moved from ad hoc initiatives to institutionalized support. Veterans are also attractive candidates for voters because they tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological (although still principled) and their military experience of mission accomplishment, teamwork, service above self, and nation over faction appeal to voters tired of constant bickering in Washington, D.C.

{mosads}While war veterans are united in service to their country, differences exist with respect to the types of candidates who were elected and their backgrounds.  Republican candidates are overwhelmingly from the South and Midwest (79 percent) while the Democrats have no veteran candidates from those regions.  Democratic members are evenly split and come from either the North or the West with only 21 percent of Republicans coming from those regions. Most veteran members are former or current reserve officers (89 percent) and a plurality had the rank of Captain/Lieutenant (8) or Major/Lieutenant Commander (5) when they ran for office. Among the Republicans, three newly elected members have earned the one-star rank and are general officers (which makes five former/reserve general officers within the Republican Caucus).

Most veteran members have served in the Army (55 percent) followed by the Marines (21 percent), Navy (14 percent), and the Air Force (10 percent) which is not surprising in an era of prolonged combat operations on land. While paths to victory vary for both parties, a plurality of Republican candidates served in Special Operations Forces/Infantry (four), in Intelligence (three), or the Judge Advocate General Corps (three) while half (four) of Democrats served in the Infantry. Other notable backgrounds include a former Navy SEAL and Green Beret within the Republican caucus as well as two military surgeons, a chaplain, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal soldier, and helicopter and Stratotanker pilots. At least three veterans have earned the Purple Heart for combat wounds.

In an era of polarized politics and dysfunctional political parties, Americans are increasingly looking for candidates outside politics to solve our nation’s problems.  Voters increasingly are turning to veterans and Afghanistan and Iraq war military veterans in particular as one means of restoring our Republic.

War veteran candidates have had to implement policies in harsh and uncertain conditions making do with what they had working alongside Americans from all walks of life.  They frequently possess a can-do spirit of teamwork focused on accomplishing goals and pragmatically solving problems while honing their leadership skills. They have often had to practice politics at the tactical level working with Afghan and Iraqi political and tribal leaders where they built schools, mediated tribal disputes, constructed roads, mentored indigenous leaders as well as fought insurgencies.  These practical political skills honed in counterinsurgency environments have created a generation of war veterans comfortable with community leadership, focused on results, and ready to lead. It is a skill-set ready to be used at home that increasingly resonates with American voters looking for new leadership in our nation.

Daniel Green has a Ph.D. in American Politics and is a military veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Department of Defense.


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