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Veterans in Congress to hit post-WWII low

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By USA Today
Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012, 8:16 p.m.
 

WASHINGTON — A decade of wars abroad has not reversed the decline in military veterans serving in Congress. When the next session convenes in January, the two chambers will have the fewest number of veterans serving since World War II.

It's a continuation of a nearly four-decade-long decline of veterans in office since the peak of their service in the years after the Vietnam War.

In 2013, just 19 percent of the 535 combined members in the House and Senate will have active-duty military service on their résumé, down from a peak in 1977 when 80 percent of lawmakers boasted military service. In the current Congress, 22 percent are military veterans.

The transition from the draft to an all-volunteer military in 1973 is a driving force of the decline, but veterans and their advocates say they face more challenges running for office in the modern era of political campaigns.

“There's so few opportunities that we have where veterans can run a federal campaign,” said Jon Soltz of VoteVets.org, a liberal veterans' advocacy group that supports candidates for office. “They are credible messengers to the public, but only if they're financed. A veteran with a great narrative that doesn't have the infrastructure to sell themselves is a tree falling alone in the woods.”

Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, said the realities of modern military life make it difficult for veterans to establish roots in a community to build political networks and the financial backing to run for office. “Oftentimes, veterans don't travel in those circles,” Celli said.

Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said she faced “huge challenges” in her campaign, which initially showed her 45 percentage points down in the race. She said she used her skills as a platoon leader to manage her grass-roots campaign operation for a victory, but she noted that many veteran candidates have challenges to raising money. “Generally, veterans tend not to be wealthy people,” she said.

A combination of electoral factors contributes to veterans' decline in the 113th Congress. Military veteran candidates in eight competitive Senate races this year were defeated by opponents who did not serve. Among the dozens of military veterans who ran for the House, 12 are headed to Washington in January.

Couple that with the primary defeat of military veterans such as Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and the ousting of incumbents such as Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, a veteran affected by the redistricting process, means that each Congress in the past decade has seen fewer veterans serving than the one before it. All of that comes against the backdrop of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Army veteran and Rep.-elect Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of the dozen incoming lawmakers with military service, said he expects to see a rise in the next decade and beyond among veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan running for office. “I think you probably would see a steady increase in this generation of veterans, and it'll be faster as we put a little bit more time between us and the war, and a little bit more gray on our temples,” he said.

More than 2.4 million military personnel have been deployed in support of U.S. war efforts since 9/11.

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