Iraq Vets Take on Washington

During the Vietnam War, it took more than a decade before returning soldiers posed a serious challenge to congressional incumbents and Washington’s status quo. In the case of the Iraq war, it has taken less than three years.

These soldier-candidates are offering Americans a firsthand perspective on the conduct and consequences of the Iraq war and the needs that arise for the men and women being asked to fight it. For example, Tammy Duckworth of the Illinois Army National Guard lost both of her legs in 2004 when the helicopter she was piloting was hit by a grenade. She is seeking to win the open seat left by the retiring Rep. Henry Hyde in Illinois’ 6th District.

“From a policy perspective,” says Duckworth, who is running as a Democrat, “invading Iraq was a mistake.” Yet she is equally convinced that it is not in our national interest “to leave Iraq in chaos and risk allowing a country with unlimited oil wealth to become a base for terrorists.”

Andrew Duck, who served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq, is challenging a seven-term Republican incumbent to represent Maryland’s 6th District. He believes that the U.S. can neither “set a timetable for withdrawal” nor coast along on the president’s platitude to “stay the course.” Duck advocates better diplomacy to “internationalize the effort,” the closing of Guantanamo, a congressional investigation of prisoner abuse, ongoing training of Iraqi security forces, and an increase in “troop strength in Iraq, with allied cooperation, to a level that provides security for daily living.”

Two Iraq war veterans running for Congress in Pennsylvania share the view of Rep. John Murtha, who urges a swift timetable for withdrawal. Patrick Murphy is challenging a first-term incumbent in the 8th District. Murphy deployed to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne and served as a JAG officer, helping Iraqis re-establish their justice system, handling courts-martial, and adjudicating claims by Iraqi families against U.S. troops. He supports bringing some U.S. troops home, while redeploying remaining forces to Iraq’s border areas.

Next door in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, Joe Sestak faces an uphill battle against an 11-term Republican incumbent. A retired vice admiral who commanded a battleship during combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Sestak advocates a rapid timetable for ending U.S. military engagement in Iraq, yet allowing room for extensions if “our military experts deem that a few more months are necessary.”

AT LEAST TWO returning vets are running as Republicans. Van Taylor poses a formidable challenge to an eight-term Democratic incumbent in Texas. Taylor served with the Marine Corps 4th Reconnaissance in Iraq, leading combat missions and participating in the rescue of PFC Jessica Lynch. He supported the U.S. invasion and believes that U.S. forces must remain “until the job is done.” Frank Antenori, who served with Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, is running for the open seat in Arizona’s 8th District. He says that a pullout from Iraq would allow al Qaeda a chance to rebuild and attack the United States. Regarding his position on the war, he says, “I still have friends fighting in Iraq and I don’t wish them to be in harm’s way one minute longer than necessary.”

While these soldier-candidates may differ in their views about the war, they are able to talk intimately about the difficulties that U.S. service members are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan and about their needs when they return home. Across party lines, they are nearly unanimous in opposing the budget cuts made to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs by the current administration and Congress. Many of them, including Republican candidate Antenori, support full funding for the VA as a mandatory part of the federal budget, rather than part of discretionary spending.

Troubled by the war’s impact on international security and America’s standing in the world, returning soldiers are also united in the belief that Congress must play a stronger role in setting things right. Equally important, soldier-candidates are adding a greater sense of purpose, options, and urgency to the national debate over how to best proceed in Iraq.

Erik K. Gustafson, a Gulf war veteran, is executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, based in Washington, D.C.

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