WASHINGTON – In the end, Rep. Steve Buyer got a thanks, but no thanks from the Pentagon for wanting to report for military duty near the battlefields of Iraq rather than in the halls of Congress.
Even before the first bombs were dropped on Baghdad, the Indiana Republican and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve was making plans to ship out as a judge advocate to the Persian Gulf, where 12 years ago in an earlier war he was a legal adviser in a POW camp.
He sought and immediately received from House Speaker Dennis Hastert an indefinite leave from Congress and returned to his home in Monticello, Ind., to spend a few days with his family before what he thought would be a speedy deployment.
The plan came to an end Monday night, not abruptly but after days of wrangling by Pentagon officials over whether Buyer's desire to report for active military duty should prevail over a six-decade practice of not sending lawmakers into harm's way as soldiers while Congress is in session.
"The Army appreciates your willingness to serve the nation in Operation Iraqi Freedom," Buyer (pronounced BOO-yer) quoted a Pentagon notice he received Monday. "However, due to your high profile status as a United States representative, we are concerned that your presence would put in jeopardy your safety and the safety of those serving around you, given the current security environment in the theater of operations."
Buyer, 44, said in a telephone interview before heading back to Washington that he had mixed feelings about the Army's decision.
"When you get ready and you're prepared to go, you're ready," he said. "(But) I have a family and I've already done this once.... I'm neither the first nor will I be the last soldier ever told to pack your bags, you're deploying, stand by, stand down, now unpack your bags."
Others were not surprised.
"There is a tradition of not wearing two hats in the government," said Senate historian Donald Ritchie.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., was a member of the House and a Navy Reservist when he offered to serve in the Persian Gulf war. He recalled Dick Cheney, the secretary of defense then, telling him to stay put.
"I think Secretary Cheney recognized that making it possible for me to fly missions with P3 air crews in a war setting probably created more problems than it solved," Carper said.
Had the Army decided the other way, Buyer would have become the first lawmaker since the early days of World War II to go to war while Congress is in session without first having to give up his seat. When several lawmakers did it then, President Roosevelt issued an order in 1942 prohibiting members of Congress from being activated.
About a dozen congressmen and one senator later gave up their seats in Congress to serve. Others did the opposite. Lyndon B. Johnson resigned his commission in the Navy to stay in the House.
According to Defense Department directives, lawmakers in the reserves or National Guard units can volunteer for active duty but cannot be called up unless there is a pressing need for their specific skills. Even then, they can turn down activation orders, officials said.
One of Buyer's colleagues, Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a Naval Reserve intelligence officer, has arranged to spend Congress' two-week spring recess as a watch officer in the Pentagon's war room.
"I think it's important for a member of the Congress to get a view from the bottom up," said Kirk, who typically spends one weekend a month on duty.
Other reservists in Congress include Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., both lieutenant colonels in the Air Force Reserve, and Rep. John M. Shimkus, R-Ill., a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., is a colonel in his state's Army National Guard.