WASHINGTON – Despite their opposing views on the war, soldiers Pete Hegseth and Jon Soltz have much in common, not the least of which is time spent in Iraq.
Both profess their love of the Army. They are young, athletic and clean-shaven, and they speak eloquently about honor and a sense of duty, as though plucked from central casting to play the role of the patriotic soldier. Above all, they draw heavily on their experiences in combat to justify their views on Iraq, hoping their message will resonate with voters because they — unlike most of America — have witnessed combat.
They also represent dueling activist groups that are fast becoming a powerful lobbying force on Capitol Hill. And to politicians trying to make their case in anticipation of a critical assessment on the war this September, such groups have become valuable public relations tools in the deeply partisan, pull-no-punches Iraq debate.
"The Democrats, unfortunately, are trying to undermine the efforts of our troops and restrict the ability of our generals to carry out their mission," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said at a July news conference with Hegseth and other members of the group Vets for Freedom, which supports a continued U.S. presence in Iraq.
Later that week, Hegseth — a National Guard soldier who worked as a civil affairs officer in Samarra last year — stood behind President Bush in a news conference chastising Democrats for not passing a spending bill for the troops.
"These patriotic Americans who are behind us deserve an opportunity to be heard," McConnell said.
Democrats agree they should rely on the counsel of troops. They just opt to listen to Soltz, a captain in the Army Reserves who deployed logistics convoys in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division in 2003. His group, VoteVets.org, says Bush should bring troops home.
Politicians play on the expectation among voters that because the military is supposed to be apolitical and service members experience combat first-hand, troops will offer an unvarnished assessment of the war.
"Their status as combat veterans gives them an authenticity that politicians don't have," said Darrell West, political science professor at Brown University. "Voters will always see them as combat veterans first, not advocates."
Still, advocates they are, with extensive political ties and budgets for televised political ads.
Both Vets for Freedom and VoteVets.org are tax-exempt nonprofits, but they are not charities. Such groups deliberately do not accept tax-deductible donations — making it tougher to raise money but giving them free reign to lobby on Capitol Hill.
Soltz' VoteVets.org also operates a separate political action committee and has officially endorsed six candidates for the 2008 elections. The group has spent about $850,000 this year on political ads, including local spots during the Super Bowl aimed mostly at pressuring Republican senators into breaking with Bush on the war.
Its board of advisers includes retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a Vietnam veteran who sought the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, also a veteran of the Vietnam War. It's affiliated with the Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a coalition of anti-war groups that includes the partisan MoveOn.org, which backed Democratic challengers in the last election.
Soltz suggests his group's ties to the Democratic Party reflect a bigger movement under way within the military.
"I think you're seeing a paradigm shift in the military, from those who served being fairly passive Republicans to being more active and opposed to what the current leadership is doing," Soltz said.
Hegseth's Vets for Freedom is firmly rooted in politics as well, but with Republican ties instead. The group has worked with former White House spokesman Taylor Gross, and Campaign Solutions — headed by Republican consultant R. Rebecca Donatelli — helps manage its online media.
Adriel Domenech, the press contact for the group, is a former intern with the Republican National Committee and worked on Bush's 2004 campaign in Colorado. Most recently, Domenech worked for 13 months in Iraq for the State Department public affairs office under Bush.
This month, Vets for Freedom launched political ads in five states — Minnesota, Kentucky, Connecticut, Nebraska and Virginia — in a bid to shore up support for Bush's Iraq policies among key senators. The ads feature young combat veterans urging members to fight al-Qaida and thanking them for their support of continued military involvement in Iraq.
Hegseth said the group is still nonpartisan. In July, the group tried to meet with members of both parties and are pushing to sit down with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"We stand with those who stand with the mission," he said in a recent interview. "I don't care if you're Republican or Democrat. ... If you believe it's important to finish the mission in Iraq, we will stand with you."
Soltz and Hegseth readily acknowledge they don't speak on behalf of the military and are careful not to lobby in uniform, as prohibited under Pentagon rules.
Both say they are proud of the advocacy roles their groups play on Capitol Hill and think troops should share their experiences on the ground.
"Those who served have a duty to speak out for those who are on active duty and cannot," said Soltz. "As long as they follow the rules about doing so, all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans need to get involved."
Hegseth said personal experience enhances the debate but that it should be done without a political agenda.
"It can become dangerous when troops use their status as a veteran to talk about their own political beliefs," he said. "But when troops are talking about their mission and the importance of their mission and why the strategy being used is successful, or why it's different or why it could be altered, I think that's important."