Published December 23, 2015
The link between U.S. military service and running for office is as old as the republic itself. It started with George Washington, who famously wrote that, "When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen."
During the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of thousands of veterans have come home and laid aside their uniforms. But not all have opted to simply blend back into civilian life.
Many have chosen to run for public office.
Several dozen veterans -- some of them from earlier wars -- are vying for U.S. House and Senate seats this year. And many others are seeking state and local offices across the country. Men and women, Republicans and Democrats, they range from well-known hopefuls such as congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, who became a double amputee when her National Guard helicopter was shot down in Iraq, to Arizona state House contender Mark Cardenas, a 25-year-old Iraq vet who remains a National Guardsman.
They are people like former Marine tank commander Nick Popaditch, who lost his right eye during the April 2004 Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, and who is now the Republican nominee in California's 53rd Congressional District.
"I was looking at my government and I wasn't happy with it," says the ex-gunnery sergeant, who cuts a striking figure on the campaign trail with his shaved head and black eye patch. "So rather than complain, I decided to run myself. I thought I could do a better job, and I still feel that way."
After back-to-back wars, there are more recent combat veterans in the United States today than at any time since Vietnam.
But the number of former military members in public office has been declining for years. In 1969, nearly 90 percent of all U.S. House and Senate seats were held by people who'd served in uniform. Today, says the Congressional Research Service, it's about 20 percent. And for the first time in decades, none of the major party candidates for president and vice president has been in the military.
Seth Lynn thinks that's one of the problems with our political system these days, and he's working to change that.
Lynn, a Naval Academy graduate who spent six years in the Marines, helped found Veterans Campaign to train former service members interested in running for office.
He notes that as the number of veterans on Capitol Hill has dropped, there has been "an almost parallel decrease in America's confidence in Congress."
"I'm not saying that the two are necessarily a causal relationship," says Lynn. "But I do think that there is that ability to put your country before yourself, but also to work together across party lines, that Americans want more that just isn't happening in Washington."
There is a natural ebb and flow to this nexus between military and public service.
When World War II ended, 16 million men and women had served in uniform around the globe, and as a result postwar politicians were often veterans. The pool of veterans grew smaller in following years, especially since the end of the military draft in 1973.
The all-volunteer military engenders a sense of duty and "selflessness" that Lynn and others feel has been sorely lacking in the political arena. He sees this quality as a motivation for veteran-candidates today.
Even though he lost a Sept. 6 Democratic primary for a Massachusetts state Senate seat, Joe Kearns Goodwin says he's more convinced than ever "that a life of service is a very worthy one."
Goodwin was a new Harvard graduate when, following the Sept. 11 attacks, he announced he was enlisting in the Army.
His parents "thought I was totally insane" then and were surprised again when he declared he was running for office. But they shouldn't have been, given the family's proximity to politics. His mother is Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and his father, Richard Goodwin, was an adviser and speechwriter for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
"I was weaned on stories of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Great Society, the New Frontier," says the 34-year-old Goodwin. His father worked on these issues, he noted, "all of which represented the ability of government to do good, when it's done well."
Goodwin served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and rose to the rank of captain. "Before we went on patrol, nobody asked, `Are you a Democrat or a Republican?"' he says. "No one asked if you were from a blue state or a red state, a progressive or a conservative. We were just, `What do we need to do to get the job done?"'
In California, Popaditch is making his second run for Congress -- but were it not for a rocket-propelled grenade, he'd most likely still be wearing a uniform.
The son of a Korean War veteran, Popaditch turned down a college scholarship to join the Marines. In the first Gulf War, he commanded a tank during the invasion of Iraq. He left the Marines after six years, but re-enlisted in 1995 and went through training as a drill instructor. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Popaditch asked to be reassigned to tanks.
He took part in the second Iraq invasion in 2003. On April 7, 2004, his tank was struck by an RPG, shrapnel carving a path through his sinuses and destroying his right eye. His actions earned him a Silver Star and a Purple Heart but cost him his career.
Like former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and other wounded vets before him, Popaditch used the GI Bill to go back to school. Last year, he graduated magna cum laude from San Diego State University with a degree in teaching.
Misgivings about the country's direction troubled Popaditch while an undergraduate, prompting his unsuccessful 2010 congressional race. He has put his studies toward a master's on hold this year to run again.
"I think things are slipping," he says. "And they will continue to slip if we don't get involved."
Tom Cotton, the Republican nominee in Arkansas' 4th Congressional District race, compared his decision to run with his decision to join the Army in 2005.
"At that time, it was an attack from a foreign enemy, and we were in an active war. And now we're in a debt crisis that threatens our future prosperity and, therefore, ultimately freedom," says Cotton, 35, who declined a commission as a legal officer to go into the infantry.
Cotton served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, then left a position as a management consultant to run for office. He says the skills he developed in the military have served him well in the business world, as well as on the campaign trail.
"The constant ability to prioritize and reprioritize tasks, to work with imperfect information, to handle ambiguity, to build coalitions to reach a common goal," says Cotton, who defeated a fellow veteran in his primary race. "Being part of a team and helping lead a team by purpose and motivation and direction so it can accomplish more than the individual could accomplish on his or her own."
For many veteran-candidates, their military service is front and center -- but that carries risks.
Running against Cotton for the open 4th District seat is longtime Arkansas state Sen. Gene Jeffress, a retired school teacher.
"I appreciate ALL of our veterans, and I respect them," says Jeffress. "But I think it's been overdone. If he (Cotton) hadn't have had that, I don't know what else he would have had to run on."
In Illinois, Duckworth's opponent, Republican incumbent Rep. Joe Walsh, said her service -- which cost her both legs and partial use of one arm -- demands respect. "However," he added, "unlike most veterans I have had the honor to meet since my election to Congress, who rarely, if ever, talk about their service or the combat they've seen, that is darn near all of what Tammy Duckworth talks about."
Lynn says the "single biggest pitfall" veteran candidates face is overestimating the power of the war-service narrative. The "Candidate's Field Manual" developed for Veterans Campaign hammers that point home.
John F. Kennedy's World War II heroics after the sinking of PT 109 might have helped him in the close 1960 presidential race against Richard Nixon, but George McGovern's bombing runs over Europe in same war didn't lift him over Nixon in 1972, the manual notes. By the same token, allegations of draft dodging and preferential treatment during the Vietnam War didn't stop Bill Clinton and George W. Bush from becoming two-term presidents.
Vietnam veteran John Kerry's failed 2004 presidential campaign introduced a new verb to the political lexicon: to be "swiftboated," a reference to the members of his river boat crew who came out to question his war record.
"A DD-214 (military discharge form) is not an ironclad guarantee to winning office," the manual says -- but it adds that military credentials, "wielded with care," can help.
"All things being equal," says Lynn, "being a veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars today is a greater benefit to a politician than being a veteran of Vietnam 40 years ago."
Mark Cardenas, who recently won his Arizona state House Democratic primary and is unopposed in the general election, was reluctant to play off his veteran status.
The son of Mexican immigrants, he didn't see many options when he graduated from high school. But he knew that if he joined the Army, "I'd have the GI Bill. ... It's something that I had to do to get ahead in life."
But supporters urged him to make more of his veteran status, he says, telling him, "That's your credibility right there."
The youngest candidate in his district, he says his Iraq tour came in handy when questions arose about his youth or his experience.
"Well, for one thing, I'm the only person (in the race) that's ever had an AK-47 shot at them in anger," says Cardenas, whose stint in the National Guard won't end until nearly two weeks after the Nov. 6 election.
Cardenas was among the first graduates from one of Lynn's boot camps in 2009. The program has since blossomed into the George Washington University Center for Second Service, of which Lynn is now director.
Lynn says nearly 60 veterans have won their primaries for the U.S. House and Senate. Not all are recent veterans.
Another of Lynn's alumni is Blair Milo. At 29, she has been an anti-submarine warfare officer and lived aboard Iraqi oil platforms in the North Arabian Gulf; at the Pentagon, she worked on the program to develop the Navy's latest stealth destroyer. She's still a lieutenant in the Navy Reserves.
In 2010, the ROTC graduate from Purdue University was home in La Porte, Ind., on "terminal leave" and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. The local newspaper was full of stories about the city's fiscal crisis.
Milo wrote a series of guest columns, offering solutions. Before she knew it, she'd been recruited to run for mayor. Challenging the two-term Democratic incumbent, she won.
The city of 22,000 continues to borrow money to meet its obligations, but Milo says things are improving. She's focusing her efforts on economic development and has even invited residents to join her for a weekly 5k run. About 250 people now participate in Fitness Friday.
"I like my job -- MOST days," Milo says.
It's important, Lynn says, for vet-candidates to make it clear that they won't be fixated simply on military issues.
After more than two decades in the Army, those issues are certainly close to Steve Wilkins' heart. But the retired lieutenant colonel says that's not why he's seeking to unseat Rep. Renee Ellmers, a tea party favorite, in North Carolina's 2nd Congressional District.
Wilkins, who served as Gen. David Petraeus' logistics chief during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, says there's a tendency to see military people as all moving in "lockstep." In his 22 years of service, he found that there was room for disagreement and discussion.
But at the end of the day, the Democratic nominee says, "there has to be some kind of compromise."
"I've been distressed at looking at the political environment right now, how divisive it is and how our political leaders, particularly in the Congress, just don't seem to be getting anything done," Wilkins says. "There's more of a focus on waiting each other out to see who can have a stronger upper hand before doing anything.
"And I just don't think that's in the spirit of our democracy," he says. "Things have got to get done to advance the football down the field."
In that respect, Wilkins says, government could stand a little more military discipline.