NORFOLK, Va. — Just days after returning from Iraq, Marine Corps Sgt. Christopher Ahn ordered a beer — and got an earful on the side.
Ahn's waitress disparaged the Iraq war and President George W. Bush, accused Ahn of slaughtering innocent people and vilified the Marines as crazy killers. The 2006 encounter at a Costa Mesa, Calif., bar left him speechless.
"There's nothing I could say to this girl," recalled Ahn, now a graduate student at the University of Virginia. "The chasm of knowledge and experiences was so wide that I thought, 'What am I going to do?'"
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are taking a back seat to jobs and the economy as political issues in the midterm elections. A poll released in August by the Pew Research Center found that only 59 percent of registered voters rated Afghanistan as a very important issue compared with 90 percent who said the economy was very important.
But for some who have served in those conflicts, wartime experience is driving their political views. Interviews with dozens of active-duty and retired service members who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq show a diverse response in terms of politics and activism.
Many say they have withdrawn from politics because of their wartime and postwar experiences. Others find themselves in the center of today's political battlefield.
Before joining the military at 19, Christopher Ahn's only political involvement was watching the news. But when he returned from Iraq, the chasm between his on-the-ground experience there and many Americans' antagonism toward the war made him retreat even further from politics.
"They didn't want to hear from me," he said. "They wanted to hear from people who mimicked their own opinion."
That changed in mid-2007 when Ahn saw Pete Hegseth of Vets for Freedom on MSNBC's "Hardball." Hearing the Army captain, who'd received a Bronze Star, talk about U.S. successes in Iraq by using his own experiences showed Ahn there was a way to bridge the divide.
"I thought, 'That's it. That's exactly what I've been feeling, what I wanted to say to people,'" Ahn recalled. "Whatever help this guy needs, I'm going to give him."
Ahn re-engaged in the political process by volunteering for Vets for Freedom, which advocates for military success in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he eventually held a paid position as director of operations through 2009.
Vets for Freedom initially endorsed 10 "pro-victory" veterans running for Congress — all Republicans — but last week endorsed their first Democrat of the 2010 election cycle: Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia.
Despite his role in this politically active group, Ahn does not consider his outreach efforts partisan. Instead, he sees his advocacy as a form of truth-squading, explaining the facts of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
"The picture the overall American population has is completely overblown," he said. "What they need are people who have actually served to give them a more balanced, nuanced picture."
Out of six years of active military duty, one moment stands out for Adam Kinzinger.
A captain in the Air National Guard, Kinzinger was flying wounded troops from Afghanistan to Germany for medical treatment. He started talking to a young man who had suffered a traumatic head injury as a result of an improvised explosive device.
The wounded soldier's one regret: He couldn't continue fighting alongside the troops he left behind.
"If I lose all my memory someday, I hope that will be the last memory I have," Kinzinger said. "It reminded me that America is going to be all right."
And it inspired the 32-year-old to attempt to serve his country in a new way: Kinzinger is running for Congress as the Republican nominee in Illinois' 11th District.
"If I'm willing to fight for my country on the outside, I've got to be willing to fight for it on the inside," Kinzinger said.
An overwhelming favorite to win his race, Kinzinger supports continued U.S. commitment to the Afghanistan war. But he also has campaigned on familiar Republican issues of cutting spending and creating jobs.
Unlike most Republican politicians, however, Kinzinger openly talks of a desire to find common ground with President Barack Obama.
"With the military, nobody sees anything as impossible," he said. "We're going to have to come together to achieve a common mission."
Cpl. Chantelle Bateman always wanted a Marine Corps career, attracted to the service's reputation for honor and integrity. When Bateman's unit was called to serve in Iraq, her name didn't come up in the first round of deployments, but she volunteered to go early, even though it meant leaving college at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
"It wasn't that I necessarily supported the war in Iraq, but I supported the Marines I deployed with," she said.
Once deployed, Bateman, who is African-American, said she was called a racial epithet by fellow Marines and sexually harassed. Meanwhile, her opposition to the war was growing.
"I remember once sitting at the lunch table and a master sergeant said to the entire table that we should have turned the entire country of Iraq into a parking lot," she said. "How do you then open a conversation about politics?"
When she came home to Fort Washington, Md., she couldn't adjust to life after Iraq. After hitting what she described as a "rock-bottom place of craziness," she sought to make sense of what she'd done and been through thousands of miles from home.
"I started to ask a lot more questions than I had before," she said. "Politics change when you start asking questions."
For Bateman, the answer to those questions was Iraq Veterans Against the War, where she serves as northeast field coordinator.
"What I do now really isn't any different than what I wanted to do in the Marine Corps," Bateman said. "I wanted to free the people and save the world and all that good jazz. I think I just found a better way to do that."
While some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have positioned themselves prominently within the national election-year discussion, many active-duty troops have remained comparatively quiet.
A large number are hesitant to speak openly about their views for fear of being perceived as challenging their chain of command, according to interviews in military towns in Virginia and North Carolina.
"You can't voice your opinion about anything that goes against the president," said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Jett. They also said they simply don't see midterm elections as connected to their reality.
"It's about the military. That's all I follow," said Jett, a Wicksburg, Ala., native who has been deployed six times and is stationed on the USS Eisenhower in Norfolk.
Jett was one of many active duty troops who said they don't plan to vote Tuesday. Without a commander in chief on the ballot and with Congress more focused on pressing economic and domestic issues than day-to-day military operations, many troops say this election is irrelevant to their lives.
"When the presidential election starts, the military will start paying attention," Jett said.
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