The wars they fought in are still raging, but a surge of veterans from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are already running hard for public office and shaking up congressional races across the country.
It is estimated that the number of candidates with military records on the 2010 ballot will double compared with just two years ago. With polls showing some voters unhappy with incumbents and nervous about defense and security issues under President Obama, many of the challengers fresh from the ranks are mounting strong challenges in local and state races.
"With each year, the quantity and the quality of the veterans seeking office is increasing," said Pete Hegseth, the executive director of Vets for Freedom, a nonpartisan political action committee that supports candidates who are hawks on national security.
Mr. Hegseth said veterans are getting into the 2010 races for many of the same reasons as other reform-minded candidates.
"Veterans are driven by the same frustrations that the public has with what is happening in Washington … the fiscal irresponsibility and the financial crisis that our country is facing," the 29-year-old Iraq veteran told The Washington Times.
Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats officially track the number of veterans running for Congress, but political action groups estimate as many as 40 Iraq and Afghanistan warriors-turned-politicians are competing in party primaries across the country this year.
The surge of new veteran candidates comes as the number of lawmakers with military service has plummeted. Steadily declining since the end of World War II, there are just 95 Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force and National Guard veterans in the current House of Representatives, a postwar record low of just over 21 percent of the total.
Many such candidates are running as Democrats — including formidable candidates like Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired admiral and the highest-ranking military man ever to serve in Congress, who is locked in a tough Senate battle in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary with incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter.
But most of the veterans seeking office this year are campaigning as conservatives and looking to emerge from crowded Republican primaries — a prospect that hasn't exactly been embraced in some GOP circles.
In Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District, long held by the now-deceased Democrat John Murtha (himself a vet), retired Army officer and Desert Storm veteran Bill Russell was rebuffed by the Republican Party's state leadership. The leadership chose instead to back millionaire businessman Tim Burns as the handpicked GOP candidate in the May 18 special election to serve the remaining months of Mr. Murtha's term.
Mr. Russell, who made a surprisingly effective run at Mr. Murtha in 2008, pulling 42 percent of the vote in the heavily Democratic district, didn't appreciate the slight and is running against Mr. Burns in the same-day primary for the GOP nomination to seek a full term in November.
The race echoes some of the themes from 2009's controversial special House contest in upstate New York, with charges that GOP insiders and decision-makers are out of step with the grass-roots candidacies of outsiders like Mr. Russell.
Mr. Russell said in an interview that he sees the parallels.
"Party leaders absolutely tried to engineer the selection of a candidate who was 30 points down in the polls, and it's all a business-as-usual, back-room deal based on them wanting a candidate who could be self-funded — despite the fact that I've outraised Mr. Burns three-to-one," Mr Russell said Monday.
But he said there's a big difference with the New York race, where divisions between the official Republican nominee and a conservative challenger helped the Democrats score an upset win.
"I'm absolutely not going to run a write-in campaign or try to run as a third-party candidate," Mr. Russell vowed. "I'm a Republican, and if we're going to change things in Washington, we need to recapture the soul of the Republican Party."
Mr. Russell's battle with the party establishment is one that many veterans face when looking to make the jump into politics, said D. Patrick Mahoney, an Iraq veteran and president of the Veterans for Congress political action committee.
Mr. Mahoney has been sharply critical of the Pennsylvania Republican leadership's decision to pass over Mr. Russell, saying the move had less to do with qualifications than with the Republican establishment's obsession with Mr. Burns' wealth.
"That's why you don't see more veterans running for Congress. It's so expensive," he said. "It's tough for veterans who have been fighting a war, stationed around the world. Veterans who come back and want to seek office — especially the recent vets — generally are not going to be the rich guys."
Mr. Hegseth agreed, saying both parties too often overlook veterans' "untapped pool of leadership" in favor of self-funded candidates who can finance their own campaigns or party loyalists who network their way onto ballots.
Mr. Hegseth said the Republicans and the Democrats should be working harder to recruit veterans, even if they are new to politics.
"That's not a negative," he said. "It's good that they're not tainted by the process that some of these other candidates go through."
Mr. Hegseth picked five races to watch this year:
• Brian Rooney, a Marine who served in Iraq and a grandson of the founder of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, is running for Michigan's 7th District seat, held by freshman Rep. Mark Schauer, a Democrat from Battle Creek.
• Navy vet Mark Steven Kirk could end up with President Obama's old job, senator from Illinois. The five-term congressman, who has twice deployed to Afghanistan since 2008 as a reservist, leads Democrat Alexi Giannoulias in the polls and in the money chase.
• Active Marine Corps reservist Vaughn Ward has drawn a lot of attention in his bid for the 1st Congressional District in Idaho, especially after he won the backing recently of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Mr. Palin also endorsed two other veterans, Adam Kinzinger in the 11th Congressional District race in Illinois and Allen West in the 22nd in Florida.
• In Arkansas, Tim Griffin, a veteran and a former U.S. attorney, is battling Scott Wallace for the GOP nomination in the 2nd District.
• Steve Stivers, a Bronze Star medal winner for his service in Iraq, is a rising GOP star in Ohio making a bid to unseat Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy in the state's 15th District.
"All are races where veterans have raised a good deal of money, in toss-up districts or states — races where we think we can have an impact," Mr. Hegseth said.
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