Military veterans missing in action this year in battle for White House

McDonnell may earn a salute on GOP ticket

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The nation may be heading for its first presidential election in 80 years without a military veteran on either major-party ticket.

President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney have not served in the military, and most of Mr. Romney’s rumored vice-presidential picks are not veterans either. The last time neither the presidential nor vice-presidential candidates of the two major tickets had military experience was in 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt — a former secretary of the Navy — defeated Herbert Hoover.

Mr. Romney’s campaign declined to speculate on his vice-presidential choice or the likelihood that he would consider military service in his selection, but among the leading contenders mentioned for the No. 2 GOP slot — Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Thune, Tim Pawlenty, Condoleezza Rice, Mitch Daniels, Rob Portman and Bob McDonnell — only Mr. McDonnell is a veteran.

The Virginia governor served four years as a medical supply officer in the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.

The lack of former service members in the presidential race fits a trend in the federal government, which has had a steady decline of veterans holding elected positions since the 1980s. With fewer officials claiming military experience, some say the government risks losing its grip on military affairs.

“I think what’s been hurt is many officials don’t have a sense of what the military is about,” said Don Zillman, the president at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. A Vietnam veteran, Mr. Zillman has researched the significance of military experience in lawmaking.

“The military continues to be the one great school in the nation. I would like to have somebody in the White House who has had some period of military service.”

Legacy of service

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the country’s most famous World War II general. John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush were war heroes. John F. Kerry and Al Gore served in Vietnam, and George W. Bush joined the National Guard.

With the military draft in effect until 1973, serving a stint in the armed forces was simply a fact of life for many politicians who came of age from the 1940s through the 1990s.

Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Eisenhower twice in the 1950s, was a seaman apprentice in the Navy. Spiro T. Agnew was drafted into the Army at the start of World War II and earned a Bronze Star for his service in France and Germany. Even major third-party candidates — George C. Wallace (U.S. Army Air Forces flight engineer), John B. Anderson (U.S. Army field artilleryman, H. Ross Perot (U.S. Navy lieutenant) — were veterans.

Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Roosevelt, considered to be two of the country’s greatest wartime presidents, had any significant military experience. But, for some scholars and analysts, time in the armed forces remains invaluable experience for someone looking to occupy the Oval Office.

“You don’t have to spend too much time in the service for it to have a complete imprint” on your life experience, said retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, a 30-year Army veteran who served in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia.

Unique qualifications

Mr. Zillman agrees with the retired general: Veterans often bring a more informed sense of the world and a better understanding of the high stakes of warfare to public service.

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