RALEIGH, N.C. — Veterans across the country are vying for House, Senate and state office seats this year, 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," said 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, according to the Congressional Research Service, it's only 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.
Mr. 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."
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," said Mr. Cotton, 35, who declined a commission as a legal officer to go into the infantry.
For many veteran-candidates, their military service is front and center — but that carries risks.
In Illinois, Ms. 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."
Mr. Cardenas, who recently won his Arizona state House Democratic primary and is unopposed in the general election, said 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," said Mr. Cardenas, whose stint in the National Guard won't end until nearly two weeks after the Nov. 6 election.
Mr. Cardenas was among the first graduates from one of Mr. Lynn's boot camps in 2009. The program has since blossomed into the George Washington University Center for Second Service, of which Mr. Lynn is now director. Mr. Lynn said nearly 60 veterans have won their primaries for the U.S. House and Senate.