HUNTER: Veterans who take the Hill

Old warhorses give way to new generation of battle-tested members

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Since the birth of the nation, military veterans have made innumerable contributions to the development and operation of the U.S. government. For Congress, which is accustomed to veterans, the knowledge and expertise garnered through military service remains an influential force.

Today, there are fewer veterans in Congress than at any other time in the last 60 years — a fact that is especially true for the U.S. Senate, where only 16 veterans currently serve.

The underrepresentation of veterans in Congress is once again called to attention with the death Monday of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat. A World War II veteran, Mr. Lautenberg arrived in Congress in 1983 as one of more than 70 senators who were also veterans.

Even with the departure of the last remaining World War I veteran only several years prior, there were veterans who served during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. At that time and through subsequent years, the representation of America’s veterans remained as broad as it was diverse.

The current dynamic of veterans in Congress is no less significant today. There are two remaining veterans of World War II in the House: Rep. Ralph M. Hall, Texas Republican, and Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat. There are veterans of Korea. There are veterans of Vietnam. And there are now veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even with the infusion of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the overall number of men and women in Congress who served in the armed forces, at any time, remains significantly lower than before.

Veterans share a special bond. They are often connected by experience, a sense of duty and a commitment to protecting the values and freedoms that have served as a rallying call for the millions of brave individuals who have ever stepped forward in defense of America.

In describing this camaraderie, Mr. Lautenberg said it right, reflecting on his Army service as “an assimilation of different cultures, environments: country boys, city boys, tough guys, not-so-tough guys, but we all got along, and we had to fend for one another.” It is these relationships — formed through common experiences that transcend generations — that solidify the unbreakable bond between veterans and motivate them to uphold their commitment to protecting the interests of others with an unrelenting spirit of perseverance.

Veterans in Congress often apply this focus in their own unique ways. For myself, as a Marine veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, my experiences while in uniform have certainly shaped my perspective as a member of Congress, especially related to issues affecting our military.

As a lieutenant in the first battle of Fallujah, I held the perspective of a junior officer, which effectively limited my strategic point of view. My perspective was shaped by the same experiences shared by other junior officers who carry out the missions and fulfill the orders they are given.

Even as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I often view things through that same lens. Those who serve on the ground are able to see and experience the implications of major policy decisions and laws enacted. These decisions translate into details such as the type and quality of ammunition used in combat, the types of boots worn into battle and the effectiveness of helicopters that move the wounded from the battlefield to the surgeon. Those who serve on the ground see firsthand the impact of operations when other Americans look to the news or members of Congress examine assessments from the nation’s top commanders.

Veterans have made significant contributions to debates on innumerable issues, and they will continue doing so for as long as America’s military continues to thrive and offer opportunities for leadership that is routinely tested in dangerous and sometimes life-threatening situations.

There may be fewer veterans in Congress today, but those who do continue their service beyond the military never forget their obligation to each other and those who they sought to defend.

America has always benefited from the contributions of veterans, whether in government or the workforce, and this will surely remain the case as more military men and women return home from Afghanistan and future generations serve with distinction.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, California Republican, is chairman of the subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

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