Command Sergeant Major Tim Walz is a twenty-four-year veteran of the Army National Guard, now retired but still on active duty when a visit from President George W. Bush shortly before the 2004 election coincided with Walz's homecoming to Mankato, Minnesota. A high school teacher and football coach, he had left to serve overseas in Operation Enduring Freedom. Southern Minnesota is home to a large Guard contingent that includes Walz's unit, the First 125th Field Artillery Battalion, so the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are naturally a pressing local concern—particularly to high school students headed into the armed services.
The president's visit struck Walz as a teachable moment, and he and two students boarded a Bush campaign bus that took them to a quarry where the president was to speak. But after they had passed through a metal detector and their tickets and IDs were checked, they were denied admittance and ordered back onto the bus. One of the boys had a John Kerry sticker on his wallet.
Indignant, Walz refused. "As a soldier, I told them I had a right to see my commander-in-chief," the normally jovial forty-one-year-old recently explained to a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party dinner in the small town of Albert Lea, Minnesota.
His challenge prompted a KGB-style interrogation that was sadly characteristic of Bush campaign events. Do you support the president? Walz refused to answer. Do you oppose the president? Walz replied that it was no one's business but his own. (He later learned that his wife was informed that the Secret Service might arrest him.) Walz thought for a moment and asked the Bush staffers if they really wanted to arrest a command sergeant major who'd just returned from fighting the war on terrorism.
They did not.
Instead Walz was told to behave himself and permitted to attend the speech, albeit under heavy scrutiny. His students were not: they were sent home. Shortly after this Walz retired from the Guard. Then he did something that until recently was highly unusual for a military man. He announced he was running for Congress—as a Democrat.
Walz personifies two of this year's most interesting political trends, both of which appear to emanate from the country's growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and the party most responsible for it. The midterm elections this fall will be the first in which a sizable number of veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq run for Congress. At least fourteen have declared so far. But in an era when military and national-security issues have long been the province of the Republican Party—indeed, are thought to have strengthened the GOP's grip on the White House and Congress in the past two elections—the bigger surprise is under whose banner these veterans are choosing to run. Like Walz, nearly every one of them is a Democrat.
One reason for the surge of Democratic veterans on the campaign trail is the example of Paul Hackett, a forty-three-year-old major in the Marine Corps who returned from Iraq and became the Democratic candidate in a special election last August for Ohio's second-district congressional seat. In a staunchly conservative district Hackett campaigned as an unabashed critic of the Bush administration and its handling of the Iraq War at a time when few elected Democrats were so bold, and he fell just a few thousand votes short of an upset victory. He became a media star in the process, and is now running to unseat Ohio's embattled senior senator, the Republican Mike DeWine, this fall.
The subsequent group of veterans very much resembles Hackett: they are generally young (most in their thirties and forties), new to electoral politics, and, with varying degrees of intensity, critics of the administration. At a time when the public's opinion of lawmakers in both parties is abysmal, these veterans are running on the attractively civic-minded notion that service in Congress is a patriotic extension of service in the military. They are spread throughout the country but concentrated in military-heavy states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, and Texas, where the war and its effects are most keenly felt.
This fact was driven home on the day I arrived in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to meet Marine Lieutenant Colonel Tim Dunn, a lawyer and a veteran of the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict. Dunn recently returned from a tour in Iraq, where he helped the Iraqi Special Tribunal investigate and prosecute former high officials of the regime, including Saddam Hussein himself. He is a Democratic candidate for the state's eighth congressional district, home to the Army's Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base. Just before we were to meet, Dunn was called away to attend a tragically familiar ritual around Fayetteville: a memorial service for an Army Special Forces soldier killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
When we did meet, the next day, Dunn described local concerns that echoed what I'd already heard around town and also in Minnesota and Texas districts with high concentrations of military personnel—concerns about families left behind and about health care and economic assistance for returning veterans. Above all there was a diffuse and mounting frustration with Washington, most often summed up in military idiom as a "crisis of leadership."
"I pledge to be someone who will not only vote his convictions but voice his convictions," Dunn said. With his wraparound sunglasses and hair cut high and tight, he looked as if he had just hopped off a tank. "What's needed in Congress today is a dose of honor, courage, and commitment." This same sentiment is voiced, though possibly for different reasons, by the lone Republican veteran seeking a House seat: Van Taylor, a thirty-three-year-old Marine captain who is hoping to oust the incumbent Democrat in Texas's seventeenth district. "People want a congressman who's a proven leader in the war on terror," Taylor says.
That sort of raw authenticity—experience in combat—has declined steadily over the past three decades. According to research conducted by William Bianco, a professor at Penn State University who has studied the civilian-military divide, the number of veterans in the House reached its zenith in 1971, when more than 72 percent of congressmen had served. With the retirement of World War II veterans and the under-representation of veterans of later wars, that number has slipped below 20 percent. Experts attribute this decline to the paucity of large-scale combat operations, the shrinking of the armed services overall, and the change in 1975 to an all-volunteer military, which created a higher percentage of career-minded soldiers, less likely to take an interest in running for office. That could change. "What you're looking at now is fairly unusual," says Richard Kohn, a history professor and the chair of the Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina. "This is the first time post-1975 that you're seeing a group emerge that specifically wants to get involved in politics."