America’s military veterans are taking the leap from battlefield to ballot in large numbers in 2018, aiming to bring their discipline, can-do problem-solving, and country-before-party sense of duty to Congress.
Washington may well need them.
The US Senate and House of Representatives are gridlocked, Donald Trump’s presidency has deepened the partisan divide, and approval ratings for Congress hover at just 19 per cent.
Veterans, mostly men, have long served in Congress but their percentage has plunged, from a high of more than 70 per cent in the early 1970s to about 20 per cent today.
Some 200 military veterans are running in the November 6 midterm elections, including a record number of women Democrats intent on being a check against Trump.
They were soldiers, sailors, barrier-busting female fighter pilots, paratroopers and intelligence analysts.
Many came of age after 9/11, volunteering to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq. They are Democrats seeking to flip districts in deep state Texas, like retired search and rescue pilot MJ Hegar; and Republicans running to make inroads in liberal California, like US Marine combat veteran Andrew Grant.
The common theme that runs through their campaigns? A commitment to serve.
“Rescue forces tend to run to where the fire is, and I think that right now the fire is in (Washington) DC,” Hegar, who received the Purple Heart after being shot down during a Medevac mission in Afghanistan in 2009, told AFP at a campaign event in Georgetown, Texas.
Hegar, 42, successfully sued the Pentagon in 2012 to lift a ban on women serving in combat positions. She said she would like to see a “wave” of veterans run for Congress.
“I think that toughness is a Texas values. Service to your country is a very Texas value,” she said. “We’re a very military state.”
There are a few women combat veterans on Capitol Hill, including Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, and Arizona Republican congresswoman Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot running for US Senate.
Changes appear likely. Many of the women who entered the military in the 1990s, when some combat roles began to open up for female recruits, have retired, and are now eyeing seats in Congress.
Retired fighter pilot Amy McGrath is trying to parlay her military experience into a Democratic bid to oust House Republican incumbent Andy Barr of Kentucky. “I spent 20 years as a US Marine, flew 89 combat missions bombing Al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” McGrath says in a campaign ad.
With Honor, a group formed to help elect veterans, has endorsed 39 candidates in its bid to “create a more effective and less polarized government.”
Six of them are Democratic women, including Gina Ortiz Jones, a US Air Force veteran seeking to unseat congressman Will Hurd in southwest Texas, and Elaine Luria, who served six tours in the US Navy and is challenging incumbent Scott Taylor in Virginia.
One of those endorsed by the group is Democrat Richard Ojeda, an intense, decorated retired US Army officer running for a House seat in West Virginia, a state Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016.
Ojeda, 47, says he nearly died five times serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and believes Washington could use more duty-bound military patriots.
“The leader doesn’t sit on top of the mountain and look down at everybody and wonder how can they continue to elevate him higher,” he told AFP.
“He goes down there and he helps elevate them.” With Honor is also endorsing Republicans like Steve Watkins, who volunteered for US Army service in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.
In his Kansas congressional race, Watkins points to the US military’s melting pot of cultures, religions and races, “all coming together to serve the common good,” he told Fox News.
“It makes the political fights in Washington seem petty.” National bickering has been at a boil. Trump repeatedly says Democrats let the military wither and ignore national security concerns, and that Republicans are the party that supports the armed forces.
Joe Jenkins, a 33-year-old retired Marine now teaching in Dallas public schools, said many troops were shocked by the partisanship when they returned home.
“Republicans don’t get to own patriotism, they don’t get to own veterans, or family, and they don’t get to own country,” he said.
“And neither do Democrats. Those are ideals that each person that’s running for public office has to live up to.” Jenkins, whose arms are sheathed in elaborate tattoos, wears one on his right forearm that depicts a lighthouse.
“They’re a bulwark against a storm,” he said.