Few In New Congress Served In Military

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
November 21, 2006
Pg. 1

Does lack of veterans hinder ability to make defense decisions?
By Bob Dart, Cox Washington Bureau
Washington -- A leading member of the new Democratic majority in the House is calling for resuming the draft to spread the burden of military service across society -- a gap that Congress itself illustrates.
Only about 10 percent of the members elected to Congress for the first time this year are military veterans, according to a survey by the Military Officers Association of America. In all, only about one in four members of the new Congress will have served in the military -- down from half in 1991 and three-quarters a decade earlier.
"The declining number of veterans in Congress is a reflection of the same trend among all Americans," the organization of retired, reserve and active duty officers said in a statement. "With smaller forces, the proportion that has served will continue to decline as time passes."
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who is in line to become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that he believes resuming the draft, which ended in 1973, would not only ensure that everyone shares in the sacrifices of war, but would discourage military ventures such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which he opposed.
"There's no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm's way," he said.
When the Democrats take over Congress in January, Rangel said, he will introduce legislation to reinstate a draft for all young Americans. The decorated Korean War veteran has proposed similar measures in the past that failed amid overwhelming bipartisan opposition.
Rangel's own party leader, House speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Monday that she opposes the idea -- though she understands Rangel's concern.
"It's not about a draft. It's about shared sacrifice in our country," Pelosi told reporters in her Capitol Hill office. She said Rangel was making a point "that this war has not involved or made any shared sacrifice."
Would wider military experience help lawmakers as they face the question of what to do about Iraq and other military challenges?
Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion, said "it obviously makes a difference" when a lawmaker has served in the military.
Veterans in Congress "understand the sacrifices and hardships experienced not just by members of our military but also by their families," said Robertson. U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, a Macon Democrat, said there is "no question" that his Army duty in Vietnam has helped him decide how to vote in the House.
"I have a perspective as a veteran that I gained through experience that someone who hasn't served doesn't have," said Marshall, who won two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart as a platoon sergeant.
Leading a small combat team engaged in "what was basically counter-insurgency ... has given me a better feel for what our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan face," Marshall said.
But that doesn't mean colleagues who haven't had that experience can't make good decisions on military policy, he added. The incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), was disqualified from military service because of a childhood bout with polio, Marshall said. But "Ike is extremely supportive of our military in a very thoughtful way. He is a good example of the kind of member who serves us every well on military matters and yet himself was unable to serve."
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) is also among the majority of members who did not serve in the military.
"Every individual brings a unique perspective. Prior service to our nation is one factor," said Doggett. "But I know that many of my colleagues, veterans and nonveterans, share my view that those who have worn our uniform must receive all the benefits they have earned."
The declining number of lawmakers with military experience "presents an educational challenge" to advocates for veterans, active-duty troops and their families, said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.
"It's not that members who aren't veterans don't support us on military issues. Sometimes they bend over backwards because they didn't serve," Strobridge said. "But we need to work a little harder to explain the issues" to those who don't have firsthand knowledge.
"Once they understand, they can be at least as supportive as those who have served," he said.
The decline in military experience among members of Congress reflects the fading of the World War II generation -- where most of the men served -- and the decades that have passed since the end of the Vietnam War and the nation's last military draft.
The number of veterans in the House peaked in 1977-78, when about 80 percent of the members had military experience, said Strobridge. The peak in the Senate was in 1983-84, when 75 percent were veterans.
In a population of about 300 million people, there are only about 24 million veterans now, said the American Legion's Robertson. That's fewer than one in 10 Americans.
Even personal experience in the service doesn't mean lawmakers see eye-to-eye on issues involving the military. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a colonel in the Air Force Standby Reserve, said that while he agrees the military is short of personnel, "I think we can do this with an all-voluntary service, all-voluntary Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. And if we can't, then we'll look for some other option."
Robertson also said being a veteran doesn't necessarily mean a candidate rates American Legion support.
Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) was a nonveteran running against an Iraq war veteran, but their respective service or lack thereof was never an issue, Robertson said, "because Chet Edwards has been such a staunch supporter for veterans."
In their effort to educate nonveteran members, Strobridge said 130 retired military officers will visit congressional offices as the new Congress opens. One issue is that "we don't have a big enough force," he said.
"We're asking the same people to go again and again and again" to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. "Whether you like the current war or not, you always have to be ready to fight the next one."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.