The greatest show of support for America’s veterans, whose sacrifices are being honored this weekend, actually came last Tuesday. A record number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans — 16, with some races still undecided — were elected to Congress. Of that group, nine are first-time officeholders and two, Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, are the first women who served in Iraq to be sent to Congress. They will, of course, be powerful watchdogs for veterans’ affairs.
They and their fellow veterans know, in a way that other members of Congress might not, that many people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with the physical and mental toll of war. Suicide, homelessness, and unemployment are lingering threats that require congressional oversight. As the wars draw to a close, the fates of the 2.5 million Americans who served in combat in the years after Sept. 11, 2001, will depend on the vigilance of those in public office. It should be a comfort to veterans to know that so many of their number will be in the room when important decisions get made.
But their greater contribution may be in other committee assignments, beyond those overseeing Veterans Affairs. The Defense Department budget is slated for cuts — a necessary step toward putting the nation’s fiscal house in order, but one that should be implemented in a way that preserves important functions. The State Department, with its officials struggling to resolve overseas conflicts at the bargaining table, could always benefit from the insights of people who know the consequences of diplomatic failure.
Some congressional veterans, such as Duckworth, who is a double amputee, can speak personally about the importance of access to medical care and the rights of Americans with disabilities. And even on the domestic front, skills learned at war can be transferable: Many of the veterans who were elected to Congress were engaged in “nation building;” thus, they are trained in rebuilding infrastructure and understand its role in spurring economic development.
But what’s most impressive about this group is that they chose to continue their service to the nation, this time as elected officials. They did not come out of the professional political class. Many of them have lived under the stress of flying bullets and the threat of the enemies in their midst. Perhaps these new congressional members can help their future colleagues to put adversity in perspective and get down to work.