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Two candidates, Marines alike, sense new call to service

This is a tale of two Marines. One a Democrat, the other a Republican. Both running for Congress.

Seth Moulton's attempt to take out an entrenched incumbent Democrat on Boston's North Shore has received considerable attention. Cormick Lynch's bid for the Republican nomination for the congressional seat in Rhode Island's District One has attracted considerably less.

But their stories resonate equally, their journeys as young men in combat and in the private sector and their reasons for running for office remarkably similar.

Moulton grew up in a liberal household in Marblehead and was a student at Harvard when the most unlikely of recruiters was instrumental in getting him to join the Marines: the Rev. Peter Gomes.


"He instilled in me this sense of public service," Moulton said. "I looked at the Peace Corps. I looked at the military. I had so much respect for the 18- and 19-year-old kids who serve on the front lines. I felt like I had to, too."

Cormick Lynch is from Newport, the Marblehead of Rhode Island. He joined the Marines at 19, and two years later he was in Iraq, being shot at every day. He realized then and there that an individual is just that, one person. Accomplishing anything of substance required a team, and leadership.

"When you learn those truths, in places like Fallujah, at a young age, it is more than any school in the United States will teach you," Lynch said.

In 2006, his battalion came back to Boston, having lost 11 Marines in battle; 68 were wounded. He worked as a firefighter in East Providence while going to URI part-time. When he hurt his leg badly and couldn't fight fires anymore, he decided to go back to school full-time at the University of Delaware, earning a degree in finance. He worked on Wall Street, but it wasn't for him, so he came back home and started a nonprofit that creates educational opportunities for veterans.


Both Moulton and Lynch are wary of being too narrowly defined as combat veterans, but they both speak passionately about doing better by a military generation that has been asked to do more for a longer period of time than any other.

They believe if more veterans were in Congress, for example, the Veterans Administration would be in much better shape.

"I waited months to get appointments at the VA," Moulton said. "John Tierney says it's fine. It's not. The people in Washington did not do what was necessary to take care of the people they sent to fight those wars."

There was a Marine in his unit, James Hassell, and during the Battle of Najaf in 2004, he carried a wounded buddy on his back some 60 yards across an open field under fire. James Hassell came home with a horrible case of posttraumatic stress.

"James went to the VA, and rather than give him the help he needed they gave him meds and sent him home," Moulton said.

James Hassell took all the pills in one of those bottles and was dead of a heart attack at 30.

The failure to prepare for a surge of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with unprecedented needs is, to both Moulton and Lynch, the product of a political system that lacks accountability.

"No one in Washington takes responsibility," Moulton said, sitting in a Marblehead restaurant. "As a platoon leader, I was responsible for everything someone in my platoon did or didn't do."


Lynch told me almost the same thing as we sat in a Newport restaurant. They talk about accountability not as some obscure theory but as something real.

"Congress has turned into 535 infants who throw candy at each other on each side of the aisle," Lynch said. "There's fingerpointing and a deflection of responsibility."

Moulton said the same thing, expressing the same frustration, almost embarrassment, over what passes for politics in Washington these days.

They both think those who move from a military culture to a political culture have a profoundly different attitude than those who haven't served in the armed forces. They're not saying it makes them better. It makes them different. They both are appalled by the partisan bickering and name-calling, and both were moved by the sight two years ago of Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican, saluting the casket of Dan Inouye, the Democrat from Hawaii. Dole and Inouye met in a hospital while recovering from wounds they received during World War II.

Dole and Inouye stood on separate sides of the aisle in the Senate, but they loved each other like brothers.

Both Moulton and Lynch believe it is not a coincidence that today's dysfunctional, disrespectful political discourse became the norm in an era when the number of veterans in Congress dropped precipitously.

When the Vietnam War ended, about 75 percent of those in Congress were veterans. Today, it's about 20 percent.


"I didn't have a platoon of Democrats in Iraq," Moulton said. "What's needed in Washington is a sense of service, and you don't have to be a veteran to have that. But I know all veterans have it."

Lynch believes military thinking is more strategic, more long-term, than political thinking. The generals who told the Bush administration they needed far more troops before the invasion of Iraq were ignored or fired.

"If you look at a lot of our problems as a nation, it's because we do things for short term gain, not what is strategically better in the long term," Lynch said. "The Obama administration was as short sighted and irresponsible with their strategy to exit Iraq as the Bush administration was with their strategy to enter it."

If I lived in Rhode Island, I would vote for Lynch based on that quote alone.

If you're asking me will Congress improve, will Washington function better, if we simply elect more veterans like Seth Moulton and Cormick Lynch, I would tell you I don't think so, I know so.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.