Susan Davis, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - A decade of wars abroad has not reversed the decline in military veterans serving in the U.S. Congress. When the next session convenes in January, the two chambers will have the fewest number of veterans serving since World War II. It's a continuation of a nearly four-decade-long decline of veterans in office since the peak of their service in the years after the Vietnam War.
In 2013, just 19% of the 535 combined members in the U.S. House and Senate will have active-duty military service on their resume, down from a peak in 1977 when 80% of lawmakers boasted military service. In the current Congress, 22% are military veterans.
The transition from the draft to an all-volunteer military in 1973 is a driving force of the decline, but veterans and their advocates say they face more challenges running for office in the modern era of political campaigns.
"There's so few opportunities that we have where veterans can run a federal campaign," said Jon Soltz of VoteVets.org, a liberal veterans' advocacy group that supports candidates for office. "They are credible messengers to the public, but only if they're financed. A veteran with a great narrative that doesn't have the infrastructure to sell themselves is a tree falling alone in the woods."
Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, said the realities of modern military life make it difficult for veterans to establish roots in a community to build political networks and the financial backing to run for office. "Oftentimes, veterans don't travel in those circles," Celli said.
Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said she faced "huge challenges" in her campaign, which initially showed her 45 percentage points down in the race. She said she used her skills as a platoon leader to manage her grass-roots campaign operation for a victory, but she noted that many veteran candidates face challenges to raise money. "Generally, veterans tend not to be wealthy people," she said.
A combination of electoral factors contributes to veterans' decline in the 113th Congress. Military veteran candidates in eight competitive Senate races this year were defeated by opponents who did not serve. Among the dozens of military veterans who ran for the U.S. House, 12 are headed to Washington in January.
Couple that with the primary defeat of military veterans such as Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and the ousting of incumbents such as Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, a veteran affected by the redistricting process, means that each Congress in the past decade has seen fewer veterans serving than the one before it. All of that comes against the backdrop of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Army veteran and Rep.-elect Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of the dozen incoming lawmakers with military service, said he expects to see a rise in the next decade and beyond among veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan running for office. "I think you probably would see a steady increase in this generation of veterans, and it'll be faster as we put a little bit more time between us and the war, and a little bit more gray on our temples," he said.
More than 2.4 million military personnel have been deployed in support of U.S. war efforts since Sept. 11, 2001. Though the number of overall veterans is declining, the number of veterans from the two conflicts is on the rise. Among the 103 veterans in the next Congress, 16 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cotton is among a crop of standout military veterans from the era that includes Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Gabbard, the first two female combat veterans to serve in Congress.
Advocates acknowledge that veterans' decline in the congressional ranks could hold real-time repercussions for the military and veterans, both of which are in the thick of negotiations to avoid the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year when the George W. Bush-era tax rates expire and spending cuts threaten defense programs.
Unless Congress acts, a $500 billion cut in defense spending over 10 years will begin to take effect Jan. 2.
Non-veterans run two of the four congressional committees that determine military policy - Armed Services and Appropriations - and have vigorously defended interests of the military and industries that depend on it.
However, Gabbard said, "veterans also have a greater appreciation of the need to properly allocate funds to military projects that are really needed. A lot of taxpayer money is wasted on things that our troops and military don't really need, yet not enough goes to areas which are lacking."
Celli said the American Legion could not support any budget deal to reduce the deficit that would put additional financial burdens on veterans, such as higher co-pays for health care or scaled back benefits. "Veterans' benefits should never be a bargaining chip," he said.