Half A Dozen Lawmakers Have Kids At War
March 14, 2005
WASHINGTON - For about half a dozen members of Congress who have had kids serving in Iraq, the war is far more than a matter of public policy. They debate it and often defend it - with eyes on public opinion, like almost any elected official. But they also live the war through those most dear to them.
Therein lies a lesson about the limits of power.
For more than a year, Rep. Joe Wilson's desk at the House Armed Services Committee was the intersection of his personal and political interest in the Iraq war.
On the table were bills about how to pay for and supply the conflict. Underneath, a handheld computer buzzed with real-time reports from his son Alan, an intelligence officer in southern Iraq.
"I would get a 'Hey Dad' message almost every day," the South Carolina Republican recalls. "I felt like I was voting on legislation, but I was living it simultaneously."
Lawmakers may be able to shift billions of dollars to pet projects or get seats at a state dinner. But none has the muscle to keep a child safe in a war zone, half a world away.
So at 6 a.m. on Feb. 25, when his radio delivered the not-uncommon news that three Marines were killed in Iraq, Sen. Kit Bond felt it in his gut.
"Tightness in my stomach," Bond, R-Mo. recalled, a jaw muscle flexing at the memory. "An involuntary reaction."
Bond's only child, Samuel, 24, had left for Iraq just three days earlier to serve as an intelligence officer in the Marines. Samuel was safe that day.
The senator does what he can to keep it that way.
"I pray for him every night," Bond said.
Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., whose son, Perry, is a Marine combat engineer in Iraq, said what might be happening to the 23-year-old is a constant concern. "Every time you hear that another Marine got killed, it makes you wonder, is that my kid this time?" the congressman said.
One January day, it might have been. Akin said Perry, who was trained to find hidden bombs, walked up to a puddle in a road and decided with his fellow engineers that it did not pose a threat.
They were wrong. An hour later a bomb in the puddle was exploded by remote control as an American Humvee rolled over it. Akin said the blast "ripped the armor all to shreds" but did not hurt the driver.
"Somebody with a cell phone was sitting in some window somewhere looking at him as he stood by the puddle," Akin said, meaning an insurgent. "That obviously gets a parent's attention."
So did the mortar fire Wilson could hear over his son's voice during one satellite phone call. Now that Alan is home, safe, Wilson says sometimes there is such a thing as too much information.
"It was good and it was bad," Wilson, a retired Army National Guard lawyer, said of his heightened sense of what was happening both in Iraq and Washington.
Often, Alan sent notes about his day while his dad was in committee hearings - 10 a.m. in Washington is dinner time in Iraq. Alan would talk about supplies needed by Iraqis - a village water tank, paint for schools.
His father would pass the Blackberry around for others to see. He forwarded some of the e-mails to the Pentagon's liaisons with Congress. He thinks that helped get items delivered more quickly.
These lawmakers are not the first leaders to grapple with the personal stakes of war. After his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt had four sons in action in World War I - two were wounded and his youngest, Quentin, was killed.
"To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death has a pretty serious side for a father," Roosevelt said. But "brave and fearless men must die when a great cause calls."
At least four Republicans and one Democrat in Congress have had children serving in Iraq.
Brooks Johnson, 32, son of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, is a staff sergeant with the Army's 101st Airborne Division and recently returned from fighting there.
His dad voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq with a heavy heart; Brooks, he knew, was likely to go to Iraq.
"I talked to Brooks prior to this vote and his response was, 'Dad, you do what is right for the country and I'll do what is right as a soldier,'" Johnson recalled. "I said on the (Senate) floor that it's very likely I would be sending my own son into combat."
Not all lawmakers with children serving in the armed forces were willing to discuss the overseas deployments.
Johnson and the four Republicans voted for the war and are likely to support President Bush's request for more money to pay for it. That does not mean Bush can count on them for everything about Iraq and the war against terrorism.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, vexed the White House and Republican leaders last year when he rallied GOP colleagues against Bush's overhaul of the intelligence system.
He said he was trying to protect the lives of soldiers, including his 27-year-old son, 1st Lt. Duncan Duane Hunter, who had served two tours in Iraq and has since returned. Negotiators reworked the bill to address his concerns - giving battlefield commanders first priority use of intelligence assets such as satellites- and Bush signed it into law.
Akin says he, too, has questions about how far and fast Iraqi society really can move toward a democracy.
But Akin's support for the mission remains constant despite Perry's deployment. He gets frustrated when people ask how he can support a war that puts his son in such obvious danger. His answer to that is not much different from Teddy Roosevelt's early in the last century.
"If he gets killed over there, I'll still think it's a horrible tragedy - ruin my life," Akin said. "But I'll still think what he's doing is the right thing."
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