Veterans in Congress Could Hit Lowest Level Since World War II
The number of veterans serving in Congress could fall to the lowest level since World War II depending on the results of next week's election.
Currently, 106 members of Congress have a military service record. However, that number could drop significantly depending on the results of multiple close races in the mid-term elections scheduled for Nov. 4.
The declining number is significant as fierce debates in Congress continue over the size of the military, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), mitigating sexual assault, and reducing military suicide rates.
But while many younger veterans have shown interest in politics, fewer and fewer are throwing their hat into the ring, according to Seth Lynn, founder of Veterans Campaign, an organization that promotes and prepares veterans who want to seek public office. The group hosts workshops, lectures, and conducts research with the goal of teaching the process of seeking public office.
Lynn, who served as a Marine, said one reason may be experience."There are a lot of folks who want to get involved, but it's hard for veterans who don't get much political experience in the service," he said.
Another reason is money, he said. "Over the last 40 years it's gotten a lot more expensive to mount a campaign."
Lynn is optimistic about the number of people who want to see more veterans in Congress. He said younger veterans are eager to get involved, but he doubts we'll ever reach the levels seen in the late 1970s.
During that time, Congress was made up of many members who had served in any of three wars -- World War II, Korea and Vietnam. There were 80 veterans in the Senate from 1973 to 1975, and 347 in the House from 1977 to 1978. The highest number of veterans recorded was during the 95th Congress in 1977-1978 during which 77 percent of the members had served in the military, according to the Pew Research Center.
Today, there are 18 veterans in the Senate and 88 veterans in the House of Representatives, and there are fewer than 200 veteran candidates for Congress in the upcoming election.
Running in New Mexico
One of them, Allen Weh, is currently running as the Republican candidate from New Mexico for the Senate. He's a retired Marine Corps colonel who served in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Somalia and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He said he feels it's important for veterans to be a part of Congress.
"They have seen and experienced things that non-veterans haven't. They've had to take on responsibility early – far earlier than their peers in the private sector—and that brings wisdom and maturity," he said in an interview with Military.com.
Weh is concerned about the shrinking number of veterans in Congress but knows there is no "plot or deliberate exclusion." He said it is simply a numbers situation. The percent of veterans relative to the total population has decreased because the size of our military has continued to decrease.
Lynn said the dip we are seeing now is similar to the early 20th century. Following World War II was when military service really became more of a requirement for national office because so many had served. It was odd to not have a military background at that time.
In 1945, there were over 12 million active duty military personnel. By 1950 that number was down to 1.5 million and then, because of the Vietnam War, rose back up to 3 million by 1970. Today, the total force, including National Guard and Reserves, is about 2.2 million.
A report by the Washington Post estimated that the decline of veterans in Congress has been more intense than the decline in the overall veteran population.
When veterans made up over 70 percent of Congress in the 1970s they were "less than 14 percent of the total population," according to the report. Today, the veteran population is roughly 7 percent of the total population, but the number of veterans in Congress is only 20 percent.
One possible reason for the declining numbers is the nature of politics today, Weh said.
"There is so much disillusionment with career politicians today. Politics has gotten so ugly there are a lot of veterans who don't want to endure that. It scares good people out of government," he said.
Weh said veterans don't have to jump into politics right away and points out there are opportunities for service at every level including school boards, city councils and local government committees.
U.S. Rep, Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was elected in 2012 and is a well known veteran in Congress who encourages former service members to seek out public office. Gabbard served two tours in the Middle East and is currently a captain in the Hawaii National Guard's 29th Brigade Combat Team.
Asked about how her presence in Congress as a veteran has impacted the thinking and decision making of non-veteran members, she said: "For those of us who have served, many of the issues we debate in Congress are very personal because of our experiences. While it's not necessary to have military experience to understand the gravity of voting to send our troops into harm's way, for myself and my fellow veterans in Congress, we have a responsibility to share our experiences so that Congress can make the best decision possible for our national security and the well-being of our veterans."
Gabbard went on to say: "Being a veteran serving in Congress, especially at this time, is critical as we determine the need for a clear mission and an effective strategy to defeat Islamic extremist terrorists and other emerging threats around the world."
-- Sarah Blansett can be reached at Sarah.Blansett@monster.com