A former Navy bomb squad commander and the grandson of a legendary Naval Chief of Operations has joined the race for the Florida congressional seat now held by Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican who has been a major Hill force pushing for reform at the Veterans Affairs Department.
Not surprisingly, given his family history and Capitol Hill experience, James Zumwalt says his top priorities will be national security and veterans issues.
Zumwalt's grandfather was the late Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., whose orders to spray Agent Orange over Vietnam while commander of naval forces there later contributed to the death of his namesake and eldest son, who served aboard a patrol boat in the war.
"My grandfather, after the war, dedicated his life to fighting for veterans sickened by Agent Orange," James Zumwalt told Military.com.
The younger Zumwalt intends to continue that fight to extend veterans compensation and healthcare to service members exposed to the defoliant who have been overlooked to date.
"I've spoken to hundreds of Blue Water Navy veterans suffering from ailments directly caused by Agent Orange, and many other Army and [Marine Corps] Vietnam vets who served inland. We have to get them covered," he said.
Miller, who has held the Florida district seat since 2001, announced he would not seek re-election. So far he has not endorsed any of the eight candidates vying for the GOP nomination.
Zumwalt is one of four veterans in the GOP race. The others are John Mills, a retired Navy pilot who commanded two Naval Security Force Units; Brian Frazier, also a former Navy pilot, who served in the Persian Gulf War and later in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and Cris Dosev, a Marine combat pilot of the Persian Gulf War.
But he argues he is the only one who has fought the enemy up close.
"I was deployed to al Anbar Province, which is now the hub of ISIS [in Iraq]," he said. "I'm really the only one who understands the enemy, I know what they're capable of. I know what they're looking to do and I know how to stop them."
Zumwalt said that the most important decision a member of Congress can make is whether to send troops into harm's way. For that reason, he said, he "absolutely" would demand in any future conflict a formal declaration of war.
"Frankly, you've had [Presidents] on both sides of the aisle fill in that power vacuum, which belongs to the people through Congress," he said.
Florida's first district is home to a huge number of active-duty service members, retirees, veterans and their families, according to Zumwalt. Among them are Vietnam veterans who remember the Zumwalt name and the "Z-grams" for which the admiral came to be known long before he became the inspiration for the Navy's Zumwalt Class guided missile destroyer.
Z-grams were policy directives Adm. Zumwalt sent out directly to all Navy personnel, and included messages tackling issues of equal opportunity for African-Americans, ensuring spouses have access to commanders, and permitting sailors to wear beards and sideburns. He is credited with modernizing the Navy.
Having a name like Zumwalt stands out, he said. "It's not like 'Smith.'"
"A lot of the Vietnam vets, they'll recognize the name and they'll ask me if I'm related to the Admiral, and I say, yeah, I'm his grandson," he said, adding, "and I tell them I have the eyebrows to prove it."
Whatever physical characteristic the younger Zumwalt inherited from his grandfather, the name has long been connected to the country's military and wars. There has been a Zumwalt in all the country's wars since the Revolution, James said.
Nearly four years ago he became the fourth generation since World War II to be awarded the Bronze Star during wartime.
As reported in The Washington Post in June 2012 his great-grandfather was awarded the medal for his actions as an Army doctor during the liberation of Nazi labor camps. His famous grandfather earned the medal for while serving on a destroyer during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the same war's Pacific theater.
His Uncle Elmo – the admiral's ill-fated son – was awarded the Bronze Star for actions as the commander of a Navy Swift Boat in Vietnam.
His own father is retired Marine Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt, a Vietnam and Persian Gulf War veteran.
"I know his uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather must have been watching over him [in Iraq]," he told the Post. "Both times when he was on tour, I don't think I ever prayed as hard as I did."