A Look at the New Veterans Headed to Congress in January

Rep.-elect John James, R-Mich., and other newly elected members of the House of Representatives arrive at the Capitol for an orientation program in Washington.
Rep.-elect John James, R-Mich., and other newly elected members of the House of Representatives arrive at the Capitol for an orientation program in Washington, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Nineteen veterans will begin roaming the halls of Congress next week, contributing to one of the biggest classes of lawmakers who served in the military in recent years.

The 118th Congress' cohort of 97 total veterans includes a couple historic firsts: Congress' first two Black West Point graduates.

Two female veterans will also be joining Congress. That's short of the record three women veterans who entered Congress in 2018. But when including incumbents, the seven total women veterans still matches the record total number set by the 116th Congress.

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Sixteen of the freshman veterans are Republicans, who won a narrow majority in the House after Democrats performed better in the midterm elections than expected.

At least one of the veterans joining Congress was at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, though he denies ever entering the building and has not been charged with any crime.

And one of the 19 "new" veterans is actually a familiar face. Navy SEAL veteran Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., is returning to Congress after leaving in early 2019 to become the interior secretary in the Trump administration. Zinke resigned as interior secretary amid allegations, later substantiated by an inspector general, that he violated ethics rules.

Here's a deeper look at the new veterans in the incoming Congress:

The West Point Buddies

Republican Reps.-elect Wesley Hunt of Texas and John James of Michigan will be the first two Black graduates of West Point to serve in Congress.

What's more, Hunt and James were both in the class of 2004 with another relatively new veteran member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Pat Ryan of New York, who won a special election in August and was elected to serve a full term in November.

The trio have expressed optimism their shared military history can help them work together at a time when Congress is expected to be paralyzed by partisanship.

"Working with somebody who you build that trust with, at West Point and at war, will be essential to move this nation forward," James told news outlet Politico last month.

James served in the Army for eight years, a career that included multiple tours in Iraq as an Apache helicopter pilot. The Ranger-qualified aviation officer, who ran unsuccessful campaigns for the Senate in 2018 and 2020, has said he flew 750 combat hours in Iraq. In addition to being one of Congress' first Black West Point graduates, he is the first Black Republican that Michigan has sent to Congress.

Hunt also served in the Army for eight years as an Apache pilot. He had one deployment to Iraq and two deployments to Saudi Arabia, where he served as a diplomatic liaison officer. Hunt narrowly lost a House race in 2020 and won this year in a newly drawn district that was reportedly shaped with him in mind. As a candidate, Hunt launched his own political action committee aimed at helping elect other Republicans named the Hellfire PAC in a nod to his military background, and he has spoken about the need to diversify the GOP.

Both James and Hunt have become regulars on Fox News in recent years, echoing GOP talking points that "wokeness" and politics are distracting the military from its core mission.

The Women

Republican Reps.-elect Jen Kiggans of Virginia and Anna Paulina Luna of Florida will join the small club of women with military experience in Congress.

A historically underrepresented group, the women veterans in Congress often band together across party lines to tackle issues affecting female service members, such as military sexual assault and ill-fitting body armor.

Kiggans is replacing a fellow female Navy veteran, Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, who was more hawkish on military issues than most Democrats but angered Republicans by participating in the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection. Kiggans has said she was inspired to get into politics after seeing the success of Democratic women veterans, including Luria, in 2018 and thinking, "Where are the Republican veteran women?"

Kiggans, who has served in the Virginia state senate for the last two years, was a Navy pilot for 10 years. During her military career, she flew H-46 and H-3 helicopters and deployed twice to the Persian Gulf. After leaving the Navy, she used GI Bill benefits to attend nursing school, becoming an adult geriatric primary care nurse practitioner.

Luna is an Air Force veteran who served on active duty for five years as an airfield manager in Missouri and Florida, and also had a brief stint in the Oregon Air National Guard. Luna, who ran an unsuccessful House race in 2020, will be Florida's first Mexican-American female member of Congress.

In recent years, the former Obama supporter worked to build her conservative bona fides, amassing a large social media following with fiery posts and working as the director for Hispanic engagement at conservative youth group Turning Point USA and then as chair of Hispanic initiatives at advocacy group PragerU. She has said one of her top issues in Congress will be care for veterans after seeing shortfalls in the care her husband, who was wounded while serving in Afghanistan, received.

The January 6-er

While some of the most ardent 2020 election deniers lost their races this year, at least one veteran who was committed to that cause and came to Washington on Jan. 6 won.

Republican Rep.-elect Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin is a retired Navy SEAL who served for 26 years. His campaign biography says his career included a deployment to Bosnia-Herzegovina, multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and time in the Horn of Africa, Asia, Europe, and South and Central America.

In a 2015 book called "Book of Man: A Navy Seal's Guide to the Lost Art of Manhood," Van Orden, who has also had some minor acting roles, reportedly detailed a time he exposed a male lieutenant's enlarged scrotum to two young female officers, an incident he later claimed was part of medical training.

Van Orden, who ran an unsuccessful House race in 2020, has said he was in D.C. on Jan. 6 for "meetings and to stand for the integrity of our electoral system." He acknowledged walking down the Mall toward the Capitol, but insists he wasn't on Capitol grounds and left the area as the situation turned violent.

"When it became clear that a protest had become a mob, I left the area as to remain there could be construed as tacitly approving this unlawful conduct," Van Orden wrote in an op-ed days after Jan. 6. "At no time did I enter the grounds, let alone the building."

The Daily Beast, citing pictures and video posted to social media, reported that Van Orden was in a restricted area on Capitol grounds that would have required crossing a police barricade to get to and that live video of him there was posted after the attack started. Van Orden is not one of the more than 900 people who have been charged in connection with the attack.

After his victory this year, Van Orden espoused a unifying tone, saying that "we have to get back to the place where we represent everyone."

The Rest

The remaining freshman veterans are:

  • Rep.-elect Eli Crane, R-Ariz., a former Navy SEAL who joined a week after Sept. 11, 2001, and deployed five times, including three times to Iraq with SEAL Team 3.
  • Rep.-elect Cory Mills, R-Fla., an Army veteran who survived an improvised explosive device attack in 2006.
  • Rep.-elect Rich McCormick, R-Ga., a Marine Corps-turned-Navy veteran who served as the department head for the emergency medicine department in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
  • Rep.-elect Zach Nunn, R-Iowa, an Air Force veteran who flew nearly 1,000 combat flight hours during three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly in reconnaissance aircraft.
  • Rep.-elect Jeff Jackson, D-N.C., a major in the North Carolina Army National Guard's judge advocate general's corps who served in Kandahar while in the Army Reserve.
  • Rep.-elect Nick LaLota, R-N.Y., a Naval Academy graduate who served as a surface warfare officer for eight years.
  • Rep.-elect Brandon Williams, R-N.Y., a Navy veteran who served as a nuclear submarine officer for five years, volunteering to join in the lead-up to the first Gulf War.
  • Rep.-elect Max Miller, R-Ohio, a Marine Corps reservist with no deployments who worked as an aide to former President Donald Trump.
  • Rep.-elect Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., a Naval Academy graduate whose six years of service included a tour in Iraq as a civil affairs officer.
  • Rep.-elect Keith Self, R-Texas, a West Point graduate and former Green Beret who first served from 1975 to 1999 and was then recalled to active duty in 2002 and 2003 to serve in Afghanistan and Qatar on the staff of the commander of Central Command.
  • Rep.-elect Morgan Luttrell, R-Texas, a retired Navy SEAL who was medically discharged after suffering a traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury in a helicopter crash, and is the twin brother of fellow Navy SEAL veteran Marcus Luttrell, known for being the only survivor of 2005 Operation Red Wings ambush in Afghanistan.
  • Sen.-elect J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, a former public affairs officer in the Marine Corps for four years, including time in Iraq, who is most known for his memoir, "Hillbilly Elegy," and his work as a venture capitalist.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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