Simone Pathe
CQ-Roll Call

WASHINGTON: There are still fewer veterans in Congress than in past decades, but the drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise to a new generation on Capitol Hill.

Last year, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., started a bipartisan caucus to help post-9/11 veterans transition to civilian life, and to draw attention to issues like post-traumatic stress. Gabbard and Perry served in the Iraq War.

“If they can get in, they become very well-known quickly because there are so few people who are credible,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets, a political action committee that works to elect Democratic veterans to Congress. “Whereas in World War II, you may have been one of 300. Now you’re one of 30.”

That visibility “creates a challenge as well as an opportunity,” said Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard, who cited her war experience when she endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.

Even during the Vietnam era, the odds were that a member of Congress was a military veteran.

The number of veterans in Congress peaked in 1971. More than 70 percent of the House had served, and almost 80 percent in the Senate.

Today, 101 members of Congress — about 20 percent — have served in the military. Of those, slightly more than two dozen served during the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001.

One reason for the low numbers is that there’s no longer a draft.

It’s VoteVets job to get veterans, at least those who are Democrats, into Congress. But while the veteran experience is a powerful message, it has to be conveyed appropriately.

“The military bio is a very effective introduction to voters because it makes them look like not a politician,” Soltz said. Getting too caught up in the “war hero” message often doesn’t work, he said.

Downplaying service

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who served four tours with the Marines in Iraq, never spoke publicly during his campaign for Congress about twice being decorated for valor.

Other vets in Congress have downplayed their service, too.

“?‘Vote for me because I’ve served?’ That to me is in poor form,” said Perry, who doesn’t think military service should be the only focus of a campaign.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, R-Neb., agrees.

“If I feel a veteran is dishonest and is trying to get a standing ovation out of me, I resist applause lines,” said Kerrey, who received the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam.

Veterans who have served in Congress say that there’s nothing like talking to another veteran about veterans’ issues.

“You can make an effort to be sympathetic without having had the experience, but I don’t think you can be 100 percent there. So it matters,” Kerrey said. Their military experience may even make Congress function better.

“Regardless of political party, people who have worn the uniform bring a mission-first experience and mentality to their services generally,” Gabbard said.