Joe Sestak, a freshman Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, says he knows exactly when U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East went off course.
It was the summer of 2002, when he was still a three-star admiral commanding the USS George Washington battle group, and his aircraft carrier was sent steaming toward Iraq without the armada from other nations that had aided it during the war in Afghanistan.
``When we took a left turn into the Persian Gulf, all the Australians and British, everyone stayed behind,'' said Sestak.
Sestak, 55, is one of five freshmen House Democrats with military experience who have emerged as party leaders in the congressional debate over President George W. Bush's Iraq strategy -- appearing with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking up in caucus meetings and advising more senior colleagues.
``Other members are looking upon Tim Walz, Joe Sestak, Chris Carney, Phil Hare and me to play a leadership role,'' said Representative Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, who served in Iraq as a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division.
The lawmakers, who all oppose the war, get their first chance to influence the course of the conflict today as the House begins debate on military-spending legislation that includes a Democratic provision requiring the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq next year.
Of the group, Murphy, 33, is the only one to have combat experience in Iraq, where he served from 2003 to 2004 in a brigade of 3,500 troops that sustained 19 casualties. Murphy returned to Iraq last month to visit soldiers from his unit. While having lunch with the paratroopers he once commanded, he said, they encouraged him to continue his advocacy in Congress.
`One of Our Own'
A sergeant in his former unit, Juan Santiago, ``said, `Sir, keep fighting,''' Murphy recalled. ```All the guys know that one of our own made it to Washington.'''
Murphy has introduced legislation that would require U.S. forces to begin withdrawing from Iraq on May 1. Along with most of the other veterans, he has said he backs the military- spending bill introduced by Democratic leaders that would link U.S. presence in Iraq to security and political benchmarks and require withdrawals to begin at least by early next year.
``It finally brings accountability to our president,'' Murphy said.
Murphy shares a Capitol Hill apartment with Walz, 42, another of the freshmen with military experience. Walz, of Minnesota, served 24 years in the Army National Guard and retired in 2005 with the rank of command sergeant major, making him the highest-ranking enlisted man to serve in Congress.
Walz also backs the troop-withdrawal timeline. ``As a soldier I'm very comfortable with it,'' he said.
When House Democrats passed a nonbinding resolution expressing disapproval of Bush's plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq, Walz and Murphy were invited to join Pelosi and other House leaders at a press conference after the vote.
Walz said that House members often come up to him and ask what he ``as a soldier'' thinks of war policy. He keeps a military e-mail account and gets about a half-dozen messages each week from soldiers with whom he served. His unit is currently deployed near Baghdad and this year has had its deployment extended until as late as September as part of Bush's plan to secure the city.
`End the War'
``Our goal needs to be an end to the war,'' Walz said. ``I've always thought this thing is going to be taken care of by Iraqis on the ground.''
Carney of Pennsylvania, a lieutenant-commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, has introduced legislation calling for more Iraqi involvement in their nation's security. He too gets e-mails from members of his unit -- a couple dozen a month, he says -- and is also asked for advice by colleagues.
``It's nice they are deferring to me a little on this and seeking my counsel,'' Carney said. ``They want to understand my perspective as a veteran and as an intelligence officer.''
Carney, 48, who was detailed to the Pentagon as an analyst after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was picked by Democratic leaders to give the party's weekly radio address after passage of the House's nonbinding resolution.
In the Feb. 17 address, Carney called for a diplomatic and political solution to the violence in Iraq. By stepping up training of Iraqi forces, Carney said, they could replace U.S. forces. He hasn't decided whether to support the withdrawal timetable.
The five lawmakers say they are concerned about the strain on guard and reserve troops, particularly since some units have been deployed to Iraq three or four times.
Hare, 58, spent six years in the Army Reserves during the Vietnam War and wasn't deployed once. The Illinois lawmaker supports the House legislation, particularly a provision that would require more time off between deployments to Iraq. ``We have to give them the rest they need,'' he said.
Recent reports of substandard care for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington have exacerbated his outrage over the Bush administration's handling of the war, he said: ``When they come home, you have to live up to the health- care promise that you make.''
Even as they criticize Bush's policies, the lawmakers say they are sensitive to charges that Congress is trying to micromanage the war. ``The military answers to one commander-in- chief in the White House, not 535 commanders-in-chief on Capitol Hill,'' Vice President Dick Cheney said March 12 in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington.
Sestak, who retired from the Navy as a vice admiral in early 2006 after a 31-year career, counters that a timetable wouldn't undermine the authority of the president or of commanders in the field. ``The military with the commander-in- chief will figure out how to meet that law,'' he said.
Sestak, who hasn't decided whether to support the measure being debated today, says that a few times a week, a fellow veteran will pop his head into his office to say hello, and ``inevitably'' the discussion turns to the war.
``The vast majority say `Joe, this is the right thing you're trying to do,''' Sestak said. ``We have to get out.''