By Tim Alberta
Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., had yet to serve a single day in Congress, but already knew where he was needed. Upon arriving in the nation's capital in January as the new representative from the state's 12th District, the freshman lawmaker immediately began lobbying his party's leadership with a request.
He wanted to serve on the House Armed Services Committee. "It was my No. 1 choice," Enyart says.
Enyart didn't get any argument from top House Democrats, who knew his credentials. For the previous five years, Enyart had served as the adjutant general of Illinois, the state's top military official. In that capacity, he oversaw more than 13,000 members of the Illinois National Guard. That capped a military career that included support missions from Okinawa during the Vietnam War while serving in the Air Force, in addition to stints in the Air Force Reserves and Army National Guard. And now, having been elected to Congress, Enyart would be representing a district whose biggest employer--Scott Air Force Base--was critical to the economic vitality of his constituents.
But Enyart's experience is not entirely unique. He's just the latest in a long line of former active-duty military personnel to seek out an Armed Services post after winning election to Congress. True to its name, the panel is populated by members--and staffers--who have served in uniform. (The committee's staff has a combined 411 years of military service.) Of the committee's 62 members, 16 are military veterans--14 Republicans and two Democrats. Some are men, some are women. Some served in Vietnam decades ago; others are recently returned from the war in Afghanistan. But regardless of background, each member brings something that can't be taught to nonveterans on the committee: first-person knowledge.
As Enyart put it, "I kind of bring a different perspective."
Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who flew combat missions with the Marines and later served as a personal military aide to Presidents Carter and Reagan, said, "In general, the members of this committee have expertise. But those of us who served, we have naturally a different perspective because of our own personal experiences." On issues from combat orders to program failures to family strain, Kline said, "we don't have to have someone explain it to us."
Indeed, veterans serving on the House Armed Services Committee are all too familiar with the highs--and lows--of the military experience. Having witnessed for themselves the successes and failures of the government's sprawling military establishment, they come to Congress with personal missions aimed at improving varying aspects of national defense.
"My time in the Marine Corps has given me a perspective that you can only have if you've served," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who saw extended combat during two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.
Hunter came to Congress in 2009 after four years of active duty in the Marine Corps, during which he saw logistical hang-ups that he said imperiled readiness and endangered lives. Now serving his third term in Congress--and having attained the rank of major as a Marine reservist--Hunter has an intense, singular focus when discussing the scope of his work on the committee.
"There's a disconnect between the bureaucracy at the Department of Defense and the war fighter on the ground," Hunter says. "I try to bridge that gap and get the war fighter what they need to win."
Whereas Hunter saw combat effectiveness impeded by red tape, his colleague and fellow Iraq war veteran, freshman Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., was bothered more by sheer inefficiency and wastefulness.
Duckworth, a former combat pilot who lost both legs when her helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade during Operation Iraqi Freedom, recalls being flummoxed by the food provided to soldiers in Iraq. Not only was the contract-driven cuisine "not worth $36 per meal," but Duckworth repeatedly watched with horror as entire batches of the excess food--bought and paid for with taxpayer dollars--were thrown away. Meanwhile, her fellow soldiers were being sent out on convoy missions driving tanks that were damaged or missing critical parts.
Duckworth, who returned recently from a trip to Afghanistan, has now visited conflict regions as a congresswoman and a combat pilot. And she noticed one thing the two war zones had in common: "The waste that I saw," Duckworth said, disgust dripping from her voice.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., is targeting a different kind of waste: human capital. Having served with the Army in Germany during the 1970s, Coffman recalls the necessity of his presence there--namely, providing a military deterrent against potential Soviet aggression during the height of the Cold War. Some 40 years later, the geopolitical landscape has changed greatly. But, as Coffman points out, the military presence in Europe has not.
"The Cold War ended in 1991, and we still have 79,000 troops in Europe and 45,000 troops in Germany. The border I was defending is long gone," said Coffman, who later became the only member of Congress to have served in both Gulf wars. "I want to bring those troops home from Europe, and I'm maintaining the pressure to do just that."
Such a position isn't bound to be terribly popular with the Republican Party, which has long attempted to insulate defense spending from the congressional chopping block. But Coffman doesn't seem to care. And neither do his fellow soldier-statesmen. In conversations with military veterans serving on the Armed Services Committee, one theme becomes clear: When it comes to military-related issues, partisanship is never the priority. Republicans buck the establishment on troop increases and nation-building exercises; Democrats don't hesitate to criticize defense cuts called for by leading voices in their party. Such autonomy may be absent when it comes to other committees. But on this one, it's the rule.
"There's a bit of a different perspective when you understand the real costs of going to war," Enyart said.
Kline, whose son is an active-duty Army officer with past deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, said arguments over sequestration, which will cut billions of dollars from defense programs over the next 10 years, cannot be viewed in the abstract by those who have witnessed the effects firsthand.
"I know what it's like when funds get cut. I remember having to park planes in September at the end of the fiscal year," Kline said, noting that uncertainty over continued funding for fuel, maintenance, and other essentials is nothing new.
Because of the budget debates in Washington, Kline recalls, "we couldn't go out and fly and train. So I'm very sensitive to the issue of sequestration and [its impact on] our training and readiness."
Committee veterans, having observed the excesses of military management, do not typically view defense spending as a sacred cow. Last year, Coffman and Kline were two of a handful of House Republicans who refused to sign a letter demanding that no cuts be made to the Defense Department budget. But when it comes to sequestration, there seems to be uniform irritation with the arbitrary nature of spending reductions that were never supposed to take effect in the first place.
"It was something not all of my colleagues understood," Duckworth said of those who argued for sequestration to take effect.
Members with a military background largely agree on this issue and many others. Of course, there are broader disagreements over the strategic direction of the nation's military, as well as smaller scuffles over specific programs and regulations. Yet members say their military experience produces a candid and bipartisan discourse that is very often lacking on other committees.
"Having served in uniform, we know what it means to carry out the mission, what it means to make do with the resources you have," Duckworth said. "And that allows us to work across the aisle. There is a real brotherhood and sisterhood."
Hunter says a shared military background is the surest way to build a bipartisan relationship. He points to the lifelong friendship shared by his father, former Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif. The two served together in Vietnam, fighting side-by-side in the 173rd Airborne. After forging that bond in the foxhole, Hunter says, the men never took their political disagreements too seriously.
As Hunter put it, "When you've shared that same kind of hardship, that's the ultimate icebreaker."