By ALLEN G. BREED, Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The link between U.S. military service and running for office is as old as the republic itself. It started with George Washington, who famously wrote that, "When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen."
During the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of thousands of veterans have come home and laid aside their uniforms. But not all have opted to simply blend back into civilian life.
Many have chosen to run for public office.
Several dozen veterans — some of them from earlier wars — are vying for U.S. House and Senate seats this year. And many others are seeking state and local offices across the country. Men and women, Republicans and Democrats, they range from well-known hopefuls such as congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, who became a double amputee when her National Guard helicopter was shot down in Iraq, to Arizona state House contender Mark Cardenas, a 25-year-old Iraq vet who remains a National Guardsman.
They are people like former Marine tank commander Nick Popaditch, who lost his right eye during the April 2004 Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, and who is now the Republican nominee in California's 53rd Congressional District.
"I was looking at my government and I wasn't happy with it," says the ex-gunnery sergeant, who cuts a striking figure on the campaign trail with his shaved head and black eye patch. "So rather than complain, I decided to run myself. I thought I could do a better job, and I still feel that way."
After back-to-back wars, there are more recent combat veterans in the United States today than at any time since Vietnam.
But the number of former military members in public office has been declining for years. In 1969, nearly 90 percent of all U.S. House and Senate seats were held by people who'd served in uniform. Today, says the Congressional Research Service, it's about 20 percent. And for the first time in decades, none of the major party candidates for president and vice president has been in the military.
Seth Lynn thinks that's one of the problems with our political system these days, and he's working to change that.
Lynn, a Naval Academy graduate who spent six years in the Marines, helped found Veterans Campaign to train former service members interested in running for office.
He notes that as the number of veterans on Capitol Hill has dropped, there has been "an almost parallel decrease in America's confidence in Congress."
"I'm not saying that the two are necessarily a causal relationship," says Lynn. "But I do think that there is that ability to put your country before yourself, but also to work together across party lines, that Americans want more that just isn't happening in Washington."
There is a natural ebb and flow to this nexus between military and public service.
When World War II ended, 16 million men and women had served in uniform around the globe, and as a result postwar politicians were often veterans. The pool of veterans grew smaller in following years, especially since the end of the military draft in 1973.
The all-volunteer military engenders a sense of duty and "selflessness" that Lynn and others feel has been sorely lacking in the political arena. He sees this quality as a motivation for veteran-candidates today.
Even though he lost a Sept. 6 Democratic primary for a Massachusetts state Senate seat, Joe Kearns Goodwin says he's more convinced than ever "that a life of service is a very worthy one."
Goodwin was a new Harvard graduate when, following the Sept. 11 attacks, he announced he was enlisting in the Army.
His parents "thought I was totally insane" then and were surprised again when he declared he was running for office. But they shouldn't have been, given the family's proximity to politics. His mother is Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and his father, Richard Goodwin, was an adviser and speechwriter for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
"I was weaned on stories of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Great Society, the New Frontier," says the 34-year-old Goodwin. His father worked on these issues, he noted, "all of which represented the ability of government to do good, when it's done well."