The passing of Lautenberg and the dearth of veterans in Congress is a concern for veterans advocates, who have seen a number of senior senators with clout and sympathy toward their positions pass from the scene in recent years.
“It’s a sad day,” said Louis Celli, national legislative director for the American Legion. “These were some of the most ferocious advocates for veterans that we had. We as veterans counted on the senior leadership, the World War II veterans, to represent us. We respected them, they respected us, and without them, there’s going to be a void.”
Lautenberg “was a real champion for veterans,” said Bob Wallace, executive director of Veterans of Foreign Wars. “He was very proud of the fact that he served in World War II and got educated on the GI Bill. He wanted to do the same for younger veterans, no matter what generation they served.”
More than a badge of honor, the common military service bonded many of the World War II senators, who would often come together to foster a spirit of cooperation throughout the legislative body.
“It cut across ideological lines,” said Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian. “They could put aside the politics and talk about when they were in the South Pacific together.”
For a time, the Senate was home to three men — Inouye, Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Hart of Michigan — who had recuperated at the same Army hospital from serious wounds incurred in World War II combat.
As recently as the 111th Congress, which ended Jan. 3, 2011, there were 26 members of the Senate who were veterans. Today, 12 of those 26 are gone, due to a variety of causes, from death to retirement to electoral defeat. Veteran Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will retire at the end of the 113th Congress next year.
In the House, only 19 percent of House members were active-duty military, the lowest percentage of veterans since World War II, a decline fueled in part by the end of the military draft in the early 1970s. The highest percentage was in 1977, when eight in 10 members of Congress had some form of military service.
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have not been elected to Congress in large numbers. “So far, it doesn’t look like it’s happening,” Celli said. “It’s going to take a while.”
Two veterans of World War II — John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ralph M. Hall (R-Tex.) — remain in the House.
Dingell issued a statement Monday saluting Lautenberg. “In his work on behalf of the people of New Jersey, and his time spent in the Army in defense of our nation — a brother of mine in arms during World War II — Senator Lautenberg did his job and did it well,” Dingell said.
Ritchie noted that a Civil War sesquicentennial exhibit on display at the Capitol tells the story of the more than 150 Union and Confederate veterans who served in the Senate through 1929, when the last of them, Francis E. Warren of Wyoming, died.
“Here we are commemorating it 150 years later as the last veteran of World War II dies,” Ritchie said.