Syria resolution a tough sell for lawmakers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was the last World War II veteran serving in Congress. Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ralph M. Hall (R-Tex.) also served in World War II. That reference has been removed.


Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) holds a picture of what he says are Syrian children as he addresses Secretary of State John Kerry at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday. (JASON REED/Reuters)

Syria resolution a tough sell for lawmakers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan

The challenge facing President Obama as he has pushed Congress to authorize using military force against the Syrian government is perhaps best reflected in two lawmakers who once deployed into battle.

They joined up in the years after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks and saw action in Iraq. They’re in their 30s, single, and enjoy budding national profiles.

But Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) are at opposite ends of the argument when it comes to Syria. Gabbard represents most of Obama’s home state and raised serious doubts this week about the president’s proposed military strikes. Kinzinger represents part of the state that first sent Obama to Washington and so strongly supports military action that he volunteered to help the White House sell the plan to skeptics.

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“The politically popular thing for me to do is just to shut my mouth on this whole thing even if I support it,” Kinzinger said in an interview. But when George W. Bush implemented the “surge” strategy in Iraq in 2006, “I was dismayed by the number of people who didn’t support him,” he said. “I knew that was the right decision – it probably saved American lives. I determined when I got into Congress that I would never shirk away basically from doing the right thing on international politics.”

Gabbard said that more than a week of reviewing classified evidence, attending hearings and hearing from fellow veterans convinced her that there’s no need for the United States to engage militarily in Syria. “What you’re seeing from veterans, from all sides, is that we understand that at times war is necessary to fight in the defense of our country,” she said. “This is not one of those instances.”

Kinzinger and Gabbard enlisted in the military shortly after Congress authorized military action in Iraq in 2002. Kinzinger, 35, was working for an Internet hardware company when he left to join the Air Force in 2003. He flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, was elected to the House in 2010 and still serves as a major in the Air National Guard.

Gabbard, 32, enlisted in 2003, less than a year after being elected to the Hawaii state legislature at age 21. She deployed to Iraq in 2005 as an Army medic, spending time at a camp dubbed “Mortaritaville” because it regularly was subjected to artillery fire. She later served as an aide to Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and joined the House this year.

The pair are two of the 17 House lawmakers who enlisted or were serving in uniform in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, either in combat or support roles in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re among more than 100 lawmakers who are active-duty or retired members of the U.S. military, representing about 20 percent of Congress, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Of the lawmakers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, just two — Kinzinger and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) — are supporting military action.

The other 14 lawmakers, a mix of Democrats and Republicans, are either outright opposed to an attack or leaning against it.

One of those is Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who, like Gabbard, saw combat in Iraq. She lost both of her legs after a Blackhawk helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down, although she safely landed it. Duckworth, who uses a wheelchair, told reporters Monday that she is skeptical of military action in Syria.

Duckworth said some of her views on Syria are drawn from recent conversations with fellow veterans. She declined to discuss specifics from those conversations, but said that “You need to have those checks from your buddies who’ll call B.S. on you, and I’ve reached out to them.”

Gabbard and Kinzinger said they’ve also drawn on experiences as veterans in making their decisions.

“Obviously we view this through the prism of our own experiences of having served and understanding both the cost of war, but also the incredible sacrifice that our service members volunteer for when they offer to serve our country,” she said. “They know what they’re signing up for, to defend our country, defend our Constitution.”

Kinzinger said his military service “gives me more courage to do the right thing, because I know we’re capable of doing it. Those that haven’t served I think have a level of guilt to send people to combat if they haven’t themselves. I understand that. But since I have served, I can make an educated decision to agree to send people.”

And what does Kinzinger tell other lawmakers who feel guilty about sending young Americans into war?

“I just say look, as someone who has served, you just have to do the right thing and know that everyone who’s either pushing a button or flying a plane rose their hand and decided to do it,” Kinzinger said.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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