Combat veteran Sowers calls for end to wars in bid for House seat in Missouri

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 12:31 AM

GAINESVILLE, MO. - The 34-year-old former Army Green Beret ran across the street and bounded up the packed bleachers at the Hootin' and Hollarin' parade. Spots of sweat dotted his blue button-down shirt.

"I think we've got to end that war in Afghanistan," Tommy Sowers shouted as he balanced a large American flag on his shoulder. "We've been there too long."

His push to end the war appeared to make little impression on the audience, which had come for a day of hog calling, square dancing and outhouse races.

A combat veteran with a graduate degree from the London School of Economics, Sowers gave up a successful military career to mount a longshot bid as a Democrat for a congressional seat in a solidly Republican district. He was motivated by a sense that Congress and the public have lost interest in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Popular indifference has become a defining feature of the nation's near-decade at war, and is also Sowers's biggest enemy on the campaign trail three weeks before the midterm elections. Very few Americans - about one in 20 - said war is the country's most pressing issue when asked by Gallup last month.

Troops, their families, and their superiors say that their sacrifices are poorly understood. "For most Americans, the wars remain an abstraction - a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates lamented in a recent speech at Duke University. Military service, he said, has "become something for other people to do."

Sowers's call for greater congressional oversight has become a common theme among frustrated troops. Active-duty officers are writing about it with surprising frequency in military journals, and other veterans running for office are raising the subject on the campaign trail.

Retired Col. Chris Gibson, who gave up command of a 3,500-soldier infantry brigade this year to run for Congress as a Republican in Upstate New York, recently called for a declaration of war on al-Qaeda. After Sept. 11, 2001, Congress instead passed a less definitive resolution authorizing the president to use force against the parties responsible for the terrorist attacks.

"When the people's representatives have to go on record and vote, it transforms our country," said Gibson, who supports the troop increase in Afghanistan. "It is a full recognition that we are in a state of war."

'Never forgetting'

Sowers strode into VFW Post 5896 in Farmington, Mo., where about 40 vets had gathered for National POW/MIA Recognition Day. It was the first of three stops on a 430-mile swing through his district.

To hit all the spots in one day the candidate had rented a small propeller plane. Sowers's strong military record and his energy have helped him raise about $1 million, a larger war chest than those of the past eight Democratic nominees in the district combined. Most of his donors are from outside of Missouri.

Inside the small brick post, cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air. The average age of the audience members was about 75.

The post commander opened the ceremony with a recitation of the number of war prisoners and troops missing in action from conflicts long past: World War II (154,393), Korea (15,317) and Vietnam (2,583).

Sowers - dressed in blue jeans, scuffed boots and a suit coat - delivered a short speech about Maj. Darren Baldwin, a friend and fellow Special Forces soldier from Iraq who was struggling with brain injuries resulting from two bomb blasts. Baldwin had lost the ability to walk and his wife and friends were trying to raise money for his care.

"Supporting the troops is more than just what happens in VFW halls," Sowers told the crowd. "It is more than just what happens with politicians in Washington. It means never forgetting. Folks like Darren have been forgotten. He is one of the reasons I am running."

Sowers worked the room, asking the veterans when and where they had served. A few veterans registered dissatisfaction with the local Veterans Affairs hospital. Some complained about Washington. There was no mention of the nation's current war in Afghanistan.

The VFW post's most immediate worry seemed to be survival. There aren't enough Afghan and Iraq war veterans to replace the dying generations of World War II, Korea and Vietnam conscripts who once filled the building. In a decade, it seemed likely that the post and hundreds like it would cease to exist.

On the ride back to the airfield, Sowers searched for the positive in the event.

"A number of people in there said they were voting for me," he told his field representative.

"Were they voting for you before?" she asked.

Sowers didn't answer.

'Ill-informed at best'

Sowers spent his first Iraq tour outside Tikrit, where he led a 12-man Special Forces A- team. Operating out of a small safehouse, he and his team built an Iraqi SWAT unit and a 150-man Iraqi Army company that they accompanied on raids.

Sowers's tour ended in June 2005. Seventy-two hours after he left his team, Sowers was in New York City visiting his then-girlfriend. "You realize when you are on the streets of Manhattan there is no war for most Americans," he said.

In 2006, he served on the staff of the two-star general responsible for Baghdad. Visiting lawmakers rarely asked probing questions about the war's goals or direction, Sowers said. "They were ill-informed at best," he said.

A year later, Sowers was a newly minted major teaching a course on the American government at West Point. "What is democracy and why is it worth dying for?" he wrote on the chalkboard on the first day of class.

He quoted James Madison on Congress's role during times of war: "In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause that confides the question of war or peace to the legislature and not the executive department."

He and other officers debated how to get the public more involved in the conflicts: a war tax? A return of the draft?

Sowers decided to return home to the Missouri district where he was born and raised and run for Congress.

His opponent, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, won the seat in 1996 in special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death of her husband. Although she was raised in Bethesda, she's well known in the district, where she has seen as a relatively moderate Republican who has been an effective advocate for federal money.

A few hours after his appearance at the VFW hall, Sowers's plane touched down in Gainesville for the Hootin' and Hollarin' parade.

'Pro-gun, pro-life'

As a Green Beret, Sowers had led a dozen of the Army's best-trained troops. In Missouri, his team was more ragtag. Don Grindstaff, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran, steered his red scooter with one hand and passed out "Sowers for Congress" fliers with the other. A cigarette dangled from his mouth.

"Tommy just impressed me because he's been where we've all been as veterans," said Grindstaff, whose faltering health resulted from exposure to Agent Orange. "Just watching him run out there gets your adrenaline pumping. He's so excited."

Dominique Bowerson, who served in Iraq in 2006, trailed a few feet behind Sowers. The 32-year-old former Chinook mechanic and single mother of four struggled to restart her life and connect with her children when she returned. "It's hard to understand what we've been through as veterans unless you have been deployed to a combat zone," she said. "You don't know our demons."

To have a chance, Sowers figured that in the 45 days leading up to the election, his campaign had to knock on at least 47,000 doors and he or his volunteers had to talk directly to at least 127,000 voters.

Sowers's sprint through the parade was designed to give him a chance to connect with as many people as possible. He gave undecided voters his cellphone number. "Call me and it will ring in my pocket," he promised.

He sought out anyone wearing military gear, asking where they had served. Although he always introduced himself as a veteran or a Green Beret, almost no one asked him about his service in Iraq.

"I am the pro-gun, pro-life veteran running for Congress," he called out to a family taking in the parade from a pickup truck.

"I like the pro-gun, pro-life part," a man in the crowd shot back.

'An enlistment'

A little after 8 p.m., Sowers closed the day with a speech at the Truman Day dinner in Poplar Bluff, an annual Democratic Party fundraiser.

A year earlier, he had begun his campaign at the event. Standing before the crowd, he ran though his 12 months on the trail.

In February, he had worked a job in all of his district's 28 counties, planting cotton, building vacuum cleaners and even castrating a calf for the first time. On Memorial Day weekend, he marched 100 miles through the district as a tribute to his fellow troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I am a military guy and tonight is a enlistment. Will you enlist in this cause?" he said. "People are excited about this race. It is the perfect example of a former lobbyist versus a former Green Beret."

The crowd gave him a standing ovation. A Democrat offered him consolation. "I admire your courage to even to attempt this," she said.

A few days later, the Emerson campaign released the results of its latest poll. It suggested that Sowers had gained ground, but still trailed by nearly 40 percentage points.

"He is one year out of the military, so his biggest challenge is name recognition," said a spokesman for the Sowers campaign. "Everyone knows that these campaigns are about the last four weeks. Tommy's been doing an amazing job raising money and meeting voters."

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