Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) addresses a group of protesters outside of the White House on Apr. 9. (J. David Ake/AP)

As an antiwar activist who never served in the military and the first self-proclaimed socialist in the U.S. Senate, Bernard Sanders is at initial glance an unusual choice to chair the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

But Sanders, the tousled-haired 71-year-old Vermont independent who took over the committee in January, has embraced the role with a populist gusto that has won him staunch backing from veterans groups.

“That is odd,” said Peter Gaytan, executive director of the American Legion, whose members gave Sanders a warm reception at the organization’s Washington conference in February. “If you look at his leanings, you wouldn’t think he could care so much about veterans, but he does.”

“He’s very passionate about the issues,” said Bob Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “I think he’s going to be very good for veterans.”

Angered that the 2014 budget proposed by the Obama adminstration includes changes in how annual cost-of-living adjustments are calculated, potentially reducing future compensation payments for 3.2 million disabled veterans, Sanders joined in a demonstration Tuesday outside the White House and denounced the plan as “nuts.”

Sanders does not see his political background — including his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq and his reputation as a skeptic on defense spending — as inconsistent with his role as an advocate for veterans.

“I’m going to fight for them — I think they know it,” Sanders said during a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office.

“What most people don’t understand is the high cost of war,” Sanders said. “When we send people to war, we have to understand that it’s not just the guns and planes and ammunition. It means taking care of the people who come back.”

Sanders asked Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) for the post after Sen. Patty Murray(D-Wash.) decided to relinquish it to lead the Senate Budget Committee.

Although he began his political career denouncing the war in Vietnam, Sanders said his opposition was not directed at those in uniform.

“It never occurred to me to blame the soldiers,” he said. “Do I know a little bit more about it than I did then? I should think so. I should hope so.”

“This country has come a long way from Vietnam,” Sanders added. “People can and should have disagreements about foreign policy. That’s called democracy.”

The Brooklyn-born Sanders — the son of a Polish immigrant paint salesman who struggled to make ends meet — graduated from the University of Chicago in 1964 and lived for a time on an Israeli kibbutz before moving to Vermont in 1968. After trying his hand at carpentry and other jobs, Sanders was drawn to politics, running for the Senate in 1972 as the socialist Liberty Union candidate. After several more failed campaigns, Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vt., in 1981.

He was elected to the House of Representatives as an independent in 1990, with a reputation for being well out of the political mainstream.

“When he first came, people were pretty skeptical,” said Wallace, the VFW executive director.

But Sanders quickly developed an interest in veterans issues during House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings looking into Gulf War illnesses.

“I sat through tens and tens and tens of hours of testimony from vets who were sick and dealing with all kinds of problems, and I was less than impressed with the VA,” he said.

Sanders said he was also influenced by the citizen-soldier tradition in Vermont, which has one of the nation’s highest per capita participation rates in the National Guard. That heritage dates to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys during the Revolutionary War and is recorded on many Civil War memorials in towns across the small New England state.

“It will blow your mind in these small towns, the number of names you see,” Sanders said.

As chairman, Sanders said his focus is on the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including making sure veterans have adequate treatment for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, as well as access to programs to help with unemployment. “There’s a lot of hurt out there,” he said.

Veterans groups say they have easy access to Sanders.

“If he doesn’t understand something, he wants to sit down and learn about it,” Wallace said.

Sanders has shown a conciliatory streak in his relations with the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying the department should be given credit for its accomplishments and not just lambasted for its failures. He noted that while the VA is struggling with an enormous backlog of nearly 900,000 claims for disabilities, it is completing more than a million cases a year — far more than in the past.

Although Sanders — like Murray, his predecessor — is considered one of the most liberal members of the Senate, he said he will work to maintain the relative political comity that generally exists on veterans issues in Congress.

Sanders, who at times has rankled Democrats as much as Republicans with his independent streak, said he has good working relationships with Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Senate veterans panel, and Rep. Jeff Miller, (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

“We want to hear what the Republicans propose,” he said.

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