Iraq veteran deploys his political force

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- Jon Soltz rapped his pen on a conference table as he ran through plans to take on politicians who back the war in Iraq. The former U.S. Army captain and Iraq war veteran was demanding television ads.

"I want a hit on Fox," he barked into a speaker phone.


He wanted more e-mail blasts and more donors.

"Do we have a target list?" he asked of the team gathered for a Monday morning conference call. "Let's go get those dollars."


There isn't much to the nerve center of his operation: three rooms on the seventh floor of a dingy Manhattan office building.

But in a little more than a year since he launched, Soltz has helped transform the war debate in Washington by channeling the raw anger and frustration of many Iraq vets into a political campaign both sophisticated and visceral.

Soltz, 30, and his band of veterans have shaken the GOP's claim to be the pro-military party. They accuse Republicans of recklessly sending troops to war without the right equipment and failing to care for thousands of wounded and traumatized war veterans.

During the 2006 elections, VoteVets' stark attack ads featuring disillusioned veterans helped unseat Republican lawmakers in five states, including Virginia Sen. George Allen and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose defeats gave Democrats an unexpected Senate majority.

This year, Soltz and VoteVets have been a constant presence on Capitol Hill, where they have emboldened Democrats to push for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Soltz works closely with, as well as influential military officers such as retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark. He has become a celebrity, sought out by the media, consulted by senior Democratic lawmakers and mobbed by anti-war activists.

With a database of more than 40,000 supporters and donors, Soltz is planning to take on GOP presidential candidates in 2008, targeting their claim that they are the better guardians of national security.

"Jon Soltz seems to be exactly what progressives need," said Paul Begala, an influential Democratic strategist who worked on Sen. Robert P. Casey's successful 2006 campaign against Santorum. "He has a pair of fists, and he knows how to use them."


Soltz, who has been home from Iraq for nearly four years, maintains the short hair and athletic build of a military officer and addresses strangers as "sir" and "ma'am." He discusses politics as if it were combat, speaking of the need to "fire rounds down-range" and become the "lead elements of the battle."

He was a teenager when he decided on a military career: During a summer trip to Israel, he had become enamored of the Israeli army. At Washington & Jefferson College, a liberal arts school near Pittsburgh, he became a ROTC cadet and went to Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga.

Soltz was getting ready to leave active duty in 2003 when President Bush began assembling an invasion force to oust Saddam Hussein. Ordered to prepare for war, Soltz was thrilled. He was certain American troops would quickly uncover chemical weapons stockpiles and silence critics of the invasion.

"Iraq - I believed in it," he said.

Soltz's battalion crossed into Iraq from Kuwait in May 2003. Baghdad had fallen in April.

On his first night in Iraq, an insurgent ambush rained rocket-propelled grenades on his unit. The attack did nothing to dim Soltz's zeal.


But as the battalion settled into a logistics base south of Baghdad, the allure of the mission began to fade.

The soldiers lived in tents and endured temperatures above 110 degrees. Despite the president's announcement weeks earlier that major combat was over, the unit's mostly unarmored trucks came under almost daily attack. As his battalion's transportation officer, Soltz was responsible for organizing the convoys that ferried fuel and supplies to units in Baghdad.

On June 22, 2003, a fuel convoy he had dispatched was ambushed in Baghdad. A few hours later, one of his comrades was dead.

Spc. Orenthial J. Smith, 21, was killed when shrapnel sliced through the back of his head. He had been riding in an unarmored truck. As Soltz dwelt on Smith's death, shock gave way to anger.

"These people aren't just like your friends," he said. "They're like your kids. You're responsible for their safety. And this kid died because he didn't have the right equipment. You think about these things, and they add up."

Back home in Pittsburgh in 2003, Soltz decided to transfer to the Army Reserve and to work on a master's degree.


In spring 2004, Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, made a presidential campaign stop in Pittsburgh. Soltz introduced himself, and the two men spoke briefly. Afterward, Kerry called Soltz at home.

"He said, 'I just want you to know that when I came home from Vietnam, I was angry like you, and that's OK,'" Soltz recalled. "Nobody in my life understood what was going on in my head at the time. Not my friends, not my family. But when someone like that says, 'I was like you, I understand your anger and your pain, do something with that,' that is speaking a language you can understand."

Soltz volunteered for the Kerry campaign, organizing outreach to veterans in Pennsylvania. Afterward, he helped raise money for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans running for Congress. But he was frustrated by the inability of war critics to influence U.S. policy.

Soltz believed the war was damaging military readiness and undermining the fight against international terrorism. He grew passionate about getting U.S. troops out of Iraq and into the hunt for al-Qaida's leaders.

In early 2006, he and fellow vets founded VoteVets. Soltz set out to tap Americans' respect for the armed forces by making his war experience and that of other veterans the foundation of the organization.

Soltz also drew on the political lessons he learned in 2004, when Republican attack ads challenged Kerry's war record.


VoteVets' breakthrough was a 30-second TV commercial that linked several GOP lawmakers to inadequate body armor.

Republicans accused VoteVets of distorting lawmakers' voting records.

"It was just another example of the many efforts that the Democrats have set up that play very loose with the facts," said Dick Wadhams, Allen's campaign manager.

VoteVets members have traveled to Capitol Hill to stand with Democrats at news conferences around nearly every major vote challenging Bush's war strategy.

"They need to know we've got their backs," Soltz said.

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.