The 2018 midterm elections will see a wave of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans ascend Capitol Hill. As a retired four-star Army general and former U.S. presidential candidate, I think it’s exactly what our country needs.
Veterans are running for office in record numbers this year because they believe Washington is broken. What's more, they know the same sense of duty, commitment to results, and the integrity and discipline they have been trained to live by, make them uniquely well-positioned to fix it.
Veterans are respectful of institutions. Veterans of my generation returned from Vietnam to help transform the U.S. Army. But young veterans are fed up with political leadership. Politicians sent them into Iraq and Afghanistan without exit plans, leaving them with their fingers in the dike. Now home, they see partisan bickering but no vision for America. They are impatient for change. Like the Parkland survivors, young veterans are refusing to leave it to someone else to solve our country’s problems.
As former Marine Conor Lamb's recent upset in Pennsylvania demonstrated, voters are starting to see veterans as the antidote to Washington’s toxicity, a jump-start for our democracy ironically predicated on the very qualities that distinguish them from most politicians.
From veterans, Americans expect representatives who put country before party. They expect public servants focused on action and results over talk and optics. They expect leaders who will instill pride, not shame, and lead toward a higher purpose than reelection.
The two most productive committees on Capitol Hill in 2017 were the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees. The vast majority of the committees’ members are veterans. Arguably the most bipartisan period in the history of the House of Representatives occurred from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, when the number of World War II veterans in Congress was at its peak. Correlation isn’t causation, but the dots are easy to connect. Bipartisan principles are instinctual for veterans.
The 9/11 military generation has little patience for petty partisanship or rigid ideology. In Afghanistan or Iraq, “my-way-or-the-highway” leaders got people killed. There’s a reason why veterans are skeptical of people who think they have all the answers. We have attended far too many funerals.
Veterans are comfortable meeting voters where they stand. Those who had to navigate local dynamics in Afghanistan or Iraq understand that one size doesn't fit all. Though very different contexts, the importance of listening and working with people to solve problems is the same. That’s why Conor Lamb flipped a seat the GOP held since 2003. He refused to make the race about the White House or ideology. He focused on local issues and the solutions best fit for his district.
Veterans elected to Congress will also practice a lost art — leadership. Leadership can be taught in a boardroom, on a sports field or on a Peace Corps deployment. But when it comes to molding leaders, it’s hard to replicate leading teams in combat zones.
That brand of leadership is being exemplified by veterans across the country. Women like Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey and Elissa Slotkin in Michigan. Men like Dan McCready in North Carolina and Pat Ryan in New York.
Former Army Ranger Jesse Colvin, who is running to represent Maryland’s 1st Congressional District, is perhaps a perfect embodiment of the unique qualities of leadership veterans possess and of the trajectory that has led them to where they are today.
The 9/11 attacks inspired him to learn Arabic, study in Egypt, teach English in Syria and ultimately join the Army, where he earned a coveted position within the 75th Ranger Regiment. He served four tours in Afghanistan. Then he used the GI-Bill to get a graduate degree from Columbia University and embark on a business career. We need leaders like him more than ever.
Like Mr. Lamb, Mr. Colvin is running in a rural district that President Donald Trump won handily, one that until recently was considered “out of reach” for Democrats. And like Mr. Lamb, Mr. Colvin is running on a platform focused on uniting people behind practical solutions to local problems. He is running with the integrity and sense of duty that so many in Congress lack.
Voters elected Conor Lamb, and will support veterans like Jesse Colvin, because they possess discipline and dignity, courage and conviction. It’s why they’re running and why they’re winning. It’s why a wave of change could come to Washington in November.
Wesley K. Clark (Twitter: @GeneralClark) is a retired four-star Army general and former Democratic candidate for president of the United States and NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe.