Vets Bring A 'Level Of Selflessness' To Service In Congress

The number of veterans in Congress is at its lowest since World War II. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Seth Lynn of the Veterans Campaign about how he's trying to get those numbers back up.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The number of veterans serving in the U.S. Congress has been in decline for the last 40 years. The generation that fought World War II is disappearing. Those who served during wars in Korea and Vietnam are also aging, and there hasn't been a draft since 1973. A number of people worry about how these dwindling numbers could affect defense decisions and debates over how to care for veterans, especially in the midst of the VA scandal.

Seth Lynn, who is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran himself, founded Veterans Campaign, a place to educate and train veterans to run for elected office. He joins in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

SETH LYNN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What issues and what perspective are you particularly eager to see veterans bringing to public life?

LYNN: I think veterans have a unique and very intimate perspective of foreign-policy and what our Defense Department needs to be doing, as well as how to care for veterans. But my organization really isn't about any particular issue.

It's more about getting people into elected office who bring a certain level of selflessness and putting their country first and are willing to work together regardless of their background or party affiliation. I hear a lot of stories, all the time, of folks who serve together, working across party lines...

SIMON: Yeah.

LYNN: ...Helping each other out. And I hear that about World War II veterans, and, you know, more recent veterans.

SIMON: Certainly referring to our men and women in uniform becomes a popular theme during the campaign season. And I wonder if the major parties have been making much of an effort to recruit veterans to run for office.

LYNN: There's definitely a push in both parties to showcase folks in their party who've served in uniform. That doesn't always mean they're going to win seats. A lot of times, I've seen veterans get recruited to run for unwinable seats, to be sacrificial lambs because ultimately...

SIMON: Oh, just dress up the party.

LYNN: Exactly. They want someone to run for the seat that's definitely not going to be won by the opposition party, at least have a face of a candidate. And it's good to have a face with a photo, you know, from their time serving in Iraq or Afghanistan to disagree with the other party's policy on national defense or veterans' issues, and say see, the men and women in uniform agree with us.

I'm curious to see whether this issue with the VA scandal is going to precipitate the Republican Party to sort of try to bring in some more veterans as candidates to showcase, you know - we actually are going to try to do more for veterans than the party in power.

SIMON: Well, it's interesting you should spotlight that because I think one of the things I've noticed as the VA scandal has been unfolding is there are relatively few members of Congress who were able to stand up and say this is something I know from my personal experience.

LYNN: Right. One thing veterans definitely bring as elected officials is that when they speak about military veterans' issues, it's very tough for those who haven't served to contradict them.

SIMON: Mr. Lynn, do you have any idea how many veterans are running for office this primary season - spring and summer?

LYNN: So it seems to be fairly comparable to the last few elections. The last few elections, we've had about 190 major party nominees for Congress who have been veterans. It seems like it could be comparable.

SIMON: That's pretty big.

LYNN: It's fairly large. Four decades ago, 3 out of 4 members of Congress have served in uniform. By 9/11, it was 1 in 3. And today, it's 1 in 5.

SIMON: How do you train somebody who may have been in combat? How do you train them to be in politics?

LYNN: Well, you know, there are candidate trainings across the country that just give you a basic tutelage in how to run for office in general. What we try to do is put a veteran twist on it. We have a - you know, a real focus on fundraising because that tends to be an issue for people. We have one course called Bullet Proofing Your Service Record. It's actually taught by the chief strategist for Swift Boat vets from back in 2004. It says, well, here's some ways to make sure that this doesn't happen to you.

SIMON: Boy.

LYNN: A big focus we have is to make sure that veteran candidates don't lead with their military record. It's a great way to get some press, and people definitely respect it. But at the end of the day, voters like that, but they want to hear about what you're actually going to do as a candidate.

SIMON: It's winning hearts and minds.

LYNN: Exactly. It's winning hearts and minds.

SIMON: Seth Lynn is founder of the Veterans Campaign. And he teaches civil military relations and politics at the George Washington University. He was an amphibious assault vehicle officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Thank you for your service and thanks for being with us.

LYNN: Thanks for having me.

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