SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

November 12, 2012

Column: Fewer veterans but they still seek to serve

For a unique person to symbolize this Veterans Day you could not go far wrong choosing Tammy Duckworth, who was elected to Congress Tuesday to represent Chicago’s northwestern suburbs.

Duckworth will become the first female veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan to serve in Congress. She was a captain in the National Guard and a helicopter pilot when she was shot down in Iraq in 2004, losing both legs and the partial use of her right arm.

She is not unique serving in Congress after being badly wounded in wartime. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was tortured by the North Vietnamese after breaking both legs and an arm. Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia lost both legs and his forearm to a grenade in Vietnam.

What is unique about Duckworth is simply that she’s a veteran. Once veterans dominated Congress; from the 1960s to the mid-1970s veterans comprised about three-quarters of the U.S. House, according to political science associate professor Jeremy Teigen of Ramapo College in New Jersey. He told the military newspaper Stars & Stripes that number is down to 25 percent and falling.

In fact, after World War II, it was hard for a nonveteran to get elected; military service was practically a prerequisite for political office. But with the end of the draft, the advent of the all-volunteer army and the concept of a leaner military, the percentage of Americans who have served has fallen precipitously. Less than 1 percent of the population has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans groups were hoping that this election would arrest a 32-year slide in the number of ex-military in Congress. It might have happened. Some House vote counts are still incomplete that could add two more members, but the Associated Press says 16 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were elected Tuesday, nine of them first-time officeholders.

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