As a possible war with Iraq quickly approaches, some Members of Congress are thinking about what it means to fight for their country — because they’ve been trained to do it.
“When you are a reserve you’re going between both worlds,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who is a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve.
Kirk is one of five House Members who serves as a military reservist, according to the Military Officers Association of America. The others are Reps. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), John Shimkus (R-Ill.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). The only Senator in a reserve unit is Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
All six Republicans voted in favor of authorizing military action against Iraq.
Wilson, a colonel and staff judge advocate in the Army National Guard, serves at the state level. In preparation for war, he meets with spouses of those being deployed and offers legal counsel such as helping to prepare wills and powers of attorney.
“I am honored now to be a Member and do this simultaneously,” said Wilson. “It’s a very humbling experience as I meet with the troops.”
In the summer of 2000, Wilson went to the National Training Center in California’s Mojave Desert. While there, he received desert warfare training, which he said is beneficial as he monitors actions in Kuwait.
“It is very reassuring to me. I feel good about our troops and their capabilities and safeguards they have,” said Wilson, who visited the troops in Kuwait late last month.
For Graham, who lived almost five years in Germany as a military prosecutor in the Air Force, Germany’s opposition to U.S. military action in Iraq hits close to home.
“That experience has really made the German-American conflict real because I have so many German friends,” said Graham, who now serves as lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve. “I want to make sure I can repair this as soon as possible.”
Buyer and Shimkus both serve as a lieutenant colonels in the Army Reserve. Wicker is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
Members of Congress are exempt from participating in war, according to a Department of Defense directive, but, if activated, they could receive special permission from the department to serve.
Most of the reservists say their experiences make them feel closer to those who will now fight for the country.
“[Being a reservist] gives me an understanding of what it’s like on active duty,” said Wicker. “There’s an appreciation first-hand of what the folks are going through that actually get the job done.”
For Kirk, who works weekends at the Pentagon as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, a vote to go to war isn’t just about whether he feels an attack on Iraq is justified.
“When you’re with the troops, you come back with everything that impedes their condition,” he said. “When I cast a vote, I think if it’s worth one of my friends getting shot at.”
Shimkus acknowledges the difficulty of voting in Congress while people he knows are being put on the front lines.
“It is very difficult to authorize the president to use military force, but not be able to be in a position to lead by example,” he said. “With military background it makes you understand the reality of war and that people will die and that innocent women and children will be harmed.”
Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) is the only Member who served in both the Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars, according to MOAA records.
“Fighting in Congress is not as difficult as having bullets come at you,” he said. “But it gives me resolve to work hard because I know what the military is now facing.”
Any veteran puts going to war as a last resort, said Gibbons, a former combat pilot in the Air Force. However, he said there are times when there is no other alternative.
“We are in that position with Saddam Hussein today. It’s been 12 years and 18 resolutions and he continues deceive the free world,” Gibbons said. “If I had one wish it would be to go back 20 years and jump back into a fighter jet and go to war for the country.”