The summer after completing his medical internship at the Los Angeles County Hospital in 1965, Rep.-elect Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.) headed down to the local Navy recruiting station and enlisted.
“I was in Vietnam by September,” recalled Schwarz, who went on to serve in Indonesia before joining the CIA for a posting in Southeast Asia during the late 1960s.
Today, the 66-year-old Schwarz credits his time in uniform with shaping his approach to foreign policy issues.
“I believe military experience is almost a necessity to understanding a lot of this country’s responsibilities in other parts of the world and our relationships with other countries who are allies, and some who aren’t,” he said.
When he’s sworn-in as a new Member of Congress on Jan. 3, however, Schwarz will join an ever-dwindling corps of Members to have served in the military.
In fact, the 109th Congress — the first to take office during a major war in more than a decade — will boast the smallest percentage of veterans since 1945, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Ron Quayle, who now serves as a government relations analyst with the Military Officers Association of America.
Of the incoming class of House freshmen, only eight count military service on their resumés. Among incoming Senators, only Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who spent six years in the Georgia Air National Guard, has performed military service.
Those numbers could be better, said some soon-to-be freshman Members who have served.
“It’s important that we have many more veterans in Congress,” said Rep.-elect Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), a former Army ranger who spent nearly two decades in the active-duty military and the reserves. Once in Congress, Davis said he plans to “work with the [Republican] party leadership to encourage more veterans with strong military service to run for Congress.”
Davis, who ran Army aviation operations for peace enforcement between Israel and Egypt in the mid-1980s, added, “Having been deployed on the other side of the world does give me a perspective on what we are facing in the long run.”
Both he and Schwarz said their service gave them an added sensitivity to the resources required to properly equip and train soldiers who are in harm’s way.
Retired Rear Adm. James Carey, chairman of the National Defense PAC, a group dedicated to increasing the number of veterans serving in Congress, said he’d been disappointed with the number of veterans elected this past cycle.
“We didn’t do as well as we did in years past,” he said. The PAC endorsed roughly a dozen non-incumbents with military service who ran for Congress this year, but only one — Davis — was victorious, he said.
“Until you’ve stood watch four on, four off for 90 days at sea or slept in a fox hole half full of water with a pair of leaky boots bought from the lowest bidder … it’s very hard to look at charts and PowerPoint presentations and say, ‘There are things we need to be doing here,’” Carey said.
But Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii)., who lost his right arm fighting on the battlefields of Italy during World War II, said that with less than one percent of the total population serving in the military today, it’s hardly surprising that the number of veterans in Congress has continued to drop.
Nor, he said, is that necessarily a bad thing.
“It doesn’t take a veteran to be a patriot,” he said. The main difference is that non-veteran Members need to be “educated and advised” on health care, economic and deployment issues that are germane to military families.
Officials at the Military Officers Association of America, the nation’s largest professional association for military officers, said past service hardly ensures across-the-board support for military issues.
Members “who have vigorously opposed some of our [issues] have been military veterans and military retirees,” said Bob Norton, the group’s deputy director for government relations. As an example, he pointed to Vietnam War vet and ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey’s (D-Neb.) opposition to TRICARE for life health care benefits for military retirees, their dependents and survivors.
But the declining numbers do make it “a much harder task to educate people on the Hill on the challenges and sacrifices inherent in military service,” he said.
Between the 108th and 109th Congress, the House will experience a net loss of nine veterans, while the Senate will post a net loss of four veterans, said Quayle. Overall, 140 Members — roughly a quarter of the 109th Congress — will have spent time in uniform.
Veteran numbers in Congress hit a high in the late 1970s, as World War II and Korean War veterans hit the prime of their political lives and the number of Vietnam veterans elected to Congress rose. Since then, the number of veterans serving in Congress has plummeted.
According to post-1945 figures provided by the MOAA, the percentage of House members who were veterans peaked between 1977 and 1978, when roughly 80 percent had served. In the Senate, the high-water mark came between 1983 and 1984, when veterans constituted 76 percent of the chamber’s members.
“From the time the Senate peaked, it’s gone downhill,” Quayle said. “And starting in the 1990s it’s gone down hill very fast.”
Experts attribute the declining numbers to the transition to an all-volunteer force in 1973 and retirements by members of the World War II generation.
With the departures of Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Reps. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) and Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), the incoming Congress will include just nine veterans of World War II.