Less than 5 percent of Congress served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but almost one-quarter of the new House Armed Services Committee lineup boasts recent wartime credentials and experience.
Fifteen of the 63 members of the new military oversight panel deployed overseas in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom. Lawmakers say that background serves as a valuable resource in discussions about use of force, personnel cuts, military family concerns and a host of other key legislative issues.
"It gives you a totally different perspective," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine who served in both wars. "You have folks who can't be hoodwinked by DoD, folks who don't get googly-eyed at the stars or the brass that comes in."
The 38-year-old Hunter and 59-year-old Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., are the elder statesmen of the unofficial caucus of recent war veterans. Both have served on the committee for six years, and watched as they have slowly shifted from being the only voices of experience on the panel to part of a large chorus.
"What Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans bring is a more recent understanding of American foreign policy," Coffman said. "We're going to have major force restructuring issues. So the experience we've had, that brings a more recent understanding of the military."
Hunter said his service in Iraq has made him more wary of the lack of public details about the current campaign in that country, because he thinks he has a better idea of the resources and support that type of mission needs.
He also said that combat experience — which he and several other members have — gives a unique perspective on equipment decisions and new personnel policies, areas where Hunter has been vocal in the committee in the past.
The committee boasts three female Iraq War veterans — Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth and Arizona Republican Martha McSally — and will have Iraq War veteran and Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Joe Heck, R-Nev., chairing its personnel subcommittee.
Heck said his military background and firsthand knowledge of the war give more credibility in congressional debates.
"Having served, we are more likely to step back and consider the broader strategic implications of certain actions or identify potential difficulties associated with certain actions, because we have seen policy in action in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
Freshman Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said he believes he brings "a very personal view of war" with his military background. The former Marine served in Iraq as an assistant machine gunner, "kicking down doors and seeing exactly what urban warfare is."
He said that perspective needs to be highlighted in all military policy conversations. Gallego said he has been particularly concerned with recent congressional conversations about trimming pay and benefits, saying some non-veterans are being too casual about what such cuts could mean.
"If you start changing the contracts you've made [with troops], it's not good for military retention and readiness," Gallego said. "You have to be realistic about the military budget, but you can't mess with military benefits."
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.