WASHINGTON — Hailed as one of the most diverse freshman classes in history, the 113rd Congress ushered in a wealth of new faces this month. Among the 12 newly elected senators and 82 new House members are nine recent-war veterans, all of whom were voted into the House. They include two of the first female combat veterans in history, one of the first Hindi members and a double amputee who is considered by many to be a war hero. They also feature a slate of rising GOP stars — and even an underdog — who come to the job eager to rise to the challenge of serving their country in a new way.
Rep. Kerry Bentivolio
R-Mich., 11th District
Military service: Army National Guard, 1970-91; infantry rifleman in Vietnam; military police stateside during Operation Desert Storm; in Iraq, at 56, with an artillery unit in an administrative capacity.
Committee assignments: Small Business, Oversight and Government Reform.
Bentivolio’s election to Congress surprised many after his opponent — five-term incumbent Thaddeus McCotter — didn’t get enough signatures to get on the Republican primary ballot. A former schoolteacher who has served during three wars, who plays Santa Claus on occasion and raises reindeer on his farm, has been pigeonholed by some as an “accidental” congressman. To which he responds, “If you want to get elected to any office, you have to show up for work. I got my name on the ballot. I showed up for work and I was there, and more than anything I had to get the message out.” He campaigned door-to-door at 6,000 households and learned that voters are “looking for someone who is accountable and transparent,” he said. With the support of many young Libertarians, he won 51 percent of the vote in his state. He plans to make tackling the country’s spending and debt problem a priority, and he wants to ensure that veterans get proper care, having suffered a neck injury during the Iraq War.
R-Okla., 1st District
Military service: Pilot in the U.S. Navy Reserve where he flies the E-2C Hawkeye on counternarcotics missions in Central and South America; deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq during more than 10 years of reserve and active-duty service.
Committee assignments: Armed Services and vice chairman of the Committee on the Science, Space and Technology’s Technology Subcommittee.
On his first day after getting sworn in, Bridenstine bucked the Republican establishment by voting not for John Boehner, but for Majority Leader Eric Cantor for House Speaker. The tea party-backed candidate, who worked for a defense consulting firm and is the former director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium, explained that the vote was to follow through on a campaign promise. “I chose to run against an incumbent Republican based on what I considered bad policy,” he said, “so it would be hypocritical for me to vote for the leadership that advocated for the bad policy.” He disapproved of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the failure of its supercommittee to agree on a deficit-reduction plan. Now that Boehner was voted in as speaker, Bridenstine says he supports him 100 percent. Bridenstine’s top priorities will be tackling “the deficit and getting our debt under control” by reining in federal spending, repealing sequestration and finding cuts in other areas, he said.
R-Ga., 9th District
Military service: Air Force Reserves since 2002; currently a chaplain in the 94th Airlift Wing; deployed as chaplain to Iraq in 2008.
Committee assignments: Judiciary, Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Government Reform.
A Georgia state legislator for the past six years and a managing partner of a law practice, Collins is well aware that his service as an Air Force Reserve chaplain has given him a unique window into servicemembers’ needs. “I work from the highest rank to the lowest rank,” he said. ”Chaplains see everybody at their bests and their worsts.” As a Southern Baptist, he acknowledged that he “was not pleased” to see the president repeal the ban on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. “But I’m bound by two things. My faith encourages me not to champion for that, but then I keep that in balance with my role and obligations as a member of the military.“ He said his main priority in Congress will be “making sure that our government is fiscally sound.” He also would like to see improvement in the Department of Veterans Affairs system and how it handles health care when troops come back from war zones with conditions such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
R-Ark., 4th District
Military service: Enlisted in Army in 2005; entered Officer Candidate School and became an Army Ranger; deployed to Baghdad in 2006 as an infantry officer and platoon leader for the 101st Airborne Division; volunteered for deployment to Afghanistan as an operations officer of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2008.
Committee assignments: Financial Services, Foreign Affairs.
By his first day in Congress, Cotton was already being named one of the “most likely to succeed” in the freshman class by Politico. After graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and working for a couple of years as an attorney, he enlisted in the Army, then became an officer. He made a name for himself before getting to Congress by penning a Wall Street Journal editorial opposing the nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. A rising GOP star, he has also publicly advocated for the president not to draw down troops in Afghanistan too rapidly. “After 2014, we probably need 30,000 to 40,000 troops,” so they are not just sitting ducks and so bases will be manned and secured, he said. He said his top priorities will be “getting our debt crisis under control and reducing spending in the long term, as well as a two-year project of reforming our tax code so it’s simpler and more efficient and fair for those who are not politically connected. But I’m also going to work to try to ... give our fighting men and women on the front lines the resources they need.”
R-Fla., 6th District
Military service: Lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve. After graduating from Harvard Law, has served as a judge advocate general since 2004; did a tour at the detention center at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay; deployed to Iraq as legal counselor to the Navy SEAL Commander in Fallujah.
Committee assignments: Judiciary and Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Government Reform.
On the campaign trail, DeSantis advocated the idea of “no budget, no pay.” He embraced the idea that if Congress hasn’t passed a budget, members’ paychecks would stop until they have, he said. In his first weeks in the 113rd Congress, he became the first new member to co-sponsor the “No Budget, No Pay Act,” which requires that congressmembers pass a budget by Oct. 1 every year or else not get paid. He said that while the House has passed budget legislation, the Senate has not, and the responsibility falls on them to do so and get away from continuing resolutions. He wants to avoid sequestration, finding inefficiencies in the military budget in a more common-sense way. One of his top priorities will be “to form a coherent foreign policy against terrorism” on the House Foreign Affairs committee. He believes in preparing for unconventional and conventional warfare, he said. “I’m a Reaganite. I believe in a strong defense as the best way to deter conflict.” Although he supports the mission, he questions whether using U.S. forces for nation building is the best use of its military “since it’s putting our military in a situation where they are being asked to do nonmilitary functions,” he said.
D-Ill., 8th District
Military service: Since 1992 has served in Army and Army National Guard Reserve; currently a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard; one of the first female combat veterans in history; the first female double amputee from the Iraq War.
Committee assignments: Freshman Democratic Whip, Democratic Steering and Policy, Armed Services, Oversight and Government Reform.
The biggest celebrity of the freshman class, Duckworth has become an inspiration to many. A daughter of a World War II veteran and a Thai immigrant of Chinese descent, she lost both of her legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraq insurgents in 2004. Thirteen months later, she returned to Army service on titanium legs. After losing a bid to Congress in 2006, she served as the assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She was chosen to be freshman Democratic whip in the new Congress, a leader within her party. But, she said, no one person can do it on his or her own. “I did not get here on my own. Everyone played a part in me making it back.” She plans to continue to work on veterans and military issues in Congress, and will be “a government watchdog.“ When asked what one message she would have for Congress, considering the real challenges she’s seen many face, she said: “I would tell them get over this stuff. It’s about your constituents and the rest of the nation you serve. And we are not all going to get what we want, and not going to like the outcome 100 percent.”
D-Hawaii, 2nd District
Military service: Captain in Army National Guard; sacrificed her seat in state legislature to volunteer for being deployed to a war zone in Iraq in 2004, then voluntarily deployed again to the Middle East as military police platoon leader in 2009.
Committee assignments: Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security.
As one of the first female combat veterans, Gabbard is fully aware of the challenges that women face serving in uniform, she said. “Unless we bring true awareness of the reality of what women in service face, as well as what they bring, then we can’t expect to have true progress.” In Congress, there haven’t been enough people who have understood the full extent of the challenges they face, she said. At 21, she became the youngest woman elected to state office in the nation when she won a seat in the Hawaiian legislature in 2002. Now, as one of Congress’ first American Samoan immigrant and Hindi members, she hopes that her military experience will guide crucial decisions “as we look toward the Asia-Pacific pivot, as we look to the Middle East and dealing with threats to our national security.” It also means “understanding at a very personal level what the true cost of war is,” she said.
R-Pa., 4th District
Military service: Army National Guard since 1980; deployed for a year to Iraq in 2009, flying 44 missions and accruing nearly 200 combat flight hours.
Committee assignments: Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security and Transportation and Infrastructure.
Perry grew up in a broken home, he said, “with no running water and electricity.” He credits his military experience as a one of the keys to his success in rising from humble beginnings. “But (Congress) is a very different dynamic from military operations,” where “you have a rank structure, in which the guy at the top says, ‘This is where you are going’ and you don’t question,” he said. Finding common ground among the current partisan divide in Congress will be a challenge, he said, but his top priority is grappling with the nation’s fiscal issues. He also wants to stop sequestration, which he sees “as a failure of leadership.” Inefficiencies in the military should be rooted out, but it shouldn’t be “a one-sided equation.” Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare and Obamacare, “which is another tax increase,” also should be considered for cuts, he said. He also wants to shape treaties with other nations as a legislator. “I’ve listened to a discussion/argument between two gunners in an aircraft, when they are being fired upon, on whether they should shoot back, based on the rules of engagement…,” he said. “And I don’t want Americans jeopardizing their lives for the sake of some policy.”
R-Ohio, 2nd District
Military service: Army Reserve Medical Corps since 1998 and currently a lieutenant colonel; deployed to Iraq as a combat surgeon in 2005; chief of surgery at the Abu Ghraib complex, post-scandal.
Committee assignments: Armed Services, Veterans Affairs.
Wenstrup said though he is honored to serve his country in a different way, “there’s no greater honor than I feel than when I’m wearing my uniform.” In fact, as he pointed out, it’s the military that has the highest public opinion ratings in the America these days, “while Congress currently has the lowest.“ He said he’s “realistic” about how much influence he might wield as one member of Congress, considering the current climate of partisan paralysis. “I’m one of 536 people dealing with these issues, but it was one out of 315 million, so I’m a little closer than before,” he said. Having served for years in the Army Reserve Medical Corps, he said he was given a unique perspective. He realizes the military is trying to play catch-up as it deals with medical unknowns, such as traumatic brain injury and PTSD. “The things we have are invisible wounds, and they are very difficult to treat and they vary from person to person,” he said. His top priorities are to provide good constituent services, weigh in on health care issues and ensure that troops are taken care of.