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He suddenly stopped breathing right in front of my eyes. As my young children and I stood in helpless shock, watching my husband gasp and struggle for any sign of air to breathe, we feared for the worst. Thankfully for my husband, who has extensive lung damage from his time in the military, his condition is controlled with the use of supplemental oxygen, but if his condition worsens, he is at risk of requiring a transplant.

This experience was truly terrifying for us but a reality we must expect given our military service.

My husband and I both served in the military — the Marine Corps and the Army, respectively. Between us we deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan. We spent long days putting our bodies through physical and mental stress and long nights sleeping next to burn pits filled with smoldering toxic waste.

Our health has been affected, and we bear the visible and invisible scars of war. I have asthma and often struggle to breathe. My husband’s respiratory issues are far more severe due to toxic exposure, and we aren’t sure exactly what the future holds.

War is more than the deployments themselves; it is the lifetime of aftermath we warriors must live with, from the aches and pains to the terminal diseases to the battles that rage in our minds.

When our lawmakers choose to send us to war, they know — or at least they should — that these are the consequences of their actions. Honestly, those consequences are probably why lawmakers don’t want to make those decisions in the first place.

Congress hasn’t declared war since World War II. Congress hasn’t taken a vote to authorize military action since the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force was passed as the authority for the Iraq War.

Thousands of U.S. troops have been killed and tens of thousands more have been wounded in our post-9/11 wars, without the necessary debate and oversight from Congress about whether these engagements are connected to our national interests.

Veterans did their duty, swearing an oath to the Constitution; the least our elected representatives can do is fulfill their constitutional duty to debate and vote on when and where they send Americans to fight and potentially die.

Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. This design was intentional so the executive branch would not be able to send our nation to war without the input of the people, who bear its costs. It also meant to ensure the people could hold lawmakers accountable for their decisions and call upon them to end wars that had gone on too long.

Unfortunately, since its last declaration of war in 1942, Congress has relied on poorly written, overbroad and open-ended AUMFs to authorize military action. These authorizations lack clear language listing targets, narrowly defining mission scope. They contain no requirements for regular reporting on how they are being used or that they will sunset absent debate and renewal votes. The result? These 2001 and 2002 AUMFs persist on and on, enabling the president to effectively wage war anywhere around the world without getting congressional authorization first — the opposite of what the Constitution intended.

The 2001 AUMF was passed three days after the 9/11 attacks. Yet to this day, with Osama bin Laden long dead and the war in Afghanistan concluded, it is used to justify U.S. military action around the world far beyond its original intent, with at least 41 uses in over 19 different countries and counting.

The 2002 AUMF, which authorized the invasion of Iraq, is still active despite Saddam Hussein being deposed and Islamic State’s territorial caliphate being defeated years ago. As the sole authority for zero ongoing military operations, the 2002 AUMF is long-obsolete, but could easily be abused to take the U.S. into war with Iran without congressional approval.

Despite these authorizations being stretched far beyond their supporters’ original intentions, less than 20% of the current outgoing Congress voted on either the 2001 or 2002 AUMF, and even fewer will have by 2023.

There are times when wars need to be fought; I am not naive to that reality. I know that despite many regrettable foreign policy decisions over the last 20 years, we eliminated much evil in the world.

I also know that war should be a tough decision, likely the toughest our elected leaders make. But leaders take responsibility for their decisions, no matter how hard they are, especially when they mean putting American lives on the line.

I would serve my country all over again, and I know my husband would, too. Lawmakers should uphold their end of the bargain and own the decisions and consequences of sending men and women like us into combat.

This year, following the 20th anniversary of Congress passing the 2002 Iraq AUMF, members will have an opportunity to honor their constitutional oath by repealing this outdated war authority as part of our annual defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. Congress needs to step up and do its rightful job — if not for those of us who have already fought, then to ensure that future generations never fight in conflicts unless Congress honors the sacrifices it asks for with action of its own.

Jessica Villarreal is an Army veteran and spouse to a Marine Corps veteran. She is a grassroots engagement director for Concerned Veterans for America in Texas.

The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., on July 6, 2022.

The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., on July 6, 2022. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

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