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On the Home Front: Vets of Iraq and Afghanistan take on political battles at home 

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This story is part of "Coming Home PA," a joint journalism venture in partnership with other local media outlets.
  • This story is part of "Coming Home PA," a joint journalism venture in partnership with other local media outlets.

Kane "has offended thousands of veterans," charged Jon Soltz, the head of VoteVets.org, during an April 3 conference call with reporters.

"The Kane campaign needs to apologize to Pennsylvania voters, and more importantly to their veterans," added AJ Gales, himself a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan — and a Democrat running for the state House in Westmoreland County.

Kane denied that her camp had attacked Murphy's record, but it sure didn't hurt to have veterans speaking on his behalf. Murphy was awarded a Bronze Star for serving as a judge advocate with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq. There, he prosecuted accused terrorists and wayward soldiers, contending with enemy fire and recalcitrant Iraqi judges. In 2006, voters in the Philadelphia suburbs elected him to Congress. There, he sponsored the bill that ended Don't Ask/Don't Tell, before losing his seat in 2010.

Before Iraq, Murphy admits, "I didn't even vote in most elections." What motivated his political career, he says was "losing 19 men in our unit, and seeing how short-funded we were" — a fact he blames on clueless politicians. As late as the 1980s, roughly three-quarters of those in Congress were veterans; today it's less than one-quarter.  Many officials "don't have any skin in the game," Murphy grouses.

Other vets run for office because of what they see back home.

The son of a Marine, AJ Gales enlisted as a Marine reservist in 2004, after one year of college. He provided security to convoys in Iraq, and trained security forces in Afghanistan.

But Gales saw his own country fraying. "When I left for Iraq, my nieces and nephews had foreign-language classes in school," he says. "When I come back, all you see are cuts. I took care of my community when I was abroad, and now I want to help take care of it while I'm here."

Gales is no liberal: He's pro-life, and an NRA member. But he supports education and touts Democrats' willingness to expand veterans' benefits. His Republican rival, incumbent Tim Kreiger, is a Navy veteran himself. Still, Gales says, "I pull a lot of the cards Republicans take for granted" — like patriotism and a pro-gun agenda — "and put them back on the table."

Over a Barrel

Gales faces a tough slog, says Jon Soltz, an Iraq vet whose organization raises money for veterans.

Other candidates can raise money from professional connections — like fellow lawyers — or rely on longstanding community ties. But vets often "haven't lived in their home community for years," Soltz says. Nor can they raise funds from war buddies: "Vets don't have money."

But for vets with funding, Soltz says, "You can move voters, especially in core constituencies that Democrats have a hard time moving, like white men."

For example, VoteVets advocates federal spending on clean energy, arguing that buying oil from Middle Eastern despots finances attacks on our soldiers. "We're aligned with the environmental movement," says Soltz. "But who better to deliver that message than a veteran?"

But vets maintain their most important stand on issues is their pragmatic, non-partisan approach.  As Gales says, "You serve with guys who are very conservative and very liberal. You have to put all that aside for the mission."

Not always:  One Iraq war vet, Florida Congressman Allen West, recently made headlines by accusing progressive Democrats of being communists. Teigen, of Ramapo College, says "I'm not aware of empirical evidence" proving vets are less partisan, but adds veterans have much to offer. "I think if Mitt Romney went through the military instead of growing up in a bubble, he'd be a better candidate. Military experience is a boon in many walks of life."

Not to Helen Gerhardt. Being a veteran might give her some additional "rhetorical power." But that's a symptom of the militarism she opposes.

"I want to explode that romantic halo," she says.

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