Political newcomers with impressive military histories challenge conventional assumptions about interventionism and the assumption that electing veterans would restore bipartisanship.
In early 2019, when the Defense Department bureaucracy seemed to be slow-walking President Trump’s decision to remove all U.S. soldiers from Syria, Joe Kent, a C.I.A. paramilitary officer, contacted his wife, Shannon, a Navy cryptologic technician still in Syria fighting ISIS.
Mr. Kent implored his wife not to be the last person to die in a forgotten war. “That’s exactly what happened,” he said coldly.
Several events followed the suicide bombing that killed Ms. Kent and three others, including a sad encounter with Mr. Trump, which led Mr. Kent to switch from a distinguished combat career to being a single parent, comparing notes with other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to claiming the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The Jan. 6 rioters are political prisoners reasons.
In five weeks, Mr. Kent, 42, a contender for a Washington State House seat long held by a moderate Republican, may be elected, and he is not alone.
Many with exceptional histories and heroic tales are running for the House on the extreme right of the Republican Party, defying longstanding beliefs that bringing veterans to Congress will create bipartisanship and collaboration.
Since WWII, they also embraced anti-interventionist military and international policies associated with the Democratic left. G.O.P.
Alek Skarlatos, 30, a Republican candidate in Oregon, helped stop a terrorist assault on a train destined for Paris. He was recognized by President Obama and starred in a Clint Eastwood film about the incident. Mr. Skarlatos believes the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol was used “to vilify Trump supporters.”
Eli Crane, 42, is running for a Republican-leaning House seat in Arizona. He served as a sniper, manned machine-gun turrets, and oversaw kill-or-capture operations with the Delta Force in Falluja. Mr. Crane believes the 2020 election was stolen.
Derrick Van Orden, 53, is projected to win a House seat in Wisconsin following combat tours in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and Central and South America. Mr. Van Orden tried to disrupt President Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 6.
Beyond their right-wing leanings, they share a strong suspicion about U.S. interventionism, born of years fighting in the post-9/11 war on terrorism and the perception that their sacrifices simply led to more instability and repression everywhere the U.S. deployed boots on the ground.
The new generation of combat veterans in Congress is unafraid to unleash ad hominem assaults on the men who lead U.S. forces.
Milley employed me. Austin employed me. Don Bolduc, 60, the retired brigadier general challenging Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, worked under Jim Mattis, Lloyd Austin, and Gen. Mark Milley. Their priorities were sustaining the military-industrial complex so they could get lucrative careers as three- and four-star generals.
Austin and Mattis didn’t comment. A defense official close to Gen. Milley said there’s no sign he cares about the military-industrial complex or wants to work in the business after retirement.
No one has questioned these men’s gallantry, unlike J.R. Majewski of Ohio, who overstated his battle record.
Other veterans have long urged ex-servicemen to run for office as problem-solving moderates less subject to party winds. New Politics and With Honor Action were established on the idea that service records encourage government collaboration.
Rye Barcott, founder and C.E.O. of With Honor Action, remarked, This is challenging, and trends have gotten worse.
Democratic veterans perceive newer veteran candidates’ support of Trump’s claims as a forerunner to tyranny and a violation of their duty. Former Marine and Rep. Ruben Gallego stated we all took the same oath, and we all know the Constitution. He believes these new candidates are heading toward fascism. The contenders say their military experiences shaped their beliefs, not radicalism.
Mr. Crane saw how far individuals would go to take and keep power overseas, and he believes Democrats rigged the 2020 election in President Biden’s favor.
He stated we’re silly if we’re not critical of our system. Mr. Kent’s path to Trumpism was both lengthy and quick. Inspired by the Black Hawk war in Somalia, he joined the Army at 13 and applied for Special Forces before 9/11. Two years later, he fought in Falluja, chased Saddam Hussein’s regime, and briefed intelligence and State Department employees on the conflict.
In 2011, as U.S. forces prepared to withdraw, he informed General Austin that the U.S. support of “this Iranian-proxy, Shia administration” would lead to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
His wife’s death in Syria propelled C.I.A. agent Kent towards Trumpism. Unelected bureaucrats slowed Trump’s pullout instructions, he alleged. You may violate a president’s command by dragging your feet.
At Dover Air Force Base, he met Trump, who was there to honor Syria’s dead. Mr. Kent backed the president’s Middle East and Afghanistan withdrawals. Within days, he worked for the White House and Veterans for Trump.
In a Koch-funded video criticizing post-9/11 conflicts, he appears as a bearded, longhaired weeping father. Today, clean-cut and square-jawed, he is seen as a right-wing radical. He is ready to connect what he calls the lies that dragged his nation into war. He tells of stolen elections, political prisoners who attacked the Capitol, and the Biden administration’s slippery slope to nuclear war in Ukraine.
Mr. Kent stated people might easily reject it, but when you dig down the nitty-gritty specifics of these things and the outcomes, he believes it’s worth looking into.
His former campaign manager, Byron Sanford, called Mr. Kent’s run a “revenge tour” for the loss of his wife, who was more pro-Trump and political than he was when she died. Mr. Kent said rather than a vengeance tour; it’s a populist movement against the elite, he added. Say what you will.
Mr. Bolduc’s ideological transformation has been more striking. After the U.S. invasion, he was one of the first Americans to contact Hamid Karzai. In 2018, Gen. Bolduc criticized the Trump White House for exacerbating divisiveness by not demonstrating patience and restraint, not listening to experts, attacking people for their opinions, ruining reputations, threatening institutions, abusing the media, and leading people to question our position as a beacon for promoting democracy around the world.
Now, he advises voters the U.S. should avoid Iran, has done enough in Ukraine, and should reevaluate its global position. Mr. Bolduc believes that former Sen. John McCain and successors like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina believe in “the military easy button.”
Mr. Crane shares views with other vets, especially over Ukraine, which he feels President Biden defends more than the southern border. And he agrees with left-leaning thinkers that capitalism drives interventionism.
It’s silly, even dangerous, when the military-industrial complex drives policy. War is good for business.
Zach Nunn, a Republican opposing Cindy Axne of Iowa, has exploited his Air Force combat experience to polish his credentials. After deployments in Afghanistan, North Africa and as an election monitor in Ukraine, he has not soured on global force projection or bipartisan collaboration.
Mr. Nunn describes combat in Afghanistan in which he flew reconnaissance, monitored enemy positions, and called in airstrikes.
We did three midair refuelings, we were out there for nearly 18 hours, and at the end, we had numerous ridgeline hits and kept the Taliban at bay, Mr. Nunn recalled.
His experience didn’t foster cynicism or push him to the party fringes. Mr. Nunn is pleased with his work on cybersecurity in the Obama White House and getting friends out of Afghanistan following the military withdrawal. He thinks his military experience has given him an appreciation for all Americans.
It didn’t matter what our political beliefs were; he continued, we had to watch each other’s backs to fulfill the task.
With Honor Action, Mr. Barcott stated that the current crop of right-wing veterans does not represent all former military members’ political views. Honor Action still encourages veterans running for office to vow to bring civility to Congress, engage in cross-partisan veterans groups, meet one-on-one with an opposing party member at least once a month, and co-sponsor additional bipartisan initiatives.
Finding willing veterans has grown harder.
Six hundred eighty-five veterans ran for House or Senate, according to Mr. Barcott. With Honor backed by 26 from both parties, several incumbents. Reps. Mike Garcia of California, Greg Steube of Florida, and Dan Crenshaw of Texas were dismissed for activities against the group’s objective.
Representatives Abigail Spanberger, Elaine Luria, and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan campaign on their national security backgrounds. Conservative veterans groups say this year’s candidates are pointing out a central fallacy: People say if we elect more veterans to Congress, things will be fine, but there’s no precedent for that, no data that suggests veterans act differently from anyone else, said Dan Caldwell, an adviser to Concerned Veterans for America.
Mr. Kent criticized groups that supposedly support nonpartisan veterans but didn’t back him. He called the groups hawkish interventionists. “It’s just another method to promote neoconservative, neoliberal ideas via service. Service.”