Vet Offensive

On the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Democratic congressional candidate and Navy man Joe Sestak invited me to see him speak at the Friends Meeting House in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, a bucolic Philadelphia suburb that is part of the 7th Congressional district. Pacing in the aisle of a crowded room, Sestak put our nation's lack of emergency preparedness in the context of the Iraq war. “When one and a half weeks in Iraq covers the entire FEMA budget,” Sestak said, “our priorities are wrong.” Sestak's rhetoric echoed his response to President Bush's weekly radio address on the costs of war, which the Democrats tapped him to deliver on August 19.

Behind Sestak stood the American flag, along with enlarged black and white photographs depicting flooded New Orleans streets and the now iconic pandemonium at the Superdome. Also along the back wall was a framed copy of the Peace Testimony of the Society of Friends. At one point an audience member asked Sestak whether a serviceman could possibly stand for peace. “I find that military men and women are often more for peace than those who have not served in the military,” Sestak said in stride, not breaking a sweat in his dark suit.

The Keystone State no longer lives up to its name merely by helping to swing presidential elections. It's become a crucial battleground for this November's congressional elections as well. (Heavyweights from across the political spectrum have made repeated trips in recent months to stump or appear at fundraisers -- Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Nancy Pelosi, Rudy Giuliani, Bill Frist, George Pataki, Mark Warner.) And given that the war in Iraq continues to dominate the political and international stage, it's not surprising that two of the Democratic congressional hopefuls in Pennsylvania, Sestak and Patrick Murphy, are veterans -- two of the "Fighting Dems" that have garnered so much media attention this cycle. As Sestak described the ranks of which he's a part, “These veterans are seeing a misuse of one of our national treasures, the military.” Both he and Murphy have used their estimable military backgrounds to inform their positions on foreign policy and domestic issues. Both stress, though, that they are not running on military platforms alone.

Sestak retired a Vice Admiral this past January, having served in the navy for 31 years. During six sea tours, he led combat operations in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. He served on the National Security Council under President Clinton, then went on to become the first director of Deep Blue, the Navy Operations Group formed after September 11th to combat terrorism. It was while serving in Deep Blue, Sestak told me after the Katrina remembrance rally, that he fully realized the importance of coordinating government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels -- groups that rarely communicate, much less collaborate.

I asked Sestak to comment on a New York Times report from August 16, which listed Philadelphia among cities still without proper emergency plans one year after Katrina. “I think it's representative of how the Bush administration and Congress have missed turning a crisis into an opportunity for overall preparedness,” Sestak claimed. “What happened in New Orleans could have galvanized us like after September 11th. We lost that opportunity by focusing on Iraq.”

Sestak believes we entered Afghanistan appropriately, but “took a left turn” into Iraq rather than providing the focus and resources necessary to help Afghanistan's economic infrastructure take root. Yet what actually prompted Sestak to retire from the military was personal rather than political. Around his left wrist, Sestak wears a bracelet of blue plastic jewels with the name of his five-year-old daughter, Alex. Last summer, Alex made the bracelet for him prior to undergoing the first of three operations to have a glioblastoma removed from her brain. Sestak hasn't taken the bracelet off since. He made it clear that Alex is his number one priority, as he and his wife Susan spent four months living in the oncology ward of the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., while Alex survived three surgical procedures and chemotherapy.

In the midst of this family crisis, Curt Weldon, the long-time 7th-District incumbent Sestak is hoping to unseat in November, attacked Sestak and the care he provided for Alex. In an April issue of The Hill, Weldon criticized Sestak for not bringing his daughter to a hospital in Pennsylvania or Delaware instead. Weldon also disapproved of Sestak's decision to continue renting his home in Pennsylvania while living in Virginia and working at the Pentagon. Many observers agree that Weldon's comments backfired significantly. (Alex is in remission now, and the cancer hasn't returned. In fact, Alex often accompanies her father to campaign headquarters. Sestak calls her his best campaigner. “Last Friday night,” he beamed, “she made us all march out to the ice cream place and lined us all up…she's very much an admiral.”)

Sestak believes that his military career will garner support from his constituency, and that 7th-District citizens are unhappy with Weldon for voting in virtual lockstep with the president in recent years. (The district itself went narrowly to Gore in 2000, and then again to Kerry in 2004, but has been under Weldon's control since 1987.) Weldon renewed his support for the Iraq war as recently as this past June, when he voted to reject a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. In the past, Weldon has also voted for Bush's tax breaks and against embryonic stem cell research.

Sestak is calling for troop redeployment from Iraq within the year while sustaining American economic and political support in the region. By disengaging from Iraq, Sestak alleges our country could easily afford to screen all air cargo and shipping containers that come across our borders. Beyond security questions, Sestak feels we must improve our health care, education system, and economy. “After all,” he said, “our military is only as good as the youth coming in.”

Like Sestak, Patrick Murphy's outlook on issues was shaped by his military experience. Murphy is only 32, yet he has already been a professor at West Point and a successful federal prosecutor, and has served two tours as a lawyer with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. He has a boyish face that lights up when he discusses his agenda, which includes acting on stem cell research and raising the minimum wage within the first 100 hours in office. “We'll all drink a lot of coffee,” Murphy laughed, “and we'll keep drinking it, but we just need this opportunity.”

Murphy is currently campaigning for Pennsylvania's 8th district seat out of a shabby office along a stretch of Bristol Pike in Levittown that also features strip clubs, adult video stores, and tattoo parlors. A police officer insisted on escorting me to Murphy's headquarters from the nearby train station because he didn't want me walking past “meth-head hangouts.” Inside Murphy's office, however, lies a sanctum of young, enthusiastic campaigners, who, like Murphy, are working tirelessly to unseat the recently elected incumbent, Mike Fitzpatrick.

Murphy boasts a brash and idealistic demeanor. Back in December, he was one of the first Democratic candidates to come out with a twelve-month redeployment plan calling for 50,000 troops to return home in the first six months and another 50,000 at the end of the year. He praises fellow Pennsylvanian John Murtha for his vocal opposition to the war. “Knowing that Murtha was going to get attacked,” Murphy said, “he still spoke with the voice of many veterans and some of the top brass in the Pentagon that haven't been able to speak.” Part of Murphy's redeployment strategy incorporates Murtha's notion of a strategic strike force -- 20-30,000 troops remaining in the region to train Iraqis and serve as deterrents.

The decision to run for Congress came after Murphy witnessed the loss of 19 members of his combat brigade. He was stationed in an area about the size of Philadelphia containing approximately 1.5 million Iraqis. Whereas his father worked for 22 years in the Philadelphia police department with 7,000 police officers, Murphy served in Iraq with only 3,500 troops, in a war zone where they didn't speak the same language.

“So when I heard members of this administration say that if commanders on the ground ask for more troops, we'll give them more troops,” Murphy explained, “I knew that we absolutely needed people to stand up and speak truth to power…During a time of war, when our government isn't fully funding VA benefits,” he declared, “when our military is literally broken, we need veterans to go down [to Washington] that will support both our military and our veterans alike.”

Murphy then told me about the driver in his convoy, making $17,000 a year with a wife and two kids at home. “While we were in the middle of Baghdad in 138º heat,” he said, “the administration was trying to cut a couple hundred bucks a month in our combat pay. Actions speak louder than words, and that's certainly something I'm not going to forget.” Roughly 60,000 veterans live in Murphy's district, comprising a tenth of his constituency.

Like Sestak, Murphy is running against an opponent who claims not to stand with the president anymore, though only a few months ago Fitzpatrick's position on the war was stay the course. One of the major critiques of Democrats since the 2004 election has been that they have yet to offer concrete alternatives to the Republican agenda. Sestak and Murphy are two Congressional candidates who, unlike their opponents, are at least clear on their issues. And indeed, that's a step beyond not only the Republican incumbents, but also the military veteran-candidates that Democrats have produced in the last few election cycles (a certain presidential contender most prominently), who've arguably suffered from a desire to rely overly on biography alone. Sestak and Murphy's military expertise lends them gravitas and provides them with a context for articulating positions and approaches to issues. But they both have ideology and substance that go beyond their military prowess. Call it the evolution of the fighting Dems.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a graduate student at The New School and a regular contributor to AlterNet.

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