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How a new generation of war veterans wants to shape military policy

The new Congress has the fewest military veterans since World War II, but recent veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are on the rise. What priorities do they bring to Capitol Hill? Judy Woodruff talks to Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former Air Force colonel and pilot, and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a retired Marine captain.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to a different look at Capitol Hill.

    This new Congress has the fewest military veterans since World War II. In the years following, through the 1970s, as many as three-quarters of the members of Congress were veterans. But that started to drop after Vietnam, falling sharply in the '90s, and bringing us to today, where only 18 percent have served in the military.

    One element, however, has gone up, the number of recent veterans. Nearly half have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And for the first time, there are no World War II vets.

    Yesterday, I spoke with two newly elected recent veterans.

    Republican Representative Martha McSally of Arizona is a retired Air Force colonel and pilot who led fighter squadrons in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Democratic Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts is a retired Marine captain who served four tours in Iraq, including in a unit that was one of the first to go in, in 2003.

    Representative Moulton, Representative McSally, welcome to both of you.

    REP. MARTHA MCSALLY, (R) Arizona: Thank you.

    REP. SETH MOULTON, (D) Massachusetts: Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, Representative McSally, you supported the idea of the war in Iraq. How do you think your service in that war affected your decision to run for Congress?

  • REP. MARTHA MCSALLY:

    Well, I think like many veterans, I stepped up to serve and run for Congress because I was frustrated with the direction the country's going, and I'm not going to be someone who complains about something without doing my part to fix it.

    So, you know, we come from the core values of integrity first and service before self and excellence, doing what's best for the country, and stepping in now to serve in a new way because there's so much at stake. I think having more veterans in Congress with national security experience, with the decisions that we have in front of us, is really important, and so it was really about serving the country in a new way.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Representative Moulton, you had problems with the decision to go to war in Iraq, and yet you did serve four tours of duty. How do you think your service affected the decision to run for Congress?

  • REP. SETH MOULTON:

    Well, I wouldn't have run for Congress if not for my service in Iraq. I am not someone who grew up wanting to get into politics or wanting to be a congressman.

    But I was in a war where I saw the consequences of failed leadership in Washington. I think Congress didn't know what they were doing when they got us into Iraq. And they didn't have our backs while we were there. And I remember a day in 2004, in Najaf, when a young Marine in my platoon, at the end of a tough day, looked up me and said, you know, sir, you ought to run for Congress some day, so that this doesn't happen again.

    So that really underlies why I'm here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, Representative McSally, if you could pick up on that and what you said earlier, what do you think you bring as a veteran that other members of — of this war that you think other members of Congress might not bring?

  • REP. MARTHA MCSALLY:

    Well, we bring the firsthand experience, having been deployed.

    I have had six deployments to combat zones. We know what it's like out there. We know the challenges in dealing with the extremists that are growing around the world. The threat is actually getting greater. We know what it's like to be in the military and making sure that we have got the training, the readiness and equipment.

    We're seeing now the implications of cookie-cutter cuts to the defense in sequestration. And so we bring that perspective of, we have got to make sure we have a military that can defend against the threats that we face and also the larger national security experience of how to address these in a very complex world, where it's more dangerous than I have seen in my lifetime. It's very important to have that experience here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Representative Moulton, what do you think you bring? And I have read that you have been — you have been quoted as saying you didn't come to Washington to be one of them, to be like other members of Congress. What did you mean by that?

  • REP. SETH MOULTON:

    Well, I mean, I'm bringing a fresh perspective.

    And I'm bringing the perspective of a veteran, someone who has been on the ground fighting these extremists, someone who understands what we're asking of our 18- and 19-year-old kids when we ask them to put their lives on the line to defend our country. The Congress' most sacred responsibility is making sure that if we put young Americans in harm's way, we only do it after exhausting every other alternative.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, Representative McSally, you were mentioning the Pentagon. You were mentioning defense spending a minute ago. How do you think the priorities of the Defense Department should change?

  • REP. MARTHA MCSALLY:

    Well, again, right now, what we have are really cookie-cutter cuts that are across the board without any thought about a strategy-based budget, instead of a budget-based strategy.

    So we have got lots of threats that are around the world and new ones that are popping up, to include the cyber-threat and others. We have got state sponsors of terror in Iran that are marching towards a nuclear weapon. We have got to be able to have a military that can prevent any sort of attacks on America and can defend America's interests and defend Americans.

    And we need to right-size that military. And we shouldn't be playing political games with them. There are ways to gain efficiencies in the Department of Defense. I have been there. I know where some of them are. And so, on the Armed Services Committee, I'm going to be working to make sure we gain those efficiencies, but we're not playing politics with those men and women in uniform and their ability to defend us.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Representative Moulton, you are also on the House Armed Services Committee. How do you see the priorities for the Pentagon in the next two years?

  • REP. SETH MOULTON:

    Well, I agree with Representative McSally.

    Sequestration is a terrible idea. It's mandating across-the-board cuts, with no thoughtfulness given to where we need to invest and where we need to cut. There are a lot of inefficiencies in the Department of Defense. I have seen them firsthand as well, but there are also places where we need to invest.

    And at the end of the day, we have got to make sure our young men and women on the front lines have all the things that they need.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What are you hearing, Representative Moulton, from your fellow service members about what they look for from Washington right now?

  • REP. SETH MOULTON:

    They look for leadership. They look for people who are not just going to play political games, but really get the work done for the American people.

    I was elected on a mandate to work across the aisle, to rise above this hyper-partisanship that has so defined Congress in the last 10 years. And that's the spirit we had in the military. You know, in my platoon, I had Marines are from all over the country, from Massachusetts and Vermont, from Texas and Alabama, from a gated community outside of Park City Utah and from inner-city Brooklyn, New York.

    We came together with remarkably different backgrounds, different religious beliefs, different political beliefs. But, at the end of the day, we were able to set aside those differences to do what's best for America. And, fundamentally, I think that's what Americans expect of Congress as well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Representative McSally, would you say your fellow service members look to you, also, to work across the aisle?

  • REP. MARTHA MCSALLY:

    Oh, absolutely.

    They're looking for leadership as well, and they're looking for us to bring our experience as veterans and our mind-set to actually solve the nation's problems and get things done. You know, you are never allowed to deploy to the war you want to be in. You're deploying to the war you're in.

    And so this is not about ideology and those kinds of struggles. We are very solution-oriented in the military. We figure out how to pragmatically work together to get the job done, work over obstacles, and have the mission to defend America. And so just that mind-set of a veteran is about service, is about getting the mission done, and working together to make that happen, finding common ground, things that unite us, instead of things that divide us.

    So I think having more veterans here with that mind-set is going to be important for this next Congress.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Representative Martha McSally of Arizona. Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, we thank you both.

    And, again, congratulations.

  • REP. MARTHA MCSALLY:

    Thank you.

  • REP. SETH MOULTON:

    Thanks very much.

    That was great.

  • REP. MARTHA MCSALLY:

    Good.

  • REP. SETH MOULTON:

    Thank you.

  • REP. MARTHA MCSALLY:

    Yes, sure.

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