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Iraq, Afghanistan vets find a voice in Capitol

A nonprofit organization has become a powerful new player on Capitol Hill for the 1.8 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Some lobbyists come to Capitol Hill armed with PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets. Todd Bowers brought the rifle scope that saved his life.

He was on patrol outside Fallujah, Iraq, when his unit came under fire. Bowers, 29, a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, fired back. A sniper's bullet hit his scope, inches from his face.

So when members of Congress wanted to know why they should pass legislation that would reimburse service members for buying their own combat equipment, Bowers, 29, a staffer at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, pulled out the $600 piece of equipment his father had bought him before his second tour in Iraq. His scope, with the bullet still lodged in it, brought the war home.

The legislation passed.

The veterans' group might not have the budget or membership or fancy clients of some of the lobbying shops that line K Street. But its leaders, most of whom are younger than 30, are keenly aware of the problems their unique constituency faces -- post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, repeated tours -- a fact that has helped the fledgling nonprofit group become a powerful voice for the 1.8 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan on this Veterans Day.

With its ability to talk intimately about both the horror of combat and the difficulty of coming home to a society disconnected from it, the first nonpartisan organization dedicated to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has emerged as a key player on veterans issues on the Hill.

From the battlefields to halls of Congress
One of the group's biggest successes was helping to pass the Post-9/11 GI Bill, sponsored by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), while working alongside some of the other veterans groups such as Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"They have a lot of heart and are very passionate about the issues facing their fellow veterans," said Webb spokesman Kimberly Hunter.

Rep. Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs health subcommittee, said: "They definitely do have a lot of credibility, because they've dealt with these issues themselves, and it's fresh in their minds. They're literally fresh from the battlefield to the halls of Congress."

Today is a sort of coming-out party for the group, which was founded in 2004 by Iraq war veteran Paul Rieckhoff, now 33. The group, which has about 125,000 members, will unveil an ad campaign designed to reach out to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It has set up a Web site,, that is like a Facebook for veterans, designed to help them connect with one another, navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs and get information on programs such as the GI Bill.

As part of the outreach, the group has taken out print ads showing soldiers in combat and proclaiming: "99% of Americans have seen combat on TV. 1% of Americans have seen combat in Iraq or Afghanistan."

The campaign's motto illustrates the theme that the group says sets it apart from others composed largely of veterans of other wars: "We know where you're coming from."

IAVA's staff is largely made up of service members who know what it's like to be a modern-day veteran, home from war. When lobbying for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Bowers, IAVA's director of government affairs, told legislators and their staffs that he had to drop out of George Washington University because the current version of the bill did not cover the high cost of tuition.

In a congressional hearing two years ago on post-traumatic stress, Patrick Campbell, 30, a combat medic with the D.C. National Guard, tossed aside his prepared statement and told lawmakers about how one of his fellow soldiers had recently killed himself. Then, with his voice cracking, he said he would "tell you all a story I don't tell anyone."

His base in Iraq came under mortar fire. A civilian contractor was hit. "She had holes all over her body," he said. "Her intestines were sticking out. There was nothing we could do."

Grotesque, yes. But that's war, and Campbell, IAVA's legislative director, figured members of Congress needed to hear it.

The group is based in New York but opened a Washington office two years ago. At first, Campbell worked alone out of his apartment near Catholic University. A few months later, Bowers joined him, and the pair worked out of office space donated by the Blinded Veterans Association as they tried to navigate the halls of Congress, "put a face on the war and say, 'This is what it is like to have been in Iraq,' " said Vanessa Williamson, the group's policy director.

But it was difficult. "We didn't know any of the players down here," Campbell said.

Soon, though, they were getting in to see leaders of both parties and making regular appearances on cable television, advocating for veterans. The group's strategy has been to reach out to veterans using Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, and its Washington staff has grown to six.

Bringing recent experience to the issues
The organization has been careful to pick issues -- such as the GI Bill, set to be in place Aug. 1 -- that directly affect this generation of veterans. That is something that other veterans' groups, with hundreds of thousands of members from several wars, cannot do.

"They bring combat experience, recent combat experience, so when you're talking about PTSD or (traumatic brain injury) or how to reach this generation of vets, why not talk to people who just went through that?" said Eric Hilleman, deputy director of national legislative services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "That's a very powerful tool."

Bowers and Campbell have a personal stake in the legislation they lobby for, not just because they are veterans themselves but because both will probably be headed back to war early next year. Bowers's Marine Corps unit might be headed to Afghanistan, and Campbell's Guard unit could be going to Iraq.

Which is yet another way they are different from the people they meet on the Hill, Campbell said: "We're the only people at the table who are still deployable."