Halfway around the world from Iraq, an important battle is taking place in America. This fight involves no IEDs or M4 rifles. It’s a war of words that has sparked heated discussions at both dinner tables and in the halls of Congress.
As this debate intensifies, military veterans are increasingly speaking out and engaging in political activism. Veterans’ groups supporting and opposing the war have set their sights on Army Gen. David Petraeus’ congressional testimony in September as a crucial moment for their cause.
For the anti-war left, an organization called VoteVets.org has taken Capitol Hill by storm. Jon Soltz, the group’s co-founder and chairman, is a frequent guest on cable TV, a contributor to the liberal Huffington Post and an outspoken critic of the war at left-wing conferences such as YearlyKos. His service during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003—and subsequent criticism of U.S. military intervention in Iraq—has earned him a strong following on the left.
Soltz’s organization, which represents anti-war veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, until recently enjoyed a one-sided conversation in Washington, D.C. That’s partly where another veteran of the Iraq war, Pete Hegseth, found the inspiration to speak out in favor of military’s mission.
Realizing there was no equivalent to VoteVets.org, Hegseth took charge of a group called Vets for Freedom. The organization was founded in 2006 and ran an ad supporting Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman during the Democrat primary, but it hadn’t been nearly as active as its liberal counterpart. When Hegseth became its leader, he knew Vets for Freedom needed to activate veterans in advance of Petraeus’ visit to Washington.
His solution was a campaign called “10 Weeks to Testimony,” an effort by Vets for Freedom to engage veterans who supported the war in Iraq and opposed pulling out the troops until their mission was complete. Each week the organization sends its growing list of members—now totaling approximately 15,000—a message about how they can become involved and speak out in support of U.S. troops.
During the month of August, with Congress on recess and Capitol Hill quiet, activity has been focused in congressional districts across the country. Hegseth has asked his 15,000 supporters, about 7,000 of whom are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to write a letter to the editor, start a blog or talk to friends and family about what’s at stake in Iraq.
“The silent majority of vets are waking up to the realization that Congress could pull the rug out from underneath all of their efforts and undermine the mission of the troops still in Iraq,” Hegseth said.
Last week members of Congress got a taste of what to expect from Vets for Freedom come September. The organization staged a call-in day on Thursday that served as a prelude to a Capitol Hill visit that’s planned for Sept. 17-18. With anti-war activists descending on Washington at the same time to stage rallies in conjunction with Petraeus’ testimony, Hegseth said his organization will be ready to counter with a different message—one of support for the military and the mission in Iraq.
In the meantime, Vets for Freedom is working to spread news about the surge strategy in advance of Petraeus’ visit. The group has teamed with blogger Jeff Emanuel, an Iraq war veteran who is spending two months in Iraq to report on military’s campaign in Baghdad and other parts of the country. Emanuel, who visited the country as an embedded reporter in April, said he wanted to go back to Iraq because of the political debate taking place in America.While not every veteran will follow the same route as Emanuel, the goal is to motivate as many as possible to become engaged in the political process, either by writing about their war experience or voicing their views to members of Congress. Liberals have already proven their success with VoteVets.org, which has a full-fledged political wing that has endorsed anti-war Democrats. Hegseth’s operation may still be maturing—recently airing TV ads in five states—but he’s confident that the “silent majority” will triumph in the end.