In California, Popaditch is making his second run for Congress — but were it not for a rocket-propelled grenade, he'd most likely still be wearing a uniform.
The son of a Korean War veteran, Popaditch turned down a college scholarship to join the Marines. In the first Gulf War, he commanded a tank during the invasion of Iraq. He left the Marines after six years, but re-enlisted in 1995 and went through training as a drill instructor. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Popaditch asked to be reassigned to tanks.
He took part in the second Iraq invasion in 2003. On April 7, 2004, his tank was struck by an RPG, shrapnel carving a path through his sinuses and destroying his right eye. His actions earned him a Silver Star and a Purple Heart but cost him his career.
Like former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and other wounded vets before him, Popaditch used the GI Bill to go back to school. Last year, he graduated magna cum laude from San Diego State University with a degree in teaching.
Misgivings about the country’s direction troubled Popaditch while an undergraduate, prompting his unsuccessful 2010 congressional race. He has put his studies toward a master’s on hold this year to run again.
‘‘I think things are slipping,’’ he says. ‘‘And they will continue to slip if we don’t get involved.’’
Tom Cotton, the Republican nominee in Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District race, compared his decision to run with his decision to join the Army in 2005.
‘‘At that time, it was an attack from a foreign enemy, and we were in an active war. And now we’re in a debt crisis that threatens our future prosperity and, therefore, ultimately freedom,’’ says Cotton, 35, who declined a commission as a legal officer to go into the infantry.
Cotton served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, then left a position as a management consultant to run for office. He says the skills he developed in the military have served him well in the business world, as well as on the campaign trail.
‘‘The constant ability to prioritize and reprioritize tasks, to work with imperfect information, to handle ambiguity, to build coalitions to reach a common goal,’’ says Cotton, who defeated a fellow veteran in his primary race. ‘‘Being part of a team and helping lead a team by purpose and motivation and direction so it can accomplish more than the individual could accomplish on his or her own.’’
For many veteran-candidates, their military service is front and center — but that carries risks.
Running against Cotton for the open 4th District seat is longtime Arkansas state Sen. Gene Jeffress, a retired school teacher.
‘‘I appreciate ALL of our veterans, and I respect them,’’ says Jeffress. ‘‘But I think it’s been overdone. If he (Cotton) hadn’t have had that, I don’t know what else he would have had to run on.’’
In Illinois, Duckworth’s opponent, Republican incumbent Rep. Joe Walsh, said her service — which cost her both legs and partial use of one arm — demands respect. ‘‘However,’’ he added, ‘‘unlike most veterans I have had the honor to meet since my election to Congress, who rarely, if ever, talk about their service or the combat they've seen, that is darn near all of what Tammy Duckworth talks about.’’
Lynn says the ‘‘single biggest pitfall’’ veteran candidates face is overestimating the power of the war-service narrative. The ‘‘Candidate’s Field Manual’’ developed for Veterans Campaign hammers that point home.
John F. Kennedy’s World War II heroics after the sinking of PT 109 might have helped him in the close 1960 presidential race against Richard Nixon, but George McGovern’s bombing runs over Europe in same war didn’t lift him over Nixon in 1972, the manual notes. By the same token, allegations of draft dodging and preferential treatment during the Vietnam War didn’t stop Bill Clinton and George W. Bush from becoming two-term presidents.
Vietnam veteran John Kerry’s failed 2004 presidential campaign introduced a new verb to the political lexicon: to be ‘‘swiftboated,’’ a reference to the members of his river boat crew who came out to question his war record.
‘‘A DD-214 (military discharge form) is not an ironclad guarantee to winning office,’’ the manual says — but it adds that military credentials, ‘‘wielded with care,’’ can help.
‘‘All things being equal,’’ says Lynn, ‘‘being a veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars today is a greater benefit to a politician than being a veteran of Vietnam 40 years ago.’’
Mark Cardenas, who recently won his Arizona state House Democratic primary and is unopposed in the general election, was reluctant to play off his veteran status.Continued...