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Perry on Politics: Service Matters

Published by Tim McNulty on .

Dole salute

By James M. Perry

Once there were scores. Now there are only four members of Congress who served in the armed forces in World War II -- Sens. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Reps. John Dingell Jr. of Michigan and Ralph Hall of Texas.

And with Sen. Akaka retiring next month, there will be only three.

Only Mr. Hall, 89, saw combat in World War II. He was a Navy aircraft carrier pilot. Mr. Akaka was a welder with the Army Engineers on Saipan and Tinian and Mr. Lautenberg was in the Signal Corps in Europe. Mr. Dingell says he was scheduled to take part in the invasion of Japan and might have been killed if President Truman hadn't dropped those two atomic bombs.

The other member of Congress to see combat in World War II was Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a Medal of Honor winner, who died Dec. 17.

In 1975, more than 70 percent of the 535 members of Congress had served in the military. Only 20 percent of the members of the new Congress taking office in January have worn their country's uniform -- 25 in the Senate and 90 in the House. That's the lowest percentage since the end of World War II.

Is it significant?

I think so.

"Having members in Congress with military experience is crucial to effective civilian control of the military," Seth Lynn, executive director of Veterans Campaign, an organization that trains veterans to seek political office, told CNN's Jennifer Rizzo.

Nine presidents since World War II also have served in the military -- Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Our last three presidents -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- didn't serve, though the younger Bush was a member of the Texas Air National Guard.

I can't prove it, but I believe that serving in the military tends to broaden a person's view of his fellow man (or, these days, woman). A soldier in combat doesn't really care about the politics of the rest of the men in his platoon.

Phil HartI'm sure thousands of rabid Republicans made connections with thousands of yellow-dog Democrats. I'm pretty certain most of them would be outraged by the petty behavior of both parties in Congress today.

Consider the war service of Sens. Inouye, Robert Dole and Philip Hart.

Lt. Col. Hart (left), who died in 1976, came ashore on Utah Beach on D-Day with the 4th Infantry Division and suffered shrapnel wounds to his right side and right arm. Mr. Dole, a young officer with the 10th Mountain Division, was badly wounded and lost the use of his right arm in fierce fighting in Italy. Inouye, a platoon leader in the all-Nisei 442d Regimental Combat Team, stormed three German machine gun nests and destroyed them all. He was grievously wounded and lost his right arm.

The three of them were treated at Percy Jones Army Hospital, named since 2003 the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center, in Battle Creek, Mich.

Politico's David Rogers, a Vietnam veteran, said years later that Mr. Dole would break into tears talking of that time, and how much Inouye had meant to him.

"He's a Democrat, and I'm a Republican, but parties didn't make any difference," Mr. Dole told Mr. Rogers. "He was wounded a week from the day I was and a mile from the place I was wounded, and we ended up in the same hospital. Danny weighed 93 pounds."

On Thursday Mr. Dole, in failing health, paid his respects to his old friend, lying in state in the Capitol rotunda.

Inouye

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

A version of this column appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Dec. 24, 2012, Post-Gazette.

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