Military service, at one time, was “practically a requirement for serving in Congress,” Drew DeSilver of the Pew Research Center wrote in 2013. But thatera is gone, making the race for northeast Indiana’s U.S. House seat an anomaly.
Republican Rep. Jim Banks and Democratic challenger Chip Coldiron deployed to Afghanistan during the U.S.-led war against Taliban insurgents there. Banks is in the Navy Reserve, and Coldiron was in the Army.
The number of military veterans on Capitol Hill has fallen sharply in the past half-century. In 1967, according to the Brookings Institution’s exhaustive “Vital Statistics on Congress,” 399 members of the House and Senate – or 75% – were veterans. Last year, only 95 federal lawmakers – or 18% – were.
Michael Wolf, a political scientist at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said the decline coincided with the establishment of an all-volunteer military in 1973.
Wolf said research has shown voters associate “positive character traits” – service, duty, leadership and discipline – with political candidates who are veterans. Those traits make candidates “more likely to be taken seriously in the nomination process” and allow veterans “to emerge as competitive candidates,” he said through email.
He mentioned three U.S. senators whose military backgrounds boosted their candidacies in recent years: Republicans Joni Ernst of Iowa and Martha McSally of Arizona and Democrat Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. McSally was appointed to a vacated seat.
But positive views voters might have of a candidate with military service are “likely muted by the rise in the unwillingness of partisans to support the other side and frankly to acknowledge positive traits” of an election rival, Wolf said.
The contest between second-term lawmaker Banks and Coldiron, both 41, in Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District is something of a throwback to the election battles for the same seat between E. Ross Adair and J. Edward Roush, who had been Army infantry officers in Europe during World War II.
Adair, a Republican living in Fort Wayne, and Roush, a Democrat from Huntington, were House members who found themselves in the same district for the 1968 election, thanks to nationwide legislative redistricting ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Adair won but was unseated by Roush in their 1970 rematch.
Banks is favored to win reelection Nov. 3 in a district that has not sent a Democrat to the House since its 1993-94 session. Political analysts Cook Political Report and Inside Elections rate the district as “solid” Republican, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it as “safe” Republican. Banks has a huge financial advantage, raising more than $1 million in campaign contributions and having $390,047 in cash on hand as of Sept. 30, compared with $61,236 in contributions and $28,047 in cash for Coldiron.
Banks is a Supply Corps officer in the Navy Reserve. When the Columbia City resident was a commercial real estate broker and member of the Indiana Senate, he deployed to Afghanistan for eight months in 2014 and 2015. He was stationed in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and also traveled to other parts of the country.
As part of a joint forces unit called Foreign Military Sales, Banks helped acquire and transfer vehicles including Humvees, MRAPS, motorcycles, cars and pickup trucks to Afghan troops and police.
“I was never in a combat situation, but you would often hear a blast and then you’d find out a little bit later. … I can remember we heard the blast and then we found out that it was the highest-ranking enlisted member of our unit, the sergeant major, who was killed,” Banks said in an interview.
He was in Afghanistan in December 2014 when the U.S. ended major combat operations that had begun in 2001 and switched from the war footing of Operation Enduring Freedom to Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, which supports Afghan security forces and fights terrorism.
Coldiron, a Norwell High School science teacher from Ossian, enlisted in the Army in 2005 after graduating from college. He said he “wanted to choose to make sure I was in the infantry and that I was the one being first ones in, so to speak.”
Coldiron said he deployed to Afghanistan twice in 2006-07 and 2009-10 for a total of 28 months. His first deployment was in southeast Afghanistan, and his second was outside Kandahar in the south-central part of the country.
“I was a mortarman, specifically,” he said. “I would be about a half a mile behind (other troops), and we would direct fire wherever they needed it to go.” He said his mortar squad used a weapon with a much greater range during his second deployment.
Coldiron and Banks said their military service and deployments helped shape their views on U.S. military policy.
“I’ve seen firsthand the importance of America being a global leader. … It means working to put the interests of not only our country but the entire world at the forefront. When we approach this idea of America first, which a lot of the Republicans want to try to go down that avenue right now, we end up alienating a lot of our allies,” Coldiron said.
He said the U.S. should continue to help Afghanistan and Iraq, and he criticized President Donald Trump for withdrawing forces from Syria.
“We need to make sure we are out there on the front lines, and we are out there making sure that we are continuing to protect our interests globally and helping to back up our allies as much as possible. And that doesn’t mean (troops) have to be continually deployed. … You can invest assets in CIA or just diplomatic relations,” he said.
“But making sure we have presence throughout the world is the No. 1 thing that we need to do. Because we have really lost our place in the world in the last four years, and we are starting to fall behind in global leadership,” Coldiron said.
Banks called his deployment “an eye-opening life experience of going through what so many others go through and who go through multiple times and mobilizing and leaving their family, going down range, serving in a difficult and challenging environment.”
He said he gained perspective that helped him “become a better member” of the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees, which he hopes “to serve on for a long time to come.” Banks said he has a greater understanding of veteran suicides, for example, and has become a leader on both committees because of his military service.
He is the highest ranking Republican and former chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on technology modernization. He also co-chairs the Armed Services Committee’s Future of Defense Task Force.
The U.S., Banks said, has shifted “from being 100% focused on fighting the war on terror” to understand that China and Russia, and to a lesser degree Iran and North Korea, pose “the generational competition that matters most to our national security.”