Double Duty: Legislators Who Also Serve in the Military Often Find a New Way of Looking at Representative Democracy

By Clark, Gary | State Legislatures, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Double Duty: Legislators Who Also Serve in the Military Often Find a New Way of Looking at Representative Democracy


Clark, Gary, State Legislatures


For South Carolina Representative James E. Smith Jr., service to his country took on additional meaning after Sept. 11, 2001.

Smith, who had been a state legislator and military lawyer, visited Ground Zero in New York and was so moved by what he saw that he resigned his officer's commission several years later and joined the infantry--at age 37. He eventually served in remote areas of Afghanistan training local anti-terrorist police.

For Illinois Representative Jim Watson, service to country also took an extraordinary turn. After serving in the U.S. Marines from 1985 to 1991, Watson re-enlisted in 2007, paid his own way to train with a Marine reserve unit, and eventually found himself advising the Al-Anbar Provincial Council in Iraq about democracy and proper legislative procedures.

"To see what they went through to build some type of democracy changed my opinion" about legislative service, Watson says. "It made you value it a lot more."

Smith, whose family has a long history of military service, agrees. "My colleagues see there are some changes" in his approach to politics in the South Carolina legislature. "I don't sweat the small stuff as much as I used to."

Smith and Watson are among a small group of state legislators who also serve in their state's National Guard or Reserve units. And a number of them have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

A series of annual surveys taken by Hawaii Representative K. Mark Takai since 2006 have attempted to quantify these lawmaker-soldiers. Takai's latest survey, released in August 2008, found 73 state legislators who also serve in Reserve or National Guard units, with 35 having been deployed to another country.

The dual public service roles played by these legislators, in some cases, have had a profound impact on them personally, and on their views of both military and legislative service. Others see their military service as another civic duty and an important part of their lives.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

For Missouri Representative Jason Brown, the risks of dual service were made crystal clear in October 2006 when he was shot in the lung while on patrol near Baghdad. After a brief convalescence in Missouri, he returned to Iraq to complete his military deployment. The lawmaker still serves in the Missouri legislature.

Colorado Representative Joe Rice, a 42-year-old who joined the military at 17 and was deployed to Iraq for the fourth time this past summer, says his military service has helped him as a legislator.

"You certainly keep things in better perspective," he says.

Takai, who was deployed this past summer as base operations officer for Camp Patriot in Kuwait, said legislators who also serve in the military see things from a different perspective.

"We are advocates," Takai says. "We're advocates for the military and, more important, for the families of those who are serving in harm's way."

'A PROFOUND IMPACT'

Takai's survey determined that 36 legislatures have at least one member in the military, and 28 legislators had been activated for long-term duty, considered more than 139 days. Of the 73 legislators serving in the military in 2008, 46 were Republicans and 27 were Democrats.

"There's urgency on the part of my colleagues who serve in the military to provide as much as we can," Takai says.

For Smith, that urgency kicked in after his visit to Ground Zero. "It had a profound impact on me," he says.

He and his family talked about it often in the following years. "I prayed about it a lot," Smith says.

He decided his service as a military lawyer wasn't enough. His prayers eventually led him down a different path. "We decided I could better serve in the infantry," he says.

A four-star general told Smith that the process required him to resign his officer's commission and take basic infantry training. …

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