WASHINGTON – As Tammy Duckworth sees it, her path to Congress began when she awoke in the fall of 2004 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She was missing both of her legs and faced the prospect of losing her right arm.
Months of agonizing therapy lay ahead. As the highest-ranking double amputee in the ward, Maj. Duckworth became the go-to person for soldiers complaining of substandard care and bureaucratic ambivalence.
Soon, she was pleading their cases to federal lawmakers, including her state's two U.S. senators at the time – Democrats Dick Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois. Obama arranged for her to testify at congressional hearings. Durbin encouraged her to run for office.
She lost her first election, but six years later gave it another try and now is one of nine veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who will serve in next year's freshman class in the of House of Representatives.
Veterans' groups say the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is welcome because it comes at a time when the overall number of veterans in Congress is on a steep and steady decline. In the mid-1970s, the vast majority of lawmakers tended to be veterans.
For example, the 95th Congress, which served in 1977-78, had more than 400 veterans among its 535 members, according to the American Legion. The number of veterans next year in Congress will come to just more than 100. Most served during the Vietnam War era. In all, 16 served in Iraq or Afghanistan, not all in a combat role.
"We're losing about a half a million veterans a year in this country," said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America. "We are not going to be in a world where a significant plurality of people spent some time in the military, so to have 16 men and women who fought in this current Congress is incredibly significant."
Tarantino said he recognizes that the 16 Iraq and Afghanistan vets have wide-ranging political views. But at the end of the day, he said, their shared experiences make it more likely they'll put political differences aside on issues like high unemployment and suicide rates among returning veterans, or in ensuring that veterans get a quality education through the post-9/11 GI bill.
Their election victories also provide a sense of assurance to veterans.
"The biggest fear we have as veterans is that the America people are going to forget us," Tarantino said. "When you have an 11-year sustained war, the fight doesn't end when you pull out."
Duckworth carries the highest profile of the incoming vets. She was co-piloting a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade landed in her lap, ripping off one leg and crushing the other. At Walter Reed, she worried about what life as a double amputee had in store. But during her recovery, she found a new mission – taking care of those she describes as her military brothers and sisters. That mission led her to a job as an assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs during Obama's first term.
"Had I not been in combat, my life would have never taken this path. You take the path that comes in front of you," Duckworth said from a wheelchair last week as she and her fellow freshmen went through orientation at the Capitol. "For me, I try to live every day honoring the men who carried me out of that field because they could have left me behind, and they didn't."
Duckworth is one of two freshmen Democrats who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The other is Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who served near Baghdad for a year and was a medical operations specialist. Gabbard said she hopes the two of them can be a voice for female veterans and the unique challenges they face.
About 8 percent of veterans are women. They tend to be younger on average. Nearly one in five seen by the Department of Veterans Affairs responds yes when screened for military sexual trauma.
Seven Republicans served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Most had backing from tea party supporters who share their views that the size and scope of the federal government should be curtailed.
• Ron DeSantis of Florida was a judge advocate officer in the Navy who deployed to Iraq as a legal adviser during the 2007 troop surge.
• Brad Wenstrup of Ohio was as a combat surgeon in Iraq.
• Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan served in an administrative capacity with an artillery unit in Iraq and retired after suffering a neck injury. He also served as an infantry rifleman in Vietnam.
• Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma was a combat pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• Scott Perry of Pennsylvania commanded an aviation battalion in Iraq in 2009 and 2010.
• Doug Collins of Georgia was a chaplain in Iraq.
• Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Harvard Law School graduate, was an infantry platoon leader in Iraq and then was on a reconstruction team in Afghanistan. In between, he was a platoon leader at Arlington National Cemetery.
Cotton said the reason he ran for Congress is the same one that led him to enter the Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"I felt we had been attacked for who we are – the home of freedom," Cotton said. "And I worry now our liberty is threatened at home by the debt crisis we face, which in the long term will mean less prosperity and less opportunity, and therefore less liberty."
Cotton said he could easily see himself working with Duckworth and Gabbard on veteran's issues. "They've carried a heavy load and we owe them a great debt," he said.
At the same time, it's clear the freshmen veterans have clear differences of opinion over policy matters. For example, Gabbard is a strong critic of the war in Afghanistan. She says the United States needs to get out as quickly and safely as possible. Cotton opposes setting timetables for withdrawal.
"We're trying to win a counter-insurgency war where we can put a friendly, allied, stable government in place," Cotton said. "It's certainly been a long and somewhat winding road, but on the whole, America and our interests in the world are much better off for having waged the war in Afghanistan."
There also will be differences over spending priorities. Cotton is reluctant to trim spending on defense as a way to deal with the deficit.
Duckworth said certain programs need close examination, particularly in the area of government contracts. She said she "can actually stand up and talk about defense spending in a way that will be realistic without being attacked for lack of patriotism or not being strong on defense."