Veterans answer a new call to service

Times Staff Writer

Before the November congressional election fades into history, the Discovery Times Channel offers "Taking the Hill," a look at one of the election's defining features: the attempt of military veterans to bring their experience and passion to Washington.

They were, for the most part, underfunded and unknown, and many were running against incumbents. In military terms, theirs was a mission with a low probability of success.

And yet they trudged on, many out of a belief that the war in Iraq has been tragically mismanaged -- a view that is now common but in last spring's primary was considered heretical, even unpatriotic, in some regions of the country.

Brent and Craig Renaud, makers of "Off to War," a look at the soldiers and family members of the Arkansas National Guard, have followed four Democratic candidates in their battle.

If "Taking the Hill" lacks the poignancy of "Off to War," it still delivers its own goods: four earnest candidates on the back roads of American politics seeking the money and media attention needed to win.

The best known was Tammy Duckworth, an Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs when her Black Hawk was shot down. She says her run for office is a kind of payback for the soldiers and medics who saved her life.

"I've got to be worthy of the second chance they gave me," she says.

The candidates assaulted Washington in a loose coalition called Band of Brothers 2006, organized by an Army veteran, Mike Lyon. Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a wounded Vietnam War veteran, was an enthusiastic and tireless mentor out of his concern about Iraq.

"I'm seeing Vietnam all over again, and I know how this movie turns out," he says.

Were the four candidates followed by "Taking the Hill" better qualified than their opponents? The documentary does not try to decide: That's not the point.

The moral of the program may be that because a military background is no longer a widely shared experience among the American populace, its cachet as a political asset may have declined to the point of near extinction.

Still, an argument could be made that the military veterans helped change the tenor of the debate, both in their districts and in the country.

Eric Massa, a retired Navy commander running in rural New York, called the Iraq war "the single largest strategic blunder in the history of our nation."

And Patrick Murphy, who served in Iraq with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, said of the Iraqis, "Until we turn this battle space over to them, they're going to stand on the sidelines." The line could easily have come from the Iraq Study Group's analysis.

Of the four candidates, only Murphy won, defeating an incumbent in Bucks County, Pa.

"Sometimes Mr. Smith doesn't go to Washington," Massa said.

No, but his children are often sent to the front lines.



'Taking the Hill'

Where: Discovery Times Channel

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

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