A decade of war is ushering in the largest crop yet of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to serve in Congress, marking something of a changing of the guard as World War II veterans all but disappear from Capitol Hill.
The new class of former servicemen--and two women--comes as the ranks of veterans overall in Congress dwindles. Some 16 members of the incoming 113th Congress to be sworn in this week served in Afghanistan or Iraq, according to data from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Nine are new members.
Rep.-elect Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) believes this is just the beginning of a wave of service members from Afghanistan and Iraq likely to pursue congressional office in coming years. These veterans "are still entering the sweet spot of their professional life," said Mr. Cotton.
Raised on a cattle farm, Mr. Cotton, 35 years old, earned a law degree at Harvard Law School. He left his private practice to volunteer as an Army infantryman and served as a platoon leader in Baghdad. Later, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
Even with the influx of new veterans, the next Congress will include the fewest number of former service members in decades, according to data from the American Legion. In 1977's 95th Congress, 412 members had served in the military. In the 113th Congress, that number will drop to 103, including six from the Korean War and 52 from the Vietnam War era.
During the past decade of war, fewer than 1% of Americans have been on active duty, a sharp contrast with the 9% who served at the time of World War II, when there was a military draft. "Maybe it's an appropriate representation," said Rep.-elect Scott Perry (R., Pa.), 50, who enlisted in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and served in Iraq for a year.
In the 113th Congress, World War II veterans will have nearly disappeared. With the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D., Hawaii), only three remaining members served in that war: Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.) and Rep. Ralph Hall (R., Texas).
Louis Celli, the legislative director for the American Legion, said it can be a challenging transition from military service into politics. Many service members come from working-class families who don't have access to the fundraising networks necessary to run for political office.
"We have less people in Congress now that have a deeper understanding of the needs that our veterans have after they come back," Mr. Celli said. He pointed to continuing battles over benefits under Tricare, the health care program for military personnel and retirees, as an area where veterans' voices could make a difference.
As Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii) put it, there is value in "knowing what the cost of war really is." Ms. Gabbard, 31, will be one of the first female combat veterans in Congress, along with Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.), who flew combat missions in Iraq as a captain in the National Guard and lost both legs when her helicopter was hit by a grenade.
With so few veterans roaming the halls of Congress, newcomers may also gain quick authority on national security and foreign policy issues, Mr. Cotton said.
The military background helps "you understand in a more tactical and frontline sense the implications of the decisions we make in Washington," he said. "People experience domestic policy every day. That's not the case with foreign policy."
Even before the new Congress is sworn in, Mr. Cotton has begun wading into the national security fray. He recently penned an op-ed column slamming the prospect of former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska serving as the next secretary of defense. Mr. Cotton took issue with a 2006 column Mr. Hagel wrote, calling for a troop withdrawal in Iraq.
If nothing else, having served in combat can put Beltway traditions in better perspective. As incoming members groaned over the office lottery to determine where members would set up shop on the Hill, Mr. Cotton couldn't help thinking: "It could be worse. You could be under a poncho in an ice storm in the woods."
--Andrew Grossman contributed to this article.
Write to Sara Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared December 31, 2012, on page A7 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Congress's New Veteran Troop.