State lawmakers in reserves, guard get taste of war


POSTED: Tuesday, September 29, 2009

As mortar fire and rockets bombarded 1st Lt. Jonathan Paton's Iraq camp, he got an urgent call on his cell phone: He had won re-election.

“;There's all this drama going on outside, and this stupid thing started ringing right by me. It was the chair of our county party, and she said, 'You won, you won!'”; said Paton, a Republican Arizona state senator who has since been promoted to captain. “;I had to pretend everything was fine. I didn't want to sound like I was going to die.”;

Paton, a 38-year-old intelligence officer in the Army Reserve, is one of 65 state legislators nationwide who pull double duty by serving in the United States military at the same time as they hold elected office, according to a survey conducted by Hawaii state Rep. Mark Takai, a Hawaii Army National Guard major who returned from a deployment as base operations officer at Camp Patriot in Kuwait last month.

The survey shows that 31 lawmakers have been deployed to another country and none have been killed since the annual survey began in 2006.





Sixty-five state legislators also serve in the military:
        » Forty-one are Republicans and 24 are Democrats, out of a total of 7,382 legislative seats nationwide.
        » A majority of state legislatures, 34, have at least one member serving in the military. Pennsylvania leads with five, followed by South Carolina and Massachusetts with four. Iowa, Missouri, Washington and Wisconsin have three each.
        » Twenty-seven legislators have been activated for long-term duty lasting more than 139 days. Of those, eight have served extended activations more than once.
        » Broken down by branch of service, the Army has 42 legislators, followed by the Air Force with 10, the Navy with seven and the Marines with six.
        Source: National Network of Legislators in the Military 2009 survey


While serving on active duty for less than nine months, members of the Reserve may exercise civic functions as long as there is no interference with their military responsibilities, according to Department of Defense rules. Those with longer deployments can hold office, but they can't perform the functions of their elected state office.

Most lawmakers say they can only handle one job at a time.

“;When I was in Iraq, I was laser-beam focused on my duties as a Marine, and I trusted that my staff back home was taking care of my constituents,”; said Ohio Republican state Rep. Josh Mandel, 32, now a veteran after completing eight years in the Marine Corps Reserve. “;My constituents understood how serious I took the duty to serve my country.”;

These legislator-soldiers are all members of either the National Guard or Reserves from various branches. The 65 lawmakers make up a small portion—less than 1 percent—of the nation's 7,382 total legislative seats.

Many lawmakers had their staff or neighboring district legislators pick up the slack when military duty called, said Takai, chairman of the National Network of Legislators in the Military.

“;I was where I needed to be. There were no regrets,”; Takai, 42, said. “;But it was kind of fascinating being detached, observing the legislative process from afar.”;

Others made their presence known at home even while stranded in the far reaches of the Middle East.

When he wasn't leading counterinsurgency efforts in southern Afghanistan, South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Smith spoke on the floor of his state's legislature through teleconferencing. He passed a bill rewriting bicycle laws, and he was even able to vote by proxy.

“;I saw it in a land that didn't have the rule of law: The laws we write and the constitution we uphold are really only words until we're willing to defend them,”; said Smith, a 42-year-old captain in the Army Guard.

Some lawmakers who haven't been deployed sacrificed promotion in their military careers to advance their political jobs.

Hawaii Democratic Rep. Rida Cabanilla, the only woman legislator serving in the military, declined to apply for a command position after she was appointed chairwoman of the Housing Committee following last year's elections.

“;While I'm not being called to deploy, I bring the Legislature to the forefront,”; said Cabanilla, 56, a lieutenant colonel and critical care nurse in the Army Reserve. “;But when they issue me an order to go, the military will be in the forefront.”;

When Cabanilla won her election in 2004, she replaced another military woman from the same district. Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, a Democrat, voluntarily gave up her seat because of a pending deployment to Iraq with the Army Guard.

“;I would have been gone for 18 months of the 24-month term,”; said Tamayo, 28, a first lieutenant. Given those circumstances, I just felt it was the right thing to do.”;