In early 2019, as the Defense Department’s bureaucracy seemed to be slow-walking then-President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, Joe Kent, a CIA paramilitary officer, called his wife, Shannon, a Navy cryptologic technician who was still in Syria working against the Islamic State group.
“‘Make sure you’re not the last person to die in a war that everyone’s already forgotten about,’” Kent said he told his wife. “And that’s exactly what happened,” he added bitterly.
The suicide bombing that killed Kent and three other service members days later set off a chain of events — including a somber encounter with Trump — that has propelled Kent from a storied combat career to single parenthood, from comparing notes with other anti-war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to making increasingly loud pronouncements that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and that the Jan. 6, 2021, rioters are political prisoners.
In five weeks, Kent, 42, a candidate for a House seat in Washington state that was long represented by a soft-spoken moderate Republican, may well be elected to Congress. And he is far from alone.
A new breed of veterans, many with remarkable biographies and undeniable stories of heroism, are running for the House on the far right of the Republican Party, challenging old assumptions that adding veterans to Congress — men and women who fought for the country and defended the Constitution — would foster bipartisanship and cooperation. At the same time, they are embracing anti-interventionist military and foreign policies that, since the end of World War II, have been associated more with the Democratic left than the mainline GOP.
Alek Skarlatos, 30, a Republican candidate in Oregon, helped thwart a terrorist attack on a packed train bound for Paris, was honored by President Barack Obama, and played himself in a Clint Eastwood movie about the incident. Skarlatos now says the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has been used as an excuse “to demonize Trump supporters.”
Eli Crane, 42, running in a Republican-leaning House district in Arizona, saw five wartime deployments with SEAL Team 3 over 13 years — as a sniper, manning machine-gun turrets and running kill-or-capture missions with the Delta Force against high-value targets, some in Fallujah, Iraq. Crane presses the false case that the 2020 election was stolen.
And Derrick Van Orden, 53, who is favored to win a House seat in Wisconsin, retired as a Navy SEAL senior chief after combat deployments in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and Central and South America. Van Orden was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, hoping to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s election.
Beyond their right-wing leanings, all share in common a deep skepticism about U.S. interventionism, borne of years of fighting in the post-9/11 war on terrorism and the belief that their sacrifices only gave rise to more instability and repression wherever the United States put boots on the ground.
Where earlier generations of combat veterans in Congress became die-hard defenders of a global military footprint, the new cohort is unafraid to launch ad hominem attacks on the men who still lead U.S. forces.
“I worked for Milley. I worked for Austin. I worked for Mattis,” Don Bolduc, 60, a retired brigadier general challenging Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said of Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the current and former defense secretaries, Lloyd Austin and Jim Mattis. “Their concerns centered around the military-industrial complex and maintaining the military-industrial complex, so as three- and four-star generals, they can roll right into very lucrative jobs.”
No one has questioned these men’s valor, as some have questioned that of another pro-Trump House candidate, J.R. Majewski of Ohio, who appears to have exaggerated his combat record.
But their pivots to the far right have confounded other veterans, especially those who have long pressed former service members to run for office as problem-solving moderates less vulnerable to shifting partisan winds. Organizations such as New Politics, and With Honor Action were founded in the past decade on the notion that records of service would promote cooperation in government. That ideal is under assault.
“When you think about the faith of the mission, listen, this is hard,” said Rye Barcott, founder and CEO of With Honor Action. “I mean, the trends have certainly gotten worse.”
Democratic veterans, however, see the newer veteran candidates’ willingness to embrace Trump’s lies as a precursor to totalitarianism, and in contravention of their service. “We all took the same oath,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a former Marine who saw some of the worst combat of the Iraq War. “We all understand the Constitution of United States, and some of these men are really leaning into outright fascism.”
For Kent, the journey to the Trumpian right was both long and surprisingly short.
Inspired to join the Army at age 13 by the Black Hawk battle in Somalia, he enlisted at 17 and applied for the Special Forces just before 9/11. Two years later, he was in Iraq, where he fought in Fallujah, hunted down members of Saddam Hussein’s government, and briefed intelligence and State Department officers on the deteriorating war.
By 2011, as U.S. forces were preparing to leave, he said, he told Austin, then the Army commander in Iraq, that the United States’ support of “this Iranian-proxy, Shia government is going to result in al-Qaida in Iraq.”
But it was his wife’s death in Syria that pushed Kent, by then in the CIA, into the arms of Trumpism. “She was there because unelected bureaucrats decided to slow-roll” Trump’s withdrawal orders, he said. “You can disobey an order from a president fairly easily, because he’s so far up from the ground level, simply by dragging your feet. And that’s a lot of what happened.”
At Dover Air Force Base, he met Trump, who was there to pay his respects to the bodies of those killed in Syria. Kent expressed his support for the president’s efforts to withdraw from the Middle East and Afghanistan. Within days, he was consulting with the White House and volunteering for Veterans for Trump.
In a video he made for the Koch-funded Concerned Veterans for America decrying the post-9/11 wars, he appears as a bearded, long-haired grieving father.
Today, clean-cut and square-jawed, he is seen by many as a right-wing radical, ready to connect what he calls the lies that dragged his nation into war and the stories he tells of stolen elections, political prisoners who attacked the Capitol and the slippery slope to nuclear war that the Biden administration is on in Ukraine.
“People can easily dismiss that and say, ‘Oh, he’s just a tinfoil hat conspiracy guy,’ but when you break down the nitty-gritty details of all of these different things, and the results that they’ve had on our country, I think it’s worth looking into,” Kent said.
His former campaign manager, Byron Sanford, dismissed Kent’s candidacy as a “revenge tour” for the death of his wife — who, Kent said, was both more pro-Trump and more political than Kent was at the time she was killed.
Kent had no problem with that. “If people want to characterize it as a revenge tour, yeah, I mean, I’d say it’s more of a populist uprising against the establishment,” he said. “But you know, call it what you will.”
For Bolduc, the Senate nominee in New Hampshire, the ideological shift has been more dramatic. He was one of the first Americans to make contact with Hamid Karzai, who was installed as Afghanistan’s president shortly after the U.S. invasion, and was an outspoken defender of him. In 2018, just after Bolduc’s retirement, he decried the Trump White House in The Daily Beast for “exacerbating divisiveness by not demonstrating patience and restraint, not listening to experts, attacking people for their opinions, ruining reputations, threatening institutions, abusing the media, and leading people to question our position as a beacon for promoting democracy throughout the world.”
Now, he tells voters the United States needs to avoid Iran, has done enough in Ukraine and should undertake a wholesale reevaluation of its posture in the world.
Bolduc contends that the interventionist views of the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and successors such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — a belief in projecting power to solve problems — arose from a belief in what he called “the military easy button.”
“My generation of combat veterans think the exact opposite,” he said.
Crane shares those views, especially on Ukraine, which he says Biden is defending more vigorously than he is the United States’ southern border. And he, too, sees capitalism driving interventionism — a view once pushed by intellectuals on the left.
“It’s foolish, even dangerous when the industrial-military complex is driving or heavily influencing policy,” he said in an interview. “They make a lot more money when we’re at war.”
Not everyone in that generation is of the same mind.
Zach Nunn, a Republican challenging Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, has used his Air Force combat record to burnish his credentials, but after deployments in Afghanistan and North Africa and as an election monitor in Ukraine, he has not soured on the projection of force around the globe — or on bipartisan cooperation.
Nunn speaks at length of a battle in Afghanistan in which he flew reconnaissance, providing “a canopy of freedom” for special operations forces by watching enemy positions and calling in airstrikes.
“We ended up doing three midair refuelings, we were out there for over 18 hours, and by the end of it, we had multiple ridgeline strikes and had kept the Taliban at bay long enough that the Special Operations Forces team was able to evac,” Nunn said.
What his experience did not do was breed cynicism or push him to the political margins of his party. Nunn speaks proudly of his work on cybersecurity in the Obama White House and working with the Biden administration to get allies out of Afghanistan after the military’s pullout. He says his combat experience gave him an appreciation for Americans from all walks of life and political beliefs.
“It didn’t matter what our political belief was — it was all about, hey, we’re going to protect each other’s six and complete this mission,” he said, using military jargon for watching a comrade’s back.
Barcott, of With Honor Action, argued that the new crop of right-wing veterans should not be seen as representing the political attitudes of former service members writ large. With Honor Action still asks veterans running for office to pledge to bring civility to Congress, participate in cross-partisan veterans groups, meet one-on-one with a member of the opposing party at least once a month and work with a member of the other party on one “substantial piece of legislation a year” while co-sponsoring other bipartisan bills.
But finding veterans willing to make that pledge has become more difficult.
By Barcott’s count, 685 veterans ran for the House or Senate this cycle. With Honor Action endorsed only 26 from both parties, many of them incumbents. Three Republican incumbents it had once endorsed — Reps. Mike Garcia of California, Greg Steube of Florida and Dan Crenshaw of Texas — were dropped for actions deemed out of keeping with the group’s mission.
Several Democrats with national security backgrounds — including Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria of Virginia and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan — are running explicitly on their service records to bolster their bipartisan bona fides.
But more partisan veterans groups say this year’s candidates are pointing out a central fallacy: “People say if we just elect more veterans to Congress, things will be hunky-dory, but there’s no precedent for that, no data that suggests veterans act different from anyone else,” said Dan Caldwell, an adviser to conservative group Concerned Veterans for America.
Kent was more cutting about organizations that ostensibly back veterans bound for bipartisanship but refused to back him.
“It’s a gimmick,” he said, dismissing the groups as hawkish interventionists. “It’s just another way to get the neoconservative, neoliberal ideology furthered by wrapping it in the valor of service. Our service.”