Veterans in the Legislature in ’17


Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield — Air Force

Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas — Army

Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland — National Guard

Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin — Marines

Sen. James I. Manning, Jr., D-Eugene — Army

Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby — Army

Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro — Air Force


Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha - Marines

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford — Navy

Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth — Air Force

Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield — Army

Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte — National Guard

Rep. Mark W. Meek, D-Gladstone — Air Force

Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland — Navy

Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver — Air Force

Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass — Navy

Source: Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs

SALEM — They were Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Officers, non-coms and enlisted. Democrat and Republican.

Most joined up, but some are old enough to have been drafted. They mark a line of duty stretching from the Vietnam War to Operation Desert Storm to post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many of the 16 veterans in the Oregon Legislature say their time in uniform has made them more prepared and patient — the Legislature’s “hurry up and wait” is all too familiar to veterans.

Supporting and respecting the people you depend on and who depend on you is a key to success in the military service and in public service.

“You are working with others as a team with a common purpose,” said Rep. Mark W. Meek, D-Gladstone. He’s a former Air Force staff sergeant who wore the upside-down “winged stripes” from 1983 to 1990.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, was a Navy petty officer during the Vietnam War. He said veterans share a bond regardless of political party. They have different strategies for what ails Oregon, Esquivel said, but share a knowledge of the price paid so they can freely argue or agree.

“The best lesson I learned when I was in Vietnam is: I realized that what Americans take for granted, other people will never have,” Esquivel said.

The state Department of Veteran Affairs says there are 16 veterans in the Legislature. Seven in the 30-member Senate and nine in the 60-member House, nine Democrats and seven Republicans. The number dropped by one last week when Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, an Army veteran, resigned to take a job in the Trump administration. It will lose another by early next year when Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, a Marine veteran, resigns to take a position on the regional power authority. Devlin’s exit will leave Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, as the lone “leatherneck” in the Legislature.

The state does not keep a record of past Legislatures’ membership in the military, but on an anecdotal level, the number of veterans is holding steady in the Legislature, even as the total number of veterans falls as the huge World War II generation passes away.

Sen. Rod Monroe, D-Portland, is not a veteran — he flunked his draft physical during the Vietnam War. But as one of the longest-serving legislators, coming to the House in 1977, he recalls the capitol halls 40 years ago filled with World War II veterans. The Democratic governor Robert Straub had been an Army quartermaster. Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, was a Navy driver of landing craft at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

“There were certainly more veterans than you had today — the World War II generation was in their 50s and 60s,” Monroe recalled. “There was a good guy out of Hood River, Ken Jernstedt, a Republican, but not afraid to work with us. A moderate. He flew with the ‘Flying Tigers’ in China and would tell you about the early days of World War II, before Pearl Harbor.”

At any point in its modern history, retirees have made up a large number of legislators. The job is officially part time and pays $24,000 per year. Having the time and money to serve is difficult for wage earners and professionals.

The retirees now include the Vietnam War generation. The conflict ended for the United States in 1973, meaning the war’s veterans are in their 60s and 70s.

Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, a career Air Force officer who retired as a colonel, watched this week as President Trump landed for the Pacific Rim economic summit, held in the same place that was a frontline combat area when Whisnant was there.

“Interesting that the president of the United States is in Da Nang, Vietnam,” Whisnant said. “Fifty years ago, I was serving as a 1st lieutenant commanding a 60-person detachment at Da Nang air base, the closest base to the Vietnam DMZ. International politics do change.”

There are no World War II or Korean War veterans remaining in the Legislature. It is the Vietnam War generation’s time. But the long wars since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a new generation of veterans who will be running for office for years to come. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said that as of late 2016, there were 9.2 million veterans 65 or older. But 1.6 million were younger than 35.

Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, spent six years as an enlisted man in the 186th Infantry Regiment of the Oregon National Guard.

“Everyone should experience basic training,” he said. “I would like a program that every high school student should volunteer after school for at least a year, either military, peace corps or community service in exchange for a year of higher education or technical training.”

House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said that while they play very different roles in American society, there are parallels of purpose between the military and the Legislature.

“It’s a focus on mission,” said McLane, a lieutenant colonel in the Oregon Air National Guard. “The military ingrains into you the focus on mission, both for the small units and broader force. You learn to focus despite distractions.

As part of a trio of state institutions — along with the governorship and the judiciary, lawmakers have a mission.

“As the legislature, we need to focus on our mission of being ‘the People’s Branch,’ a separate but equal branch of government,” McLane said. “We serve our district. We swear an oath to uphold the state and federal Constitutions. No matter what distractions occur, we must focus on our core mission of service.”