WASHINGTON -- Jon Soltz was one of the first soldiers deployed to Iraq in 2003, and now, he's one of the last to come home, as the U.S. war in Iraq comes to an end after eight years of fighting.
"There's still a lot of violence in Iraq," he told The Huffington Post in an interview, having just returned back to the states. "I think there's a big question of whether there's going to be more of it. There's always been a lot of violence. Sometimes it's just less reported by the mainstream media. It was violent in 2003, it's violent now. I think the major difference now is there's an elected government in Iraq. From a soldier's standpoint, there's still a lot of killing. We just operate in a way where we get killed less."
Soltz, who served as a Major with the Army in Iraq, has been a vocal critic of the war in his role as chairman of VoteVets, the veterans advocacy organization he co-founded in 2006. He took a yearlong leave of absence from VoteVets to redeploy to Iraq.
"When the war ends, I hope Americans take a moment to reflect and think about the sacrifice that's been made here," he said. "You get off the plane and everyone goes about their business. It's just -- the war doesn't affect anybody, and maybe that's because it really wasn't that important in the first place. Certainly the sacrifice is important that people made. It's always hard to come back. It's always challenging, and that's the challenge that a lot of veterans have faced."
Now that he's back from the war, Soltz plans to commit himself to making sure that veterans have a voice in the policy-making process, especially as the 2012 election season heats up.
"The point is that every issue that faces Americans faces veterans also," he said, continuing, "But what we're really talking about here is that when you look at the polls and you look at our polls -- people trust veterans as messengers. So of course veterans have higher unemployment than the rest of the population. Veterans would be affected by privatization of Social Security. Veterans would be affected by budget cuts that take away pensions for the military -- affect pensions for the military but don't affect weapons systems we don't need. All of these issues affect us."
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake agreed, saying veterans are " a very credible, non-politicized voice."
"First of all, veterans are a really really powerful and trusted voice right now in an age when people are very, very cynical and very distrusting of politicians their claims about each other," she said. "I think VoteVets can really be influential because people really trust veterans, and I think this is an established brand that people feel has really raised important issues. Importantly, Jon is just coming back from Iraq. It adds even more credibility and authenticity to the voice of the organization."
In the 2010 election cycle, VoteVets spent millions on ads and literature to get out the vote for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), then-Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) and others. Over the past five years, according to Soltz, the group has spent $35 million, focusing on elevating veterans issues and voices in the political debate.
In the current election cycle, expect the group to highlight President Obama's success in ending the Iraq war and killing Osama bin Laden. They also plan to fight hard for the reelection of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and the election of Tammy Duckworth, a veteran who lost both legs in the Iraq war, to an Illinois seat in the House of Representatives. They will also jump in on policy debates, including over some issues they haven't waded into in the past.
Soltz said that while watching the GOP presidential debates from Iraq, he grew frustrated by the candidates' lack of knowledge of Iraq and Afghanistan and the dearth of veterans' voices present in the discussion. Indeed, one of the most prominent appearances in a debate by a member of the military came when a gay servicemember asked about Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and was booed by members of the audience.
"I don't think there's been enough of the veterans' voice in this debate," he said, adding, "If Michele Bachmann's going to make the argument that we should stay in Iraq, and Herman Cain says we should stay in Iraq -- even though the Iraqi government doesn't want us there -- I mean, she doesn't even have anyone working for her who understands anything about Iraq."
Democratic strategist Paul Begala said that VoteVets was poised to become a "major player" in the 2012 election, now that Soltz has returned.
"They have done a great job of linking national security and economic security, focusing on clean energy as an answer to dangerous Middle East sources of oil, and I expect them to dramatically illustrate the needs and concerns of returning veterans," Begala said. "As President Obama has said, [veterans] have already fought for our country; they should not have to fight for a job. But VoteVets will fight for them."
This article was updated to reflect Soltz's promotion from Army Captain to Major.