05/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Kerry's Veteran Legacy

Thirty-eight years ago today, a young veteran was invited to testify before a committee of Senators and silenced the talkative politicians by speaking about the human costs of war. He did so on behalf of thousands of compatriots who could not be there. He spoke with the power of one who had seen war up close. The Senators listened intently, for some of them had never worn the uniform of the soldier and none had served in the jungles of Vietnam.

Today, that young veteran is himself not only a distinguished Senator but also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the very same committee he had addressed in 1971. And tomorrow, at a hearing before his committee, Senator John Kerry will be giving a new generation of young veterans a chance to share their views of war, specifically, the war in Afghanistan.

For those of us who are leaders of veterans' organizations today, it is somewhat easy to forget that there was a time when America, let alone Capitol Hill, cared little about the opinions of veteran leaders on America's foreign and military policies. The policies of defense and war were to be judged by Generals and politicians, not the men and women who were on the ground, fighting.

Yet, over the past few years, when you have tuned your television to the news, you were likely to see people like me on CNN or MSNBC -- a 20-something veteran of Iraq, representing thousands of veterans who were critical of how the war was being waged. Or, maybe you saw another young veteran speaking out in favor of a surge of more troops, or another who represents veterans who want to get out of all conflicts. John Kerry changed the game forever, and every vocal veteran leader -- regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum -- owes him a debt of gratitude, because without his testimony to the Fulbright Committee in 1971, we likely would not have as much public and media attention as we have today.

My personal story is even more directly tied to Senator Kerry. When I met Senator Kerry at the Pittsburgh airport in 2004 I was angry, upset, and lost. I had just returned from Iraq, proud of my service, but disillusioned with the misleading statements of President Bush that got us into the war and was keeping us there. Senator Kerry asked me how things were going in Iraq, and I couldn't contain myself. For 10 minutes, I spoke almost nonstop, all about how American troops needed his help. Finally, he stopped me, asked for my card and promised to call me the next day.

When he actually called I was shocked. This guy was busy. Why was he calling me? He said, "Jon, I'm calling you for one reason. I want to know if you will help me. When I was your age, I was just like you. I was young, I was angry, and I wanted people to listen to me. I think if you help me, you can make a difference in your country. Or, you don't have to help my campaign, but you can still make a difference in your country."

When we play war as children we play hero - winner. We don't fantasize about coming home and holding the powerful accountable. Even as we grow up, we still don't believe our voice can matter. Senator Kerry made me believe that even though I had no money or political connections, the opinions of Iraq war veterans would be important to the public debate -- just like his warrior voice had been heard the Vietnam Era.

That kind of inspiration may be Senator Kerry's greatest legacy. Because of his example and encouragement, I was able to find a higher calling than the path I was on. It inspired me to start, which represents some of the country's most active veterans. I wanted to do important work for my fellow veterans -- from helping to pass a new G.I. Bill of Rights to pressing for a drawdown to the war in Iraq.

Not only that, but I'm committed to using my position to encourage veterans who come after me to also speak up, to pass along the torch that Senator Kerry lit when, 38 years ago, he stood up for veterans and, as a result, gave voice to a new movement. Much has been written about his testimony as a young veteran; I hope that one day more will be written about those of us he inspired -- and those he empowers today to speak their minds and speak the truth as they see it.

Crossposted at