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A soldier's new call to battle

COLUMN ONE

Since returning from Iraq, VoteVets.org founder Jon Soltz has successfully fought the GOP on military issues.

August 30, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Jon Soltz rapped his pen on a conference table as he ran through plans to take on politicians who back the war in Iraq.

The former Army captain and Iraq war veteran demanded television ads. "I want a hit on Fox," he barked into a speakerphone.

He wanted more e-mail blasts and more donors. "Do we have a target list?" he asked of the team gathered for a Monday morning conference call. "Let's go get those dollars."

He seethed when the phone went dead during a discussion of an upcoming fundraiser. He raged about a war protest scheduled for Memorial Day: "It's offensive. I can't defend that."

There isn't much to the nerve center of his operation: three rooms lit by bare fluorescent lights on the seventh floor of a dingy Manhattan office building.

But in a little more than a year since he launched VoteVets.org, Soltz has helped transform the war debate in Washington by channeling the raw anger and frustration of many Iraq vets into a political campaign both sophisticated and visceral. Soltz, 30, and his band of mostly twenty- and thirtysomething veterans have shaken the GOP's claim to be the pro-military party. They accuse Republicans of recklessly sending troops to war without the right equipment and failing to care for thousands of wounded and traumatized vets.

During the 2006 election, VoteVets' stark attack ads featuring disillusioned veterans helped unseat Republicans in five states, including Sen. George Allen of Virginia and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, whose defeats gave Democrats an unexpected Senate majority.

This year, Soltz and VoteVets have been a constant presence on Capitol Hill, where they have emboldened Democrats to push for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Soltz works closely with liberal groups such as MoveOn.org as well as influential military officers like retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark. He has become something of a celebrity, sought out by the media, consulted by senior Democratic lawmakers and mobbed by antiwar activists.

At the recent Take Back America conference in Washington, Soltz basked in a standing ovation from a packed room of liberal convention-goers. Many jostled to get their pictures taken with him.

He is a regular on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" and "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," where he tangles with supporters of the war.

With a database of more than 40,000 supporters and donors, Soltz is planning to take on GOP presidential candidates next year, targeting their claim that they would be better guardians of national security. "You want to take your enemy's strength and make it his weakness," said Soltz, who likes to quote aphorisms of the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu.

"Jon Soltz seems to be exactly what progressives need," said Paul Begala, an influential Democratic strategist who worked on Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr.'s successful 2006 campaign against Santorum. "He has a pair of fists, and he knows how to use them."

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Soltz, who has been home from Iraq for nearly four years, maintains the short hair and athletic build of a military officer and addresses strangers as "sir" and "ma'am." He discusses politics as if it were combat, speaking of the need to "fire rounds down range" and become the "lead elements of the battle."

He was a teenager when he decided on a military career; during a summer trip to Israel, he had become enamored of the Israeli army. At Washington & Jefferson College, a liberal arts school near Pittsburgh, he became a ROTC cadet and went to Army airborne school at Ft. Benning, Ga.

After college, he joined the Army's storied 1st Armored Division based in Germany. In 2000, he spent six months in Kosovo as part of a U.S. mission to separate the warring Serbian and Albanian populations.

Soltz was getting ready to leave active duty in 2003 when President Bush began assembling an invasion force to oust Saddam Hussein. Ordered to stay in the Army and prepare for war, he was thrilled.

He was certain American troops would quickly uncover chemical weapons stockpiles and silence the invasion's critics. "Iraq, I believed in it," he said.

Soltz's battalion crossed into Iraq from Kuwait in May 2003. Baghdad had fallen the month before. He and his comrades were eager for action so they could qualify for combat badges before the shooting stopped.

On his first night in Iraq, an insurgent ambush rained rocket-propelled grenades on his unit. The attack did nothing to dim Soltz's zeal. "It was a great day," he recalled.

But as the battalion settled into a logistics base about 15 miles south of Baghdad, the allure of the mission began to fade.

Soldiers at Camp Dogwood lived in tents and endured temperatures above 110 degrees. Despite the president's announcement weeks earlier that major combat was over, the unit's mostly unarmored trucks came under almost daily attack. As his battalion's transportation officer, Soltz was responsible for organizing the convoys that ferried fuel and supplies to units in Baghdad. "They were getting lit up," he said.

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