State of the Union addresses are by many accounts a political kabuki play and have been for years. President Obama’s highly observed and analysed speech will feature planned applause lines and choreographed nods, all while he highlights his priorities and signature achievements.
He will do the talking, and members of Congress will clap, stand, grimace — or use their choice of guests — to speak for them. And tonight, veterans and family members of fallen service members will be among these honored guests, symbolically emphasizing legislators’ key issues.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is bringing Staff Sgt. Sandra Lee, who endured a combination of signature problems for vets. Lee, who suffers from PTSD, was injured in several roadside bomb attacks and said publicly she is a survivor of a sexual assault by a fellow soldier.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, Okla.-R, is bringing the father of a Navy SEAL killed in Benghazi, Charles Woods. Bridenstine has co-sponsored legislation to create a select committee to investigate the incident.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., is bringing a political fellow in her office, Matt Ceccato who highlights the best wounded veterans have to offer. Ceccato returned to school after his military service, earned a master’s degree in international affairs and was named a 2013 Presidential Management Fellow.
Combining the Democrats’ focus on the economy and her commitment to veterans, First Lady Michelle Obama has invited Sabrina Jenkins, an Air Force veteran and single mother from South Carolina. Jenkins, 45, who lives with rheumatoid arthritis, faces $90,000 in student loans and lives paycheck to paycheck working for the Charleston County Housing Authority.
Mrs. Obama has also invited Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger, and his dad Craig. Cory has met President Obama three times – once overseas and twice since a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan on his 10th deployment left him in a coma for three months, partially paralyzed and brain-damaged. Remsburg joined the Army on his 18th birthday after his father refused to sign the papers for the 17-year-old Cory to join on his own.
Former Army Master Sgt. Eric Marts, a blind Iraq war vet who hosts a radio talk show about veterans issues, is going as a guest of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., next week. His program is called “Heroes of the Heartland.”
Some guests aren’t vets but the parents of fallen vets, whose presence calls attention to the deep and painful sacrifice made by many service members and their families.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is bringing Jeff Sexton, the father of a 21-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan vet who killed himself while on leave in 2009. Donnelly introduced a bill named for Army Spc. Jacob Sexton which would mandate mental health screenings for suicidal behaviors in service members and beefed up training for line unit commanders.
Sexton’s father, who is active in TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), contacted Donnelley–a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee– after seeing him question Hagel about the issue at a televised hearing. Donnelley called Sexton back the next day, and the two have since discussed the bill.
Veterans are disproportionately represented in the New York delegation’s guest list this year.
Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., invited retired Army Sgt. Rick Yarosh, an Iraq war veteran who was burned over 60 percent of his body, had his right leg amputated below the knee, and lost both ears, his nose, multiple fingers and most of the function in both hands as a result of the explosion. Yarosh has since become a motivational speaker.
The mother of a soldier slain in Afghanistan is going as a guest of Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y. Cherie Phillips’ son, Staff Sgt. Francis “Frankie” Phillips IV, was killed by a roadside bomb with four other Fort Bliss soldiers last May.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is bringing Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Not all of the veterans in attendance are from the current wars.
Jeff Colaiacovo, an Agent Orange victim who fought through Department of Veterans Affairs backlogs with the help of Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., will be her guest. Colaiacovo’s case inspired Frankel to push for electronic VA records and for a bill that would have combined a vet’s multiple VA claims into a single case.
Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., is bringing a 92-year-old World War II veteran and member of the Crow Tribe, Charles DeCrane. DeCrane served in the Army Air Corps.
Not everyone is pleased with this practice. J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman and conservative pundit, called for politicians to stop “using the military and veterans as mere political props,” in a Washington Times op-ed this week.
“Nothing ever good becomes of it, and they just might live to regret it,” Gordon said.
(Ironically, Gordon’s op-ed uses Sen. Joe Manchin III’s invite to Army Maj. Richard Ojeda in 2013 to score partisan points, calling out Manchin, D-W.Va., for supporting Ojeda’s rival when Ojeda ran in a congressional primary later that year.)