The Latest Greatest Generation

Jacob Siegel on what unites a Congresswoman, businessman, med student, and martial artist.

Scott Henrichsen/The Daily Beast

Want to know what a group of military veterans looks like? Start with two women: one a member of Congress, one a medical student, both former enlisted soldiers with combat tours overseas. Then add a martial artist and ordained minister who is also an amputee diagnosed with PTSD and a teacher for at-risk youth, and round it out with a successful businessman at a major corporation. Together, they formed a picture of America’s incredibly diverse community of veterans.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the Congresswoman from Hawaii, joined former Army medic Kate Norley, disabled combat veteran Anthony Smith, and Carl M. Tegen, an executive at AT&T and a Gulf War veteran to participate in “Shattering Stereotypes: The New Veterans” a panel held today in Washington D.C. at The Daily Beast’s Hero Summit.

Anthony “A-Train” Smith, an Iraq war veteran, was seriously wounded overseas and lost parts of his arm, leg, hip, and spinal cord, and the sight in his right eye. On stage, though, he never dwelled on his own recovery or the challenges he faced dealing with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Instead he spoke about combating the stigma attached to PTSD.

Norley, who’s now attending medical school, revealed to the room that friends from her old military unit had treated Smith for both his physical and mental wounds. It was a coincidence they only stumbled upon this morning, and one that was clearly emotional for Norley. “I’m a little shaken up by that right now,” she said of the surprising discovery, “because I’m very proud of them, but I’m also proud to see the results.” The results referred to Smith, a picture of strength and conviction, sitting just to her left where he commanded the room from his chair.

Before deploying to Iraq, Smith had held a job on the police force in his Arkansas town. But he found when he came home that his old bosses, worked up by their misconceptions of PTSD, no longer trusted him to serve as a cop. “They saw so many different movies about PTSD they just automatically assumed that I was going to crack up,” Smith said before adding, “I want to break that stereotype and let them know that all of us want to come back and want to serve in our community.”

Smith has found time—when he’s not teaching martial arts to kids and working as a minister—to continue competing in and winning Tae Kwon Doe competitions. He recently won the Arkansas state championship in Tae Kwon Doe and has no plans to slow down. “I plan on going to beat somebody up this weekend,” he joked.

The same qualities that veterans bring to service in their communities have also proven to be valuable in the workplace. Though unemployment among younger veterans has remained a stubborn problem, At&T’s Tegen described vets as possessing “ leaderships skills, loyalty, the ability to get the job done”—the same skills, in other words, that smart companies look for in prospective employees.

Though they're not competing in martial arts like Smith is, Norley and Gabbard both looked capable of administering their own beatings should the need have arisen. Yet, the two combat veterans both described the aggravation of returning from war to condescending remarks from men who hadn’t served themselves but automatically assumed that their service must have been somehow sheltered or less difficult than that of their male peers. Norley responded by challenging people to pushup contests. She’s undefeated. Gabbard, who’s had to field insulting questions from some male colleagues in Congress, said of her combat experience: “It’s no different, it’s not so much this is what it feels like to be a woman. You’re a soldier first, like every one else you serve with. That’s the experience, and that’s what you bring back.”

Gabbard affirmed a connection between the current government shutdown and the lack of veterans in Congress and the loss, compared to the post WWII years, of a common sense of national purpose shared across the aisle. The upside, she said, was the growing number of veterans in Congress who represent an emerging opportunity, a group that, “gets what it means to put the mission first,” in Gabbard’s words.