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Iraq War Vet Brings Life Experiences to Politics

New America Media, News Feature, Aaron Glantz Posted: May 21, 2009

FAIRFIELD, Calif. -- Anthony Woods is not your typical candidate for Congress. Hes young. At 28, hed be the second youngest member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hes also a former U.S. Army Captain who served two tours in Iraq, but was expelled from the military when he told his commanders he was gay.

The African-American son of a single mother who worked as a housekeeper, Woods overcame his humble beginnings and received his education at West Point and Harvards Kennedy School of Government, where he was invited to give the commencement address when he graduated last June.

Woods flashes a winning smile as he arrives at our interview at a strip-mall Starbucks on the northern outskirts of Fairfield, an Air Force base town where San Franciscos sprawl ends and the more rural Central Valley begins.

I think if were going to have change, if were going to have a Congress that supports President Obamas efforts to bring change, then we need a new perspective, a new sense of urgency around a lot of these issues that are decades old, he said.

Woods stands out among the candidates vying to fill a seat in San Franciscos eastern suburbs. Other declared candidates include California Lt. Governor John Garamendi, California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier and State Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan.

The post is being vacated by Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who is leaving to assume a top position in the Obama administrations State Department.

Woods says hes a strong supporter of universal health care, where Americans have the option to purchase health care directly from the government.

He was uninsured throughout his childhood because his mother made too much to qualify for government assistance and not enough to purchase private health insurance.

I spent 18 years where I had to rely on luck. Hope you dont get sick, hope you dont break a bone. Because if I did, me and my mom could lose our house, he said.

I have practical experience of what its like to live without it, he said. And I think that lack of real world experience [among elected officials] is what allows people to play politics with health care, to make empty promises campaign cycle after campaign cycle.

Woods also has personal experience with the war in Iraq, having been deployed twice as a platoon leader. He spent his first tour in Iraqs volatile Diyala province along the Iranian border. On his second, he fought in the Battle of Tal Afar in the northwest.

His oldest friend, Ian Johannson, says he was initially surprised when Woods decided to attend to West Point and become an army officer. We were geeks, he said, There was a whole big group of us -- really interested in Star Trek and other science fiction.

But even then, Woods was hard to put in a box. He was also an athlete who ran track and played on his high school football team, and a history buff who loved to read about World War II.

When he graduated from West Point and was deployed to Iraq, Woods was conflicted, Johansson says. He felt that the war in Iraq was something that we didnt have to be involved in and probably shouldnt have been involved in, he said, but that his service to his country superseded whatever his personal feelings were.

Woods favors President Obamas strategy of a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, and gives measured support to the surge of troops now headed to Afghanistan.

But for Woods, the personal costs of war are never far off.

It didnt take long for me to confirm that my three hours of Arabic language training werent going to get me very far, Woods said in his commencement address at Harvard last June.

Like many of you, I had very serious questions about the legitimacy of this war, he said. These questions grew louder on days when tedium and toil turned into chaos and tragedy. I remember the 27th of July 2004. Earlier that day, I spoke with 24-year-old Sergeant Deforest Talbert about his two-year-old son. Three hours later, I stood next to his lifeless body and questioned why he made this sacrifice.

For five years, Woods has worn a black wristband memorializing the life of another service member, First Lt. Andrew Stern, who was killed by a sniper on Sept. 16, 2004. The two attended basic training together. Today, Woods visits his grave whenever he goes to Arlington.

Despite his misgivings about the war in Iraq, Woods continues to believe in the U.S. military which is why it was so hard for him to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality.

Shortly before the commencement, Woods informed his commander that he was gay, initiating his dismissal under the Dont ask, dont tell policy.

Woods says he was ready and willing to return to the Iraq war for a third tour, but in November 2008, he learned he would be eliminated from the army on the grounds of moral and professional dereliction. He was ordered to repay $35,000the amount of his scholarship to attend the Kennedy School.

According to the Service Members Legal Defense Network, more than 12,500 men and women have been discharged since Bill Clinton implemented the policy in 1994.

As I became more comfortable accepting who I was, I became less comfortable having to lie about it, Woods said. I spent a lot of time at the Kennedy School, and we were learning about justice. We were learning about the virtues and the power of diversity. I had a lot of time to think about the Dont Ask, Dont Tell policy and I realized that it was essentially asking members of the LGBT community to lie about who they were.

I had put my life on the back burner for the entire time I was in the military, and shied away from anything in my personal life and I did it to sacrifice for my country, Woods added. But there comes a time when you can only do that for so long. You can only lie for so long about who you are.

The first person Woods came out to was Kennedy School instructor Tim McCarthy, a history professor who is also openly gay.

The heterosexual masculinity of the army can be very stifling, McCarthy said, noting it was for Tony going all the way back to West Point. But when he got to Harvard he had a bit more freedom to explore who he was and know other openly gay people and have a mentor who is openly gay and very visible. I think he realized that there were options for him to live a different kind of life.

For Woods, that new life includes running for Congress at the age of 28. Not only does Woods lack the money and name recognition of his more seasoned opponents; hes also a black candidate running in a district thats 74 percent white, and a gay candidate in a district that only narrowly voted down Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California.

Hes also a progressive running in a district that less than a decade ago was a conservative Republican stronghold. And Professor McCarthy says for candidate Woods, the electoral math will be even more complicated than that.

Being a gay black man is also going to challenge the African-American community and the LGBT community to broaden their sense of what it means to be a black candidate, or what it means to be a gay candidate, McCarthy said.

Some in the African American have had a hard time embracing fully the LGBT community, and the LGBT community has had a very hard time dealing with its own issues of race in terms of its monochromatic leadership and a certain restricted agenda of gay marriage and a couple of other things, McCarthy added.

For his part, Woods sees his background as a benefit especially since the race will be decided in a special election.

In a low-turnout election, he said, being different is actually pretty valuable.

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