WASHINGTON — Afghanistan war veteran Zak Applequist is now braving a different kind of crossfire.
On Tuesday, Applequist will be reinforcing like-minded veterans who want to rally congressional support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His timing is politically acute, his message straightforward, his allies well-funded.
"I think we're doing a really good job over there," Applequist said. "We need to be there. We don't need to have our troops cut back."
Applequist's one-day lobbying trip to Washington with a Republican-tinged advocacy group called Vets for Freedom coincides with high-profile congressional hearings. Every side is sending reinforcements.
Pegged to the fifth anniversary of Saddam Hussein's fall, Congress is set for the latest progress report Tuesday and Wednesday by Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. The hearings will draw overflow crowds, innumerable cameras and kibitzers galore.
The last time Petraeus and Crocker testified, in September, three tiara-wearing protesters from Code Pink shouted until police escorted them from the hearing room. The anti-war activists will be back.
"Yes," Code Pink spokeswoman Dana Balicki said Friday, "we will be there, (and) I know other (peace) groups who will be in attendance."
Also in attendance will be Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group that wants the United States to withdraw from Iraq immediately.
Vets for Freedom brings a markedly different message, representing what the organization calls the "trigger-pulling class." As it did in September, when some 250 veterans flocked to Capitol Hill, Vets for Freedom is again trying to stiffen the congressional spine.
"We're going to try to convince Congress to support General Petraeus," said Applequist, an Army supply specialist who served 11 months in Afghanistan.
In a move that suggests the group has fairly deep pockets, Vets for Freedom invited any recent veteran to join next week's Washington lobbying trip. The organization will pay all travel, lodging and food expenses, the organization's Web site notes.
The offer enticed Applequist. He's never been to Washington; until now, he hasn't even been particularly involved in politics.
A 23-year-old resident of Modesto, Calif., Applequist served as an Army supply specialist for three years. His service included 11 months in Afghanistan with the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, rotating among several forward operating bases around Kandahar Province.
"I saw a lot of good things happen," Applequist said. "We helped their first election happen. We supplied troops, helped kids, painted schools."
Roughly 17,000 U.S. troops serve in Afghanistan, and 158,000 or so are in Iraq. The United States has spent about $660 billion fighting in the two countries over the past five years, the Congressional Research Service estimates, although other estimates of the wars' costs run to four times that amount.
Although he was discharged from active duty in October 2005, Applequist remains in the Army Reserves with the rank of specialist. He says it's possible he'll be recalled for an additional tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.
He's now working in construction and studying law enforcement on the side. His days are long. Married, with two young daughters, Applequist arises well before dawn to commute from Modesto to a San Francisco construction site.
Happenstance brought him about a month ago to Vets for Freedom, which seeks to "educate the American public about the importance of achieving success" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I heard about it through my mom," Applequist said, "and she heard about it through Fox News."
Vets for Freedom bills itself as a nonpartisan organization founded in 2006, but its pedigree is distinctly Republican.
Reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service show the group has financial ties to a GOP consulting firm called Campaign Solutions, whose other clients have included President Bush in 2004 and presumed Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain this year. A spokesman previously served with the State Department's Public Affairs Global Outreach Team for Iraq, according to the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy. Several other organization leaders likewise have been active in GOP campaigns.
"This will be my first time doing something like this," Applequist said.