As a young psychiatrist assigned to the Long Beach Naval Station in California in 1968, Washington state Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott worked to ease the psychological trauma of soldiers who had learned to kill in Vietnam.
“I knew that people were going to forget about these kids,” said McDermott, now 79. “The most moving place in town for me is still the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I go out there and I can cry almost any time.”
As he prepares to end his 28-year career in the U.S. House, the Seattle congressman now wants to make sure that the Washington state soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 14 years are not forgotten. There are 150 of them, including 10 from Tacoma.
As they died, one by one, McDermott added their photographs to a wall display just outside of his Capitol Hill office.
The 150th face joined the display on Jan. 12, four days after the remains of Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock, a 30-year-old Green Beret from Des Moines, Wash., arrived at Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware.
McDermott made the trek to Delaware for the ceremony, offering his condolences to McClintock’s wife, Alexandra, and the couple’s 3-month-old son, Declan, his hand on his heart as he watched the flag-draped casket move past him.
Rep. Jim McDermott
“I do what I can for veterans,” McDermott said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “People have forgotten the war is there.”
McDermott, a 14th-term congressman first elected in 1988, is surprised that his photo display has gotten so large. But he said it’s important to keep it up to date, hopeful that passers-by will stop and reflect.
“You’re looking at something I started in 2002, and here I am 14 years later,” McDermott said. “I’ve always been anti-war but pro-veterans, because we all love to go to the parades when they march off to war, but we don’t want to see much when they come home, like this kid that came home at Dover. That’s what war’s about. People come home like this.”
150 The number of Washington state soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 14 years
McDermott has fought to keep his photo display intact.
In 2008, when he used easel-mounted displays for his photographs, McDermott was accused of obstructing traffic and issued a citation for violating House rules. He said he just decided to stick the photos to the wall and he hasn’t heard any complaints since.
McClintock was killed on Jan. 5 in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, part of the National Guard’s 19th Special Forces Group. Earlier, he had served in Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Special Forces Group as a Green Beret.
When his remains arrived at Dover Air Force Base, McDermott’s chief of staff, Diane Shust, was on the plane as soldiers carried the casket down the steps to meet family members on the runway.
When they started coming down with the casket, I heard this horrible shriek. As a mother, I knew exactly who it was.
Diane Shust, McDermott’s chief of staff
“When they started coming down with the casket, I heard this horrible shriek,” she said. “As a mother, I knew exactly who it was. It was so heart-wrenching. When you see the casket, it’s real.”
In 2004, McDermott criticized the Pentagon for not allowing photographs of coffins at Dover, saying Americans had a right to see them, both to help them grieve and understand the cost of war.
“In Vietnam, the war came into the living room and the dinner table and that’s what stopped the war,” McDermott said. “And now with Iraq, suddenly they don’t want anyone to see a picture. Well, goddammit, you know, people should know.”
He has been a loud voice against war, even when there were no listeners.
In 2002, McDermott and other anti-war progressives held a press conference on the steps of the House Cannon Office Building. McDermott was ready to make big news, saying that then President George W. Bush was so eager to go to war in Iraq that he would lie about whether military action was needed.
But he said the Capitol Hill press corps showed no interest, with his comments never appearing anywhere.
McDermott got national attention when he went to Baghdad and stood on a rooftop to make the point to ABC TV’s George Stephanopoulos. His remarks drew quick rebukes from Republicans who were trying to pass a war resolution and earned McDermott the nickname “Baghdad Jim.”
All these years later, McDermott has little doubt that he was right to oppose the war.
“Are we safer today because we invaded Iraq?” he asked.
McDermott said he does have one regret: voting for the war in Afghanistan, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
“It’s one of the few votes I would have done the other way,” he said. “I didn’t think it would last this long.”
He predicted that Congress would have less appetite for war if members brought back the military draft.
“We’ve created havoc all over the Middle East and we’ve lost thousands of people,” he said. “So it’s easy here, if you don’t think about it, to vote for money for the military and send people out there because it’s none of our kids.”
In a speech on the House floor on Jan. 12, McDermott called McClintock “a promising, smart and steadfast young man” who deserved the nation’s gratitude.
“We have entered our 15th year of war and lest anyone forget, our warriors are still in harm’s way, they are still dying,” McDermott said in his speech. “We deserved more time with people like Matthew and many of the soldiers who went before him.”
When McDermott announced his retirement in January, President Barack Obama said he had been “a much-needed voice” for the most vulnerable.
And when he leaves office at the end of the year, Washington state will lose its most experienced member of Congress.
I would say that Jim McDermott had a heart to serve and he happened to be in a district that matched his beliefs. He’s passionate.
Washington state Republican Rep. Dave Reichert
“I would say that Jim McDermott had a heart to serve, and he happened to be in a district that matched his beliefs,” said Washington state Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, who serves with McDermott on the House Ways and Means Committee. “He’s passionate.”
McDermott said he has a few things planned for 2017 and beyond: painting, traveling to Europe, perhaps teaching overseas, and writing a book on the inner workings of Congress – he has fragments of 40 chapters written already.
But he said it will be hard to leave Washington, D.C., and go back to Seattle.
“It’s a bittersweet kind of thing,” McDermott said. “I’ve been involved in government, both the State Legislature and Congress, for 46 years, so I’ve done a lot of stuff. But to die with your boots on in here isn’t what I want.”