In the race for New York’s 18th Congressional District, the only shared element in the political biographies of Democrat Pat Ryan and Republican Colin Schmitt may be their military service. Both men have worn the uniform and touted their veteran status, with Schmitt tweeting last year on Veterans Day: “Thankful for all the wonderful fellow veterans I have the privilege to serve with.”
Schmitt received an August 1 endorsement from the mayor of Poughkeepsie, who said, “Assemblyman Colin Schmitt is a veteran and leader in the Hudson Valley who will continue to fight for public safety and a more prosperous economy.” Schmitt then tweeted that endorsement out and included the quote prominently in a mailer sent out this past week. Schmitt was also included in Crain’s New York’s 2021 Notable Veteran Executives.
But the way their experience informs their candidacies could not be more different — and only one of them qualifies as a veteran under the standards of the National Guard and the New York State Division of Veterans’ Services, which state a person must serve at least “180 days of continuous active duty” on federal orders outside of training.
Orders obtained by The Intercept, which detail the time Schmitt was federally activated for non-training missions, show that he was activated from the National Guard once from late March 2020 until July 2020, helping deliver pandemic-related supplies stateside.
Schmitt’s team, in a statement, acknowledged that he is well below the 180-day threshold and has not been deployed overseas. But his campaign spokesperson pointed to the U.S. House Code, which defines a veteran as “a person who served in the active military, naval, air, or space service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” (Schmitt has not been discharged.)
Ryan is a West Point graduate who served two tours in Iraq and earned two Bronze Stars and the Combat Action Badge. He won a seat in a special election in August that was considered a bellwether for competitive districts in the midterms.
Schmitt is a sergeant in New York’s Army National Guard who was activated for 116 days of operational support in the early days of the pandemic. He’s been outspoken about what he calls President Joe Biden’s “disastrous” withdrawal from Afghanistan and presents himself as a protector against the lawlessness of the Democratic Party.
“We have a public safety crisis in the state of New York with the failed no-bail law and disrespect for law enforcement,” Schmitt said at a debate two weeks ago. “We need to turn that around, and we need a congressman who will support our cops.”
Ryan would be the first West Point graduate to represent the district, but Schmitt has been able to compete with him by touting his own service. Veterans organizations are taking sides in the race, but some local veterans find the endorsement of the latter candidate questionable, given their notably different resumes.
“It’s easy for service to be described in very broad terms,” said Malia Du Mont, a 20-year vet from Kingston who was deployed to Afghanistan. “Not many members of the public have the expertise or the understanding to distinguish between a resume like Pat Ryan’s and a resume like Colin Schmitt’s. I think it’s part of the civilian-military divide in this country, which I’m concerned about.”
The definition of a veteran differs by agency. The aforementioned U.S. Code defines a veteran as “a person who served in the active military, naval, air, or space service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” But under the standards of the National Guard and the New York State Division of Veterans’ Services, a person must serve at least “180 days of continuous active duty” on federal orders outside of training.
“It is a gray area,” said Army lawyer Tony Box. “People have different interpretations and the regulations are not always consistent.”
After enlisting in April 2015, Schmitt was ordered to basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He trained there until August 26, 2015. In January 2017, Schmitt reported to “initial active duty for Advanced Individual Training” at Fort Lee, Virginia, which he completed that April, according to the orders.
Schmitt was then a reservist in the state Army National Guard’s 1569th Transportation Company until March 28, 2020, when he was activated to help with the state’s response to the pandemic. He spent about three months helping deliver personal protective equipment and other supplies.
“I think the specific rule about 180 days of federal service is pretty arbitrary,” said Sean McKee, a retired army infantry officer who was deployed to Afghanistan from April 2018 to January 2019. “That being said, there is a difference, and anyone will tell you. I don’t mean this as a slight against people in the National Guard. But there is a difference between being active duty for even three years, and then being in the National Guard for seven and only being activated for however long he’s been active.”
“Traditionally in veterans’ circles, especially when we speak to each other, that type of ‘being activated stateside for 100 and something days’ is not what I and many of my colleagues would consider a veteran,” Box, the Army lawyer, said.
Seth Lynn, executive director of Veterans Campaign, a nonpartisan organization that helps veterans run for office, said he uses a “big tent” approach.
“Our organization will tell people to have somebody else talk about your fantastic resume and your heroic service to the nation,” he said. “Once you say it to somebody, there’s sort of diminishing returns to talking about it more and more.”
Ryan is one of 91 veterans serving in the 117th Congress. New Politics, a bipartisan organization that works to elect military veterans and other national service leaders, has endorsed Ryan in his 2018 Democratic primary, his special election in August, and in this race. He has received $15,000 from the “cross-partisan” With Honor political action committee, and $2,500 from Taking the Hill.
He has also been endorsed by the Democratic-leaning veterans PAC Vote Vets, the same organization that has endorsed veteran politicians like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in his presidential bid and Sen. Mark Kelly in his race in Arizona.
This campaign cycle, Schmitt has received donations from two donor groups that support veterans, according to Federal Election Commission campaign finance data: $10,000 from Seal PAC, whose mission is “to end Democratic control in Congress by electing conservative veterans to lead our nations,” and $5,000 from Ranger PAC, which aims to elect “highly accomplished conservative military veterans.”
He has also been endorsed by Frontline Patriots, an influential conservative PAC that “seeks to promote and elect principled, conservative veteran leadership to Congress.” This year, many of Frontline Patriots’ endorsements have gone to candidates who were deployed overseas in countries with conflict like Iraq and Afghanistan. Several of them have seen combat.
A recent ad paid for by Frontline Patriots posits that the decline of veteran Congress members is a reason why “Washington is dysfunctional” before playing a montage of 30 veterans seeking congressional office. Ryan is not among them, but Schmitt is.
A voiceover reads: “The Republican Party needs a new generation of veteran leaders who put service over self.”