2019 Elections: When in Doubt, Enlist a Veteran, and Other Trail Tales (Pt. 2)

Military veterans Andrzejczak, left, and Peters.

In a question mark election year, when Jeff Van Drew confronted the reality of running mate Nelson Albano’s 2013 toxicity, he stretched out succession intrigue for a couple of weeks, letting the local and regional blogs run rampant with speculation. Nearly every name that occupied a chair on a board, council or committee circulated as possibilities by the time war veteran Bob Andrzejczak mounted the stage in Vineland as the senator’s surprise substitute for Albano.

Andrzejczak proved a more than useful ally for Van Drew, who, armed with the wounded hero’s extraordinary story, reestablished organizing principles of public service and military heroism, contributing to muzzling an opposition that had craved some daylight with Republican Governor Chris Christie at the top of their ticket that year.

This year, as Andrzejczak attempts to secure the seat his mentor Van Drew left behind to go to Congress, he is joined by at least thee other military veterans running in battleground districts. In fact, by our count – and there may well be more – two Democrats and two Republicans balance out the veterans’ narrative in this legislative cycle.

First, Andrzejczak has his own running mate, Assemblyman Bruce Land, a Vietnam combat veteran.

Milam, left, and Land hit the doors at ShopRite on Friday.
Assemblyman Matt Milam, left, and Vietnam veteran Assemblyman Bruce Land.

In the 8th Legislative District, Republicans are running Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-8), a Navy SEAL installed by the party in the seat in the aftermath of Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez Gregg’s (R-8) departure, and specifically to shore up the troubled-times seat. A battlefield interrogator, Peters initially went to Fallujah at the height of the war as part of a SEAL Team surge, a deployment that lasted six to eight months. Subsequently, he deployed a second time to Afghanistan, which was where he had wanted to go since the Naval Academy and the 9/11 terror strikes. There his operations included stopping the Taliban. He deployed a third time as the head of a SEAL Platoon, and then a fourth time to Central America.

Brian Bergen, an Army veteran from Denville NJ, will win the second GOP Assembly nomination in Legislative District 25. He is more than a thousand votes ahead of John Barbarula and Aura Dunn.
Brian Bergen, an Army veteran from Denville.

In the 25th District, ground zero for the anti-Trump movement, incumbent Assemblyman Tony Bucco (R-25) – much the same way Van Drew did with Andrzejczak did in 2013 – recruited Iraq War veteran Brian Bergen. A West Point graduate, Bergen is a former Army Officer, Apache helicopter pilot, and the current Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2519 Commander and the Morris County American Legion Vice Commander.

These battleground narratives bear more than a passing resemblance to those of two recent political success stories: state Senator Chris Brown (R-2), a Desert storm veteran who flipped the 2nd District’s top seat from Democratic to Republican control in the aftermath of the death of Senator Jim Whelan; and U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11), a Sea King helicopter pilot and lieutenant commander in the Navy, whose presence in the 11th District as a Donald J. Trump opponent forced incumbent U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11) out of the race.

Assembly Minority leader Jon Bramnick, right, with fellow GOP Senator Chris Brown (R-2).

In possession of their own vocabulary, the veterans are in dialogue. When Peters assumed the seat, he sought counsel from Brown. When Bergen decided to run, he called Peters. Andrzejczak, Land, and Peters have all worked on veterans issues across the aisle, as a team. Occasionally, the ease with which they interact and support one another has caused iritation within New Jersey’s political class.

“We’re not red or blue, we’re red, white and blue,” Peters said of the veterans’ common foundation, noting “that there are differences philosopically between myself and, say, Senator Andrzejczak.” But there is also a fundamental shared service – and sense of service.

A goals-oriented individual intent on accomplishing the objective by any means necessary, unafraid to do the right thing is the value of a veteran in the legisalture, Andrzejczak told InsiderNJ. He and Peters have worked together on numerous bills, and having him and others, including Land and Brown, contributes to esprit de corps.

“We can relate, based on our experiences, regardless of where you served,” said Andrzejczak, wounded in action in Iraq, where he lost his leg and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze star.  “War is war. There is nothing fun or emjoyable about it, but at the same time, serving in the military and going through training, causes certain characteristics to be ingrained in you, and they are not the every day average person experiences. Civilian life can be frustrating. Soldiers are used to a certain structure. You’re not going to get that in the civilian world.”

The challenges are a little different now than they were for the men and women returning from WW1 and WW2 and Vietnam.

The social organization of the world has significantly changed.

“Veterans coming home then were joining organizations, and becoming part of a support system,” Andrzejczak said. Now they’re not joining organizations as much and are more family focused. It’s good on one level, but also unfortunate. The older generations got veterans issues out there a little better than the newer generation. It’s harder to find what the needs are of a returning veteran, but I have a better sense of those needs.”

Moving forward, if Nov. 5th goes well for the incumbent senator, one thing he would like to pursue, he said, is a nonpartisan veterans caucus, “to really sit down and discuss the needs of veterans.”

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11).
U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11).
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