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'Historic' crop of Iraq, Afghanistan veterans storming Washington, D.C.

Paul Beaty / AP

Tammy Duckworth, seen celebrating with husband Bryan Bowlsbey in Elk Grove Villiage, Ill., on Tuesday night, defeated challenger Rep. Joe Walsh for Illinois' 8th congressional district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A record 16 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were elected to Congress on Tuesday night and two more veterans remained locked in races Wednesday that were too close to call.

The winners included nine first-time officeholders and seven incumbents.

All but two of the victorious veterans seeking U.S. House and U.S. Senate seats represent the Republican Party. They included Brad Wenstrup, who deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a combat surgeon. Wenstrup will represent Ohio’s 2nd congressional district which sits east of Cincinnati.

For the Democrats, Tammy Duckworth captured Illinois’ 8th congressional district, which spans Chicago’s northern suburbs. Duckworth, who served as a captain in the Army National Guard, lost both of her legs and partial use of her right arm when her helicopter was shot down over Iraq in 2004. She becomes the first female veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan to serve in Congress.

“It’s a very powerful moment. She also became the first severely wounded veteran to be elected,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan group representing veterans of those two wars. “We are looking to her to really reach beyond politics and lead us all forward. She can be our generation’s John McCain or Max Cleland.”

McCain, an Arizona senator and the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, breaking both arms and a leg and becoming a prisoner of war. Cleland, a former Democrat senator from Georgia, earned the Silver Star and Bronze Star during the Vietnam War, losing both legs above the knee and his right forearm to a grenade explosion.

The 16 veteran victories — the largest single wave of former service members heading to Congress since the 1980s, according to IAVA — represent “a huge step forward for the new veterans movement and a huge step forward for America,” Rieckhoff told NBC News. He called those collective outcomes "historic." 

“What we’ve seen from this community is an extraordinary focus on country as well as some pragmatic solutions. We believe these folks can work together across party lines and be a shot in the arm in Washington — exactly what America needs right now,” said Rieckhoff, who served as a first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq during 2003 and 2004.

“People think all we’re really doing over there is pulling triggers and dropping bombs. We’re also rebuilding schools, rebuilding infrastructure,” he added. “There’s no better testing ground for a political career than, say, helping the people of Fallujah (Iraq) get their water running again. Think about Staten Island right now — that’s (looking) like Fallujah.”

Overall, post-9/11 veterans competed for 42 Congressional seats on Tuesday night.

One of the most notable younger veterans to lose was Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts who had served in Afghanistan. He was beaten by Democrat Elizabeth Warren.  

Related: In costliest-ever Senate race, Warren beats Brown for Mass. seat

Rieckhoff predicted that at least one future U.S. president will emerge from the group of post-9/11 veterans who now hold congressional seats or who soon will head to Washington — “and maybe multiple presidents.”

“These aren’t professional politicians,” he said. “These are folks who served overseas who came who and wanted to continue to serve. This has happened all the way back to George Washington and was true of (John) Kennedy, (Harry) Truman and the first President (George H.W.) Bush. As George Washington said, ‘When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.’ ” 

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