PHILADELPHIA -- Bryan Lentz, toting an Army-issue duffel bag, slips into the booth.
Over the din of a bustling downtown coffee shop, the 41-year-old infantry officer and lawyer leans across the table, and outlines his latest mission.
''You either have to buy into the rhetoric or stand up. I am standing up."
Lentz, who as a major in the 82d Airborne helped to rebuild the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, is running for Congress. He is one of at least nine veterans vying to become the first soldiers of the post-9/11 military to be elected to the House of Representatives, according to party leaders.
They say their experience makes them well-suited to help successfully extricate the United States from Iraq and to more effectively fight the war on terrorism, which they fear is being lost in the Muslim world's court of public opinion.
Eight of the nine are running as Democrats. At least three are lawyers. Most went to the front lines from the Reserves or the National Guard. Some have been recruited for office by party leaders; others say they are trying to get the national parties to pay attention to them.
But they are all running on their wartime experience and against the prevailing political hierarchy in Washington -- both Republican and Democrat.
They are expected to inject a pivotal voice into the debate next year, a midterm election season that is likely to focus heavily on security issues such as US involvement in Iraq and homeland defense.
''We will have a very strong voice and instant credibility," said Tim Dunn, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and a Deomcrat who served in Iraq and is now running in North Carolina's Eighth District, a seat held by four-term Republican Robin Hayes. ''We bring to the table the experience and the knowledge gained through our service, whether active duty or Reserve, so that when these decisions are made in the future we have people who can stand up and ask the right questions. People will listen to us."
The veterans are running in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Maryland, and Minnesota. More are likely to announce as the primary season heats up, party officials predict.
Several are seeking to defeat first-term incumbents in highly competitive districts. Others face an uphill battle, including Lentz, who is seeking to unseat 10-term Republican Curt Weldon in the Philadelphia suburbs of Bucks County.
Using their wartime service to burnish their credentials, most are banking on voters' disillusionment with the war in Iraq to catapult themselves into the House, where Republicans now hold a narrow majority.
Their views on Iraq are not universal. Some believe a withdrawal is necessary. Others say more troops are needed. Lentz, for one, says the key to success in Iraq is a nationwide rebuilding effort that includes cracking down on US war profiteers.
But they all agree that US policy needs an overhaul.
''Being a military veteran is not a prerequisite for serving in Congress, but I can ask the penetrating questions," said David Ashe, 36, a major in the Marine Corps Reserve who was the deputy legal counsel to a three-star general in Iraq, and who is running in a three-way Democratic primary in Virginia's heavily military Second District. The seat is now held by a first-term Republican, Thelma Drake, who defeated Ashe by 10 percentage points in 2004.
US military conflicts have historically molded new breeds of veterans who return to join the political fray. Many of them have had an enduring impact.
In 1946, when the World War II generation entered politics, two neophytes, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, came to define their parties for a generation. Since, leading presidential contenders such as George McGovern, Robert Dole, and George H.W. Bush all held up their service in World War II as a key selling point.
More than three decades after he was the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania was still shaping the debate this month when the senior Democrat stirred up Washington with a call for a withdrawal from Iraq.
But the number of lawmakers with military experience has dropped dramatically since Murtha was first elected in 1974, when nearly 80 percent of members of Congress had served in uniform.
Now, less than 30 percent in Congress have military experience, according to congressional statistics.
Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are hoping to make their own mark in 2006, an election season the liberal web log DailyKos.com has already labeled the ''year of the veteran."
''The fact that so many are running as Democrats is a reflection of the public disillusion with the powers that be," said Michael Duga, a Democratic strategist. ''Who best to speak for the military on an exit strategy than guys who have been there?"
They all speak from experience. Patrick Murphy, a 32-year-old former Army captain and West Point professor, helped train the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.
A self-described progressive, he is running in Pennsylvania's Eighth District, in the Philadelphia suburbs, a seat now held by freshman Republican Michael Fitzpatrick.
''Those in power are arrogant and don't want to listen to the experts," said Murphy. ''We can speak truth to power."
Andrew Duck, 43, is running in rural Maryland's Sixth District, a seat held by seven-term Republican Roscoe Bartlett. Describing himself as a Democrat who is opposed to abortion, the former Army intelligence officer still works in the Pentagon as a contractor.
''I am very proud I helped get rid of Saddam Hussein, but I am also embarrassed at how badly we have messed it up since then," he said in a recent interview in a pizza shop near the Pentagon.
''People say there wasn't a plan. I know there was a plan," Duck said. ''Our problem was we were told [by Pentagon leaders] we can't use it."
Duck, who served as an intelligence liaison officer between ground forces in Iraq, believes the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainee prison camp is illegal and should be closed. But he said what ''broke the camel's back" was seeing firsthand the failure to provide adequate armor to protect US troops from insurgent attacks.
Indeed, others cite what they consider to be incompetent leadership as pushing them into politics.
''We were paying Iraqis 20,000 dinars a month and the looters were paying them 20,000 dinars a night," Ashe said in a telephone interview from his headquarters.
''I had a street-level view of the failures of postwar planning. We failed in setting up a bureaucracy, let alone a democracy."
Their concerns extend beyond Iraq. Chris Carney, a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve running in Pennsylvania's 10th District, said he has seen leaders mismanage the war on terror.
Carney, who was a senior Pentagon counterterrorism adviser, said: ''I have come to realize our country is no safer than it was before 9/11. We need to be spending far more resources in homeland security than we have been."
Tim Walz, a 41-year-old school teacher and 24-year veteran of the National Guard who was called up to active duty after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said he has decided to run in Minnesota's First District, a seat held by six-term Republican Gil Gutknecht, because of what he sees as ''the politicization of the military and politicians using them as a backdrop."
The Democratic candidates, labeled the ''Fighting Dems" by liberal Internet bloggers, say they are hoping to pool their resources and to rely on their collective power and influence to raise money and gain nationwide media attention.
''They are becoming an entity in and of themselves, almost a caucus," said Duga, the Democratic strategist.
Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, said he believes most recent veterans are running as Democrats because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ''is seeking to find as many vets as possible to run."
He said the Republicans, on the other hand, are looking for the best candidates, whether military veterans or not.
At least one new veteran will be appearing on the ballot as a Republican. In Texas's 17th Congressional District, now filled by an eight-term Democrat, Chet Edwards, 33-year-old Van Taylor, a Marine Corps major who led reconnaissance missions during the invasion of Iraq, is running in the GOP primary.
''It can only help to send people to Washington who have firsthand experience in the war on terror," Taylor said of his campaign effort.
''After 10 years in the Marine Corps I've learned a lot about the military and the war on terror," said the Harvard graduate, experience he said will be useful for ''many years to come."
Regardless of political party, most say they are running against the current political order, which they believe has failed to collaborate on a unified strategy.
''Both parties have pursued policies of division, and there is this gaping whole in the middle where I think most Americans reside," said Carney, who until recently served as an adviser to the deputy defense secretary's office, and who now is vying to unseat four-term Republican Don Sherwood.
''Those people need to be represented," he said. ''I don't know how we go from a country as united as it was on Sept. 12, 2001, to one as divided as we are today. That is what is propelling me in this race."
© 2005 Boston Globe