NEW YORK - Jon Soltz rapped his pen on a conference table as he ran through plans to take on politicians who back the war in Iraq.
The former Army captain and Iraq war veteran demanded television ads. "I want a hit on Fox," he barked into a speakerphone.
He seethed when the phone went dead during a discussion of an upcoming fundraiser. He raged about a war protest scheduled for Memorial Day: "It's offensive. I can't defend that."
There isn't much to the nerve center of his operation: three rooms lit by bare fluorescent lights on the seventh floor of a dingy Manhattan office building.
But in a little more than a year since he launched VoteVets. org, Soltz has helped transform the war debate in Washington by channeling the raw anger and frustration of many Iraq vets into a political campaign both sophisticated and visceral. Soltz, 30, and his band of mostly twenty- and thirtysomething veterans have shaken the GOP's claim to be the pro-military party. They accuse Republicans of recklessly sending troops to war without the right equipment and failing to care for thousands of wounded and traumatized vets.
During the 2006 election, VoteVets' stark attack ads featuring disillusioned veterans helped unseat Republicans in five states, including Sen. George Allen of Virginia and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, whose defeats gave Democrats an unexpected Senate majority.
This year, Soltz and VoteVets have been a constant presence on Capitol Hill, where they have emboldened Democrats to push for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Soltz works closely with liberal groups such as MoveOn. org as well as influential military officers like retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark. He has become something of a celebrity, sought out by the media, consulted by senior Democratic lawmakers and mobbed by antiwar activists.
At the recent Take Back America conference in Washington, Soltz basked in a standing ovation from a packed room of liberal convention-goers. Many jostled to get their pictures taken with him.
He is a regular on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" and "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," where he tangles with supporters of the war.
With a database of more than 40,000 supporters and donors, Soltz is planning to take on GOP presidential candidates next year, targeting their claim that they would be better guardians of national security. "You want to take your enemy's strength and make it his weakness," said Soltz, who likes to quote aphorisms of the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu.
"Jon Soltz seems to be exactly what progressives need," said Paul Begala, an influential Democratic strategist who worked on Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr.'s successful 2006 campaign against Santorum. "He has a pair of fists, and he knows how to use them."
Soltz, who has been home from Iraq for nearly four years, maintains the short hair and athletic build of a military officer and addresses strangers as "sir" and "ma'am." He discusses politics as if it were combat, speaking of the need to "fire rounds down range" and become the "lead elements of the battle."
He was a teenager when he decided on a military career; during a summer trip to Israel, he had become enamored of the Israeli army. At Washington & Jefferson College, a liberal arts school near Pittsburgh, he became a ROTC cadet and went to Army airborne school at Ft. Benning, Ga.
After college, he joined the Army's storied 1st Armored Division based inGermany. In 2000, he spent six months in Kosovo as part of a U.S. mission to separate the warring Serbian and Albanian populations.
Soltz was getting ready to leave active duty in 2003 when President Bush began assembling an invasion force to oust Saddam Hussein. Ordered to stay in the Army and prepare for war, he was thrilled.
He was certain American troops would quickly uncover chemical weapons stockpiles and silence the invasion's critics. "Iraq, I believed in it," he said.
Soltz's battalion crossed into Iraq from Kuwait in May 2003. Baghdad had fallen the month before. He and his comrades were eager for action so they could qualify for combat badges before the shooting stopped.
On his first night in Iraq, an insurgent ambush rained rocket-propelled grenades on his unit. The attack did nothing to dim Soltz's zeal. "It was a great day," he recalled.
But as the battalion settled into a logistics base about 15 miles south of Baghdad, the allure of the mission began to fade.
Soldiers at Camp Dogwood lived in tents and endured temperatures above 110 degrees. Despite the president's announcement weeks earlier that major combat was over, the unit's mostly unarmored trucks came under almost daily attack.As his battalion's transportation officer, Soltz was responsible for organizing the convoys that ferried fuel and supplies to units in Baghdad. "They were getting lit up," he said.
On the morning of June 22, 2003, a fuel convoy he had dispatched was ambushed in Baghdad. A few hours later, he learned one of his comrades was dead.
Orenthial J. Smith, a 21-year-old specialist from rural Allendale, S.C., was killed when shrapnel sliced through the back of his head. He had been riding in an unarmored truck.
As Soltz dwelt on Smith's death, shock gave way to anger. "These people aren't just like your friends," he said. "They're like your kids. You're responsible for their safety. And this kid died because he didn't have the right equipment. You think about these things, and they add up."
Soltz returned to Germany that September, shaken and exhausted. When he visited a comrade whose arm had been shattered by a roadside bomb, Soltz broke down. "I looked at this kid and thought, 'I hope this is all worth it,' " he said.
Back home in Pittsburgh that winter, Soltz decided to transfer to the Army Reserve and to work on a master's degree in international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. An encounter with a famous veteran from another era set him on a new course.
In the spring of 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, made a presidential campaign stop in Pittsburgh. Soltz went, curious about one of the generation's most famous opponents of the Vietnam War. He introduced himself, and the two men spoke briefly. Afterward, Kerry called Soltz at home.
"He said, 'I just want you to know that when I came home from Vietnam, I was angry like you, and that's OK,' " Soltz recalled. "Nobody in my life understood what was going on in my head at the time. Not my friends, not my family. But when someone like that says, 'I was like you, I understand your anger and your pain, do something with that,' that is speaking a language you can understand."
Soltz volunteered for the Kerry campaign, organizing outreach to veterans in Pennsylvania. Afterward, he helped raise money for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans running for Congress. But he was frustrated by the inability of war critics to influence U.S. policy.
Soltz believed the war was damaging military readiness and undermining the fight against international terrorism. He grew passionate about the need to get U.S. troops out of Iraq and into the hunt for Al Qaeda's leaders.
In early 2006, he and a handful of fellow vets founded VoteVets. Soltz set out to tap Americans' respect for the armed forces by making his war experience and that of other veterans the foundation of the organization.
"From the get-go, he didn't want to be 'antiwar,' " said Ed Vick, a longtime Republican political consultant and Vietnam veteran who sits on the VoteVets board. "This would be a strictly pro-military, pro-soldier, pro-veteran organization."
Soltz also drew on the political lessons he learned in 2004, when a series of Republican attack ads challenged Kerry's war record and combat medals. "Every other old-school veterans organization wants to play nice guy. Well, playing nice guy didn't get us enough body armor in Iraq," Soltz said. "Playing nice guy got us escalation in Iraq."
Working with grass-roots groups opposed to the war, Soltz and VoteVets took aim at Republican incumbents in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Montana and Missouri.
VoteVets' breakthrough was a 30-second TV commercial, made for just $15,000 with help from leading Democratic ad consultants, that linked several GOP lawmakers to inadequate body armor.
Soltz sent two vets to an Arizona gun range to illustrate the differences between the old armor many troops were given and newer vests that could stop rounds from an assault rifle.
As the camera rolled, one of Soltz's comrades fired an AK-47 at two mannequins wearing the vests. He then pulled each open to reveal the difference: four holes in the abdomen of the mannequin wearing the old body armor; none in the one with the new vest.
"Sen. George Allen voted against giving our troops this," Iraq veteran Peter Granato said, holding up the new vest in the ad that ran in Virginia. "Now it's time for us to vote against him."
Republicans accused VoteVets of distorting lawmakers' voting records. Allen and other GOP senators had opposed a 2003 amendment that would have increased funding for the National Guard and Reserves, but it would not have specifically allocated money for body armor.
"It was just another example of the many efforts that the Democrats have set up that play very loose with the facts," said Dick Wadhams, Allen's campaign manager. Wadhams dismissed VoteVets as a "partisan front group."
VoteVets was also criticized by the nonpartisan Annenberg Political Fact Check for misleading advertising. Nonetheless, the ad became a sensation, thanks in part to exposure on YouTube. By Soltz's estimate, the group raised $100,000 in the four days after the ad was posted online.
Jim Gerstein, a Washington-based Democratic consultant, tested more than 100 campaign commercials with focus groups. He found that the body-armor ad was the most effective by far of the 2006 midterm election. "I was blown away," he said.
More ads followed. In one, a wheelchair-bound veteran asks pointedly how Congress could accept a pay raise and vote to cut healthcare benefits for veterans.
By the time the new Democratic congressional majority took office in January, Soltz had decided to take his campaign to the Capitol.
On one of his first lobbying trips, Soltz wolfed down warmed scrambled eggs at a Best Western hotel on the unfashionable side of Capitol Hill between calls on his cellphone and a frenzied search for a tie.
He and his comrades, dressed in business suits rather than the jungle camouflage favored by an earlier generation of politically active vets, were in Washington to press lawmakers to oppose the president's plan to send more troops to Baghdad. Rather than a "surge," VoteVets wanted U.S. combat troops withdrawn from Iraq.
Sen. Jon Tester, a freshman Democrat from Montana, was receptive. So was Kerry. In Republican offices, the vets often had to settle for meetings with aides, who listened politely.
Soltz acknowledgef he changed few minds. But he developed close working relationships with Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, who have increasingly looked to VoteVets to bolster their push for a withdrawal and to shield them from GOP rhetoric equating opposition to the war with selling out the troops.
Soltz was one of a handful of outsiders invited to address House Democrats at their annual retreat in February in Williamsburg, Va. He drew a standing ovation with a tearful appeal to help bring the war to an end.
Since then, VoteVets members have traveled to Capitol Hill to stand with Democrats at news conferences around nearly every major vote challenging Bush's war strategy. "They need to know we've got their backs," Soltz said.
Soltz seems perpetually in campaign mode. He splits his time among a friend's couch in Pittsburgh, his parents' house in suburban Washington and a small room he sublets from a friend in New York. His spartan Manhattan office is decorated with little more than a few snapshots of Army buddies and one of him briefing U.S. commanders in a bunker in Kosovo.
Standing behind his desk in a blue blazer and conservative tie -- attire that allows him to go on television on a moment's notice -- Soltz smiled as he talked about his next project: the 2008 election. "Our goal is to be the No. 1 player on the No. 1 issue facing the country," he said.
Between checking his e-mail and posting on a liberal blog, he signed checks for the congressional reelection campaigns of two Iraq war veterans whom VoteVets backed in 2006. He took a call from a staffer with John Edwards' presidential campaign about veterans' issues.
He strategized with an advisor about a VoteVets fundraiser in the Hamptons. It was to be hosted by one of the Democratic Party's biggest donors, but Soltz wanted to feature a Republican, retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who left the Army to protest the war in Iraq.
VoteVets has raised more than $4 million in the last year and has plans to donate some to three more Iraq veterans running for House seats in Ohio, New York and Maine.
He also has his eyes on the presidential race. Although Soltz does not plan to endorse a candidate, he does not mince words in discussing Republican contenders.
"Rudy Giuliani?" he said of the former New York mayor. "Come on! One, two, three draft deferments? Is this guy really ready to be commander in chief?"
"Mitt Romney?" Soltz scoffed. "Zero foreign policy experience."
VoteVets has run ads lambasting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for backing Bush's troop surge. Soltz said the organization would remain on the offense throughout the 2008 campaign.
"Everything else VoteVets has done has been warm-up," he said. "We're going to play in the big leagues."
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times