Meet the Iraq War veteran and presidential candidate who wants to carry on John McCain’s legacy of public service for a new generation

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Scott Olson/Getty Images; Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call; Brian Snyder/Reuters; Samantha Lee/Business Insider

  • Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts is running in the 2020 US presidential election.
  • Moulton, a former Marine Corps infantry officer and combat veteran, carried his military experience throughout his political career and hopes it will resonate with voters in the 2020 presidential election.
  • “I believe it’s time for a new generation of leadership in our politics,” Moulton said to INSIDER. “I believe we need a nominee for our party who can not only beat Donald Trump, but can bring the party and the country back together again once we do.”
  • Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.

‘A call to action’

In 2013, Democrat Seth Moulton had a calling to serve on Capitol Hill.

After unseating Democratic Rep. John Tierney – an 18-year incumbent and a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – in the Massachusetts 6th Congressional District general election, he went on to cement his seat when he ran uncontested in his district’s primary election last year.

Now, the 40-year-old congressman is trying to bring his voice to the 2020 presidential debates as a Democratic candidate.

“I believe it’s time for a new generation of leadership in our politics,” Moulton said to INSIDER. “I believe we need a nominee for our party who can not only beat Donald Trump, but can bring the party and country back together again once we do.”

But Moulton found a different calling before he began his political career.

Moulton said that as a college student in 2001, he was inspired to join the military through a quote adorned at Harvard University’s church:

“While a bright future beckoned, they freely gave their lives and fondest hopes for us and our allies, that we might learn from them courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others.”

“It’s not just a memorial – it’s a call to action,” Moulton said during a sermon at Harvard. “And to me that quote summarized what I learned in these pews: that it’s not enough just to graduate here with some good ideas, some good beliefs.”

“You ought to do something with it, and it ought to be something that benefits others, not just yourself,” he added.

Moulton considered joining the Army but ultimately set his sights on the Marines. In the summer of 2001, he began his paperwork to earn the title of a Marine Corps infantry officer.

A few months later, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. Moulton said he signed his military contract the following month.

Read more: ‘Now is not the time for silence’: Lawmaker calls for action after Las Vegas shooting

Moulton went on to receive his commission and deployed four times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom – a war he says, he fundamentally disagrees with and describes as “disastrously poor.”

It was during the first firefight as an infantry platoon leader that he felt truly humbled and witnessed “first-hand how much responsibility I had.”

Moulton fought in two major battles in the Iraq War and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal with accompanying “V” devices for valor. His award citations reportedly included “fearlessly [exposing] himself to enemy fire” after four of his Marines were wounded.

While there are plenty examples of lawmakers embellishing their military record, Moulton continues to underplay his service. During his initial bid for Congress, few people knew of his merit-based awards – including his parents and the majority of his campaign staff, according to The Boston Globe.

Moulton played down his service when asked about his portrait of a war hero: “My heroes are the Marines I’ve served with,” Moulton said to INSIDER. “I just did what thousands of other veterans have done before and after me.”

Following his military contract, Moulton has been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War and joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers to curb the broad funding for the wars against terrorism.

“While I believe that the war was a mistake, I don’t regret doing what I could to serve our country by leading the 36 brave, young Marines in my platoon,” Moulton said in a campaign video in 2013. “I learned what service really means.”

Read more: Photos show moment President George W. Bush learned of 9/11 attacks

1st Lt. Seth Moulton, second from the left, during a battle in Najaf, Iraq, August 2004.

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1st Lt. Seth Moulton, second from the left, during a battle in Najaf, Iraq, August 2004.
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Lucian Read/SethMoulton.com

‘It’s time for the generation that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan to take over for the generation who sent us there’

Moulton’s ties to the military didn’t end after the Marine Corps. He carried his experience to Capitol Hill and the House Armed Services Committee, where he believed Congress needed to fill its ranks with more military veterans.

He raised millions of dollars through the Serve America PAC, his veteran-boosting political action committee. Between January 2017 and September 2018, the PAC raised $2 million and was the third-highest Democratic leadership fundraiser, according to POLITICO.

Moulton’s endorsement of “a new generation of leaders” paid off during the 2018 midterm elections. The candidates, many of whom have military or intelligence agency backgrounds, flipped House seats in states like Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

“I think we need to give a voice to a new generation of leaders who are stepping up across the country,” Moulton said. “We need more political leaders to put the country before political party. I think that’s what Americans are looking for, and that’s why you saw veterans do so well in the 2018 midterms.”

“We want leaders that we can trust, we want leaders who are going to do the right thing for their country,” Moulton added. “Those who have had experience doing that in the past, literally putting their lives on the line for America, know what public service means.”

Read more: Veterans unloaded on a Senate candidate’s comments about military service

No better enemy, no worse friend

As a congressman, Moulton considers President Donald Trump’s tenure as commander-in-chief an embarrassment.

As a retired Marine, he considers it a personal insult.

“I’d love to be on the debate stage with Trump and ask him how his bone spurs are doing,” Moulton said, referring to Trump’s controversial bone spur diagnosis that kept him from serving in the Vietnam War.

Moulton said he disagrees with Trump’s bold claims of having done more to help the military than any previous president.

“He’s not putting America first when he undermines our constitution and our values,” Moulton said to INSIDER. “In fact, he keeps forgetting what America is all about.”

Moulton deferred to the motto of the 1st Marine Division, where he served under the broad leadership of then-Maj. Gen. James Mattis: “Our division motto was ‘no better friend, no worse enemy,’ and this is a motto for our country.”

“But Trump is doing the exact opposite,” Moulton said. “He’s abandoning our friends and allies across the globe. He’s cozying up to some of the worlds worst dictators. And fundamentally, he’s a commander-in-chief that we can’t trust.”

Read more: Marine Corps general reportedly leaked a sensitive memo questioning Trump’s border plan

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona walks past the iron bars of a jail cell within 'Hanoi Hilton' during a tour.

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Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona walks past the iron bars of a jail cell within ‘Hanoi Hilton’ during a tour.
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Reuters

One of these friends that Moulton refers to is the late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the longtime lawmaker whose willingness to work across the political aisle earned him the nickname “Maverick.”

McCain leaves behind a storied legacy following his death from brain cancer – a legacy that spans Congress and the military, where his own tribulations earned him numerous meritorious awards.

“John McCain is an American hero,” Moulton said. “And though I didn’t always agree with him politically, I was proud to work with him to support our country and to support our troops.”

But President Donald Trump continues to disagree with that assessment and hasn’t been shy about his feelings towards McCain. Trump has vexed some of his most ardent supporters, including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, by continuing to make disparaging comments against the late senator.

“They’re pathetic as usual,” Moulton said of Trump’s attacks. “[McCain] continues to intimidate the president even from the grave.”

Read more: ‘Pathetic and telling’: Meghan McCain responds after Trump reportedly taunted John McCain after his death

Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin in the Armistice Room between the border of North and South Korea.

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Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin in the Armistice Room between the border of North and South Korea.
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Courtesy of Seth Moulton

Like many others who have shared their memorable encounters with McCain, Moulton also revealed a special moment with the late senator.

In 2017, Moulton was part of a congressional delegation to the Asia-Pacific. One of his stops included Hoa Lo Prison, also known as Vietnam’s “Hanoi Hilton,” where McCain was subjected to torture and solitary confinement for over five years during the Vietnam War.

McCain paused to deliver a few remarks as the delegation toured the prison.

“At one point, he stopped and talked about how proud he was to serve the country, both in the Navy and in Congress,” Moulton recounted to INSIDER.

McCain then turned and pointed towards Moulton and Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a newly-elected 33-year-old Republican congressman and retired Marine.

McCain’s next words stuck with Moulton ever since: “And there’s a new generation of veterans stepping up to serve as well.”

“I’m just trying to carry on that tradition,” Moulton said.

Read more: The incredible life of John McCain in photos

“There’s other white men running – we have plenty of those”

Moulton still faces a significant hurdle on the road to the Democratic primaries: his candidacy comes at a time when the Democratic field is crowded with political heavyweights.

Two dozen Democrats have announced their candidacies with less than a year away from the Iowa Democratic caucuses in February. Candidates like Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a frontrunner in the 2016 US presidential election, already has a two-month head start and raised $18.2 million in the first six weeks of announcing his campaign.

But Moulton won’t just be running against Democrats with big coffers. The moderate Democrat’s policy proposals are similar to that of his more progressive colleagues – including implementing the Green New Deal, making sweeping changes to the US electoral process, and eliminating the Senate filibuster.

Moulton also faces other candidates with similar backgrounds. Unlike the 2016 Democratic primaries where the only candidate with military experience was former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, Moulton has the challenge of distinguishing himself from others veterans:

  • Former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37, served in the US Navy Reserve and deployed to Afghanistan as an intelligence officer.
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, 38, currently serves in the Hawaii Army National Guard and deployed with a medical unit to Iraq.

Read more: Seth Moulton is running for president in 2020. Here’s everything we know about the candidate and how he stacks up against the competition

Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Seth Moulton at a Democratic gala in Indiana, September 14, 2017.

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Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Seth Moulton at a Democratic gala in Indiana, September 14, 2017.
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@PeteButtigieg/Twitter

Moulton, who in recent weeks hosted speaking tours for veterans organizations in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, said he bore no grudge against the Democratic candidates.

Moulton particularly has close ties to Buttigieg, who graduated from Harvard three years after he did. (Moulton did not know of Buttigieg when he attended Harvard, but previously appeared at Democratic-sponsored events for Buttigieg in Indiana.)

“I have great respect for all the other candidates who are running,” Moulton said. “But I’m going to leave it to Americans across the country on determining if I can contribute to that conversation in a helpful way.”

Democratic strategists like Rebecca Katz, a former campaign advisor to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, said Moulton and his policy proposals will have difficulty standing out from the slew of other candidates.

“I think with this many candidates running, you have to make a clear case that if you’re going to enter the race, it’s because you have something,” Katz said. “And I don’t believe [Moulton] has something that the other candidates don’t.”

Katz described Moulton’s résumé as an “amazing personal story” but said it was not enough to distinguish him from other candidates.

“There’s other white men running – we have plenty of those,” Katz said. “There’s other members of Congress. There’s other people who have served. There’s other millennials. What is his case? I don’t know.”

Nathan Ballard, a former spokesman for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, had more colorful words for the presidential hopeful: “Moulton is in the bottom tier of candidates. His chances of winning are the same as an asteroid hitting Manhattan, exploding, and scattering pieces of candy all over the Central Park like a giant piñata.”

Moulton’s poll numbers are also indicative of an uphill battle. Based on a recurring series of national surveys, INSIDER was unable to determine the viability of his candidacy. Another Monmouth University poll revealed that 56% of Iowa Democrats who were likely to vote had never heard of him.

“This candidacy has the aroma of a ‘profile-raising’ run,” Ballard said. “Deep down, Moulton knows he is primarily running to boost his [name] for future races.”

Moulton didn’t rule out the possibility of running for higher office in the future, so long as he could continue serving the nation.

“There are always going to be critics in politics,” Moulton said. “I’m going to do what I believe is best for the country.”