By the time all of this year's primary votes have been cast, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will have talked directly to hundreds of thousands of voters. But the strong voices of the eight Iraq war veterans who sat down with them this week as part of "Choose or Lose Presents Clinton & Obama Answer Young Veterans" will likely resonate for years to come. So who are these soldiers, and what was their path here? Here's a primer ...
Before this 23-year-old UCLA student served as an Army intelligence officer in Iraq and Kuwait, she had actually participated in anti-war demonstrations. "My parents were both linguists in the military. I'm not against the military — I'm against it being misused," she explained. She said that she didn't expect the U.S. to launch military action in Iraq when she enlisted, but soon she found herself serving as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where her role as an intel officer placed her near the heart of the conflict. "You have to deal with people close to you dying on a daily basis," Correa said. "That will mess you up."
But she didn't know the extent of that impact until she returned home, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She also quickly learned about the lack of support for female veterans suffering from the syndrome. "So you're telling me that I have PTSD, but that you can't do anything about it?" she said. "Thanks.
"What I want to hear from candidates is that they're going to take care of veterans and take care of our soldiers."
Like so many, Chris was sparked to serve in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. "[It] awoke some kind of anger in every American," he said, adding that he also had "a natural desire to experience combat."
The Marine served two tours in Iraq, working to secure Fallujah and earning a Purple Heart in the process after an improvised explosive device (IED) sent shrapnel tearing into his face, neck and hands.
Now a budding video producer, the 26-year-old also tries to tell a complete story of his life in Iraq — of insurgents recklessly attacking their own countrymen, and of soldiers doing good work on the ground for decent Iraqis. "We tried to reconnect that human bond, and I think we did," he said.
Those experiences weigh heavily as the election approaches. "My experience in Iraq, in Fallujah, is definitely sticking in my side," he said. "A premature withdrawal from Iraq is one of the most disastrous things we could ever do."
Loud, brash and quick to laugh, this 23-year-old Army reservist served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. "It's like being in college, but without tests," he joked.
But that sense of humor was put to the test constantly and immediately — he came under fire shortly after landing in Baghdad, before he had even been issued protective gear or a weapon. "It seemed like we were set up for failure," he said. "A lot of the time, you don't have the tools to get the job done, but you know you have to get the job done."
He recalled one instance when he found himself installing barbed wire without protective gloves. "You just grab it and go," he said. "You take the pain and keep going."
Those experiences are now helping to put Ernest through college in Connecticut, and he wears them with pride in a fresh tattoo still healing on his right arm. "We're all going to die, but dying a civilian and dying a soldier are two different things," he said.
A diminutive college student from Santa Monica, California, Wendell's fresh face belies the experiences that earned him multiple honors, including a Purple Heart, by the age of 22. Inspired to serve by the events of 9/11, Wendell wound up with the 82nd Airborne. He was hit by shrapnel from a grenade while overseeing an Iraqi election site. "I saw it, I focused on it, and it felt like time stopped," he recalled. "I thought, 'I'm going to die.' "
He saved not only himself but several of his comrades, earning one of his many honors and medals. But his experiences have also left him with PTSD; he takes four different types of medication to manage his days and calm his nightmares. He finds himself searching for snipers at the mall and watching for IEDs as he drives down the 405 freeway. "We need more health care," he said. "One in six veterans are effected by this, and that number is only going to go up."
A tough product of the Bronx, Noel enlisted in the Army in the hope of building a better life for his family. And while serving in Iraq, he gained a whole new perspective on the life he'd left behind. "I was with little guys who had so much more heart than these rappers," he recalled. "Each and every one of them in your unit will die for you, will take a bullet for you. You don't get that in the streets. It's bigger than the Bloods. It's bigger than the Crips. It's fighting for a cause."
But when he returned, he found that his fight was far from over. "When I came home to my country, to America, I felt disgusted," he said. "You come home to fight another war, a mental war."
With a knee injury, PTSD and little support, the 28-year-old eventually found himself living on the street. He continues to fight — not just for himself but for all his fellow vets. He brought his struggle to the award-winning documentary "When I Came Home," and continues to fight for transitional housing, better health care and, most importantly, a higher degree of respect for vets.
"If Paris Hilton farts, the media goes crazy. But if a soldier get shot in the face or dies in the street, you don't hear anything," he said. "We're the ones fighting to keep this country strong, not those people drinking their lattes every morning. No matter what kind of war it is, good or bad, the soldiers are there."
The 29-year-old's bright smile and warm demeanor give no indication of the horrors she saw in Iraq as a Medical Service Corps officer. McDermott was among the first to respond when a suicide bomber attacked a mess hall in Mosul. Her unit fought for six hours, treating 97 soldiers that day. In the end, 23 lives were lost, but many more were saved.
"I say it's the worst and best day of my life," she said, the memory still drawing tears. "I've never seen such destruction, or such an outpouring of help."
She still holds on to fond memories from Iraq as well, of water-balloon fights, dinners with friends and endless pranks. But the darker moments still take a toll, and she — like so many of her comrades — suffers from PTSD. "When you save a soldier's life, the entire medical staff feels it, and when you lose a soldier's life, the entire medical staff feels it," she said. "America can't really understand what it feels like to look down at a row of body bags."
While on patrol in Fallujah, this Marine hopped out of his vehicle to talk to another member of his convoy. Just then, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades rained down on Groves and his unit. "That's the last thing I remember," he said. Eight days later, Ryan woke in a hospital bed in Washington, D.C. — and that's where his battle really began. The blast cost him his left leg and severely damaged his right. As he recovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he fought repeated bouts of infection and depression. "The optimism just came crashing down," Groves explained. "It's a pretty damn depressing place."
Beyond lacking facilities, Ryan said he and his fellow vets don't receive the guidance and support they need while rehabbing. "I needed preparation for dealing with the real world, and I never got that." Now, he fights to make sure that returning injured veterans get the care they deserve. "These guys are heroes with issues. We all are," Ryan said.
Now a pre-law student at Georgetown University, Ryan is on track, and hopes to help other vets through their transitions. "I had a bad spell in the hospital, and Iraq was hard, but I'm as lucky as they come."
Hailing from an affluent background, Max found himself floundering as a student at Vanderbilt University. Lacking direction and discipline, he saw a path to both after the 9/11 attacks and dropped out of school to enlist.
He soon found himself serving as a recon infantry soldier, hiding in abandoned buildings and living with Iraqi families to observe trouble spots. "We developed some pretty interesting relationships with the families we stayed with," Nitze said, recalling many family meals and off-hours spent playing PlayStation with Iraqi children.
He bolstered his spirits during dangerous missions with what he called his "spiritual task force" — small figurines of Bhudda, Ghanesh and a St. Christopher medal. His most precious token of all, though, was a tattoo designed by his fiancée that he had inked over his heart. "I'm very, very superstitious," he explained, noting that he once lost his night-vision goggles but never lost his "task force."
Max survived — and emerged the disciplined man that he had hoped to become. Now studying at Harvard, he wrestles with new reservations and new concerns.
"I'm having a hard time reconciling the fact that the Iraq War will go down in history as one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in U.S. history," he said.
After watching "Choose or Lose Presents Clinton & Obama Answer Young Veterans,"head here for additional material, including profiles of the Iraq veterans featured in the show.