In 2003, Allen West was facing a possible court martial hearing that could have put him in prison.
Responsible for over six hundred men as a Lieutenant-Colonel in Iraq, West conducted a harsh interrogation in which he fired gun shots near the head of an Iraqi police officer he suspected of withholding information about a plot to kill him and some of the soldiers under his command. At a hearing over the incident, West defiantly declared that "if it's about the life of my men, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can." And though he said he may not have used the right methods, "if he had to err," he declared, "I would err on the side of not losing my soldiers."
Taking into account mitigating factors, the Army opted not to pursue a full court martial, though it did fine West and relieve him of his command, effectively ending his highly decorated 20-plus year Army career.
Six years later the only person the retired Army warrior threatens is Democratic Congressman Ron Klein of Florida's 22nd Congressional District.
The second term congressman won his seat in the picturesque South Florida district by unseating 13-term Republican representative Clay Shaw in 2006, a disastrous year for Republican incumbents. West, who worked as a high-school history teacher and then a civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan after his retirement from the Army, first decided to take a shot at Klein's congressional seat in 2008.
Despite the lack of support by the national party, a near 8 to 1 fundraising disadvantage, and a year in which a popular Democratic presidential nominee was on the ballot, West was able mount a strong showing against Klein, garnering 45% of the vote. Spurred by this better than expected performance, West, 48, is back for a rematch in 2010.
"No matter what you achieve in 22 years in the military, coming into politics is a brand new game," West told me during a recent interview at a Starbucks in Plantation, Florida. "So the party at the state and the national level wasn't too happy with me because I didn't come with millions of dollars in my pocket. But I did come with what I think a lot of people are looking for which is honor, integrity, and character."
Over the course of the hour-long interview, it became abundantly clear that while West may be running for political office, he wasn't an ordinary politician.
"There are three words I hate to hear used. I hate big-tent. I hate inclusiveness. And I hate outreach. I think you stand on the principles that make you great, which transcend everybody in America, and people will come to it," West said, outlining the uncompromising way he approaches politics.
Growing up lower-middle class and black in Atlanta's inner city, West views America as a place where you can achieve anything if you work hard and stand on principle. His father raised him to believe education is important and West heeded the lesson en route to obtaining two master's degrees in addition to his undergraduate degree.
"An empty wagon makes a lot of noise so you should always fill yourself with knowledge so you don't go out and you aren't just sounding and clanging like a symbol," West says--a lesson his father preached to him as a boy. "Education was heavily stressed, and I think that is what you see in my life."
Having spent 22 years as an officer in the military, West has strong opinions on foreign policy. He said that American leaders need a better understanding of the "Islamic terrorist enemy that we are up against."
"If we continue to show this enemy that we do not have the resolve and the resilience to stand and fight them, they are going to continue to press the attack," West said.
As for the threat of a nuclear armed Iran, West believes that if the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic "get a nuclear devise, they are going to use it" to hasten their apocalyptic vision. And since West does not see how another sanctions regime could possibly dissuade the Islamic Republic from pursuing their quest for nuclear weapons, he sees as the only option a targeted strike on Iran's nuclear installations not too dissimilar from the air raid Israel conducted against Syria's suspected nuclear program in 2007.
"Sooner or later we are going to have to do the exact same thing [in Iran]," West explained. "Either Israel is going to do it and we are going to back their call. Or we are going to have to do it.... You cannot continue to give concessions to a mad man."