After Jason Meszaros returned from combat in Afghanistan, he felt he could handle just about any of life's smaller difficulties.

He even thought he could handle a political caucus.

That may not sound like much of a challenge, but participating in the give-and-take of local politics and standing up for your beliefs in front of your neighbors can be daunting to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- especially when polls show that Iraq is one of the biggest issues (if not much discussed these days) in the presidential campaign.

"A lot of veterans say, 'That's not my place,'" said Meszaros, a computer software team manager and former Army Reserve captain who served in Afghanistan in 2004-05. "They say, 'My place was to go over there and do my duty, and I've done that.' But I'm asking them to step forward and go beyond that."

Meszaros, who lives in St. Michael with his wife, Karen, and infant daughter, Samantha, is leading a home-computer effort to get veterans to shed their reluctance to speak out and attend precinct caucuses on Feb. 5.

He supports the war and plans to caucus with Republicans as a backer of Sen. John McCain. But Meszaros says he doesn't care whether veterans go to a Republican, DFL or Independence Party caucus. He just wants them to share their experiences and opinions, and make themselves heard when the grassroots get to speak.

"I want to see veterans on both sides of the war issue come out to their caucuses," said Meszaros. Most veterans, he thinks, support the war. But he respects those who think differently, and credits First District Congressman Tim Walz, a Democrat and former National Guard soldier who has opposed the war, for being willing to raise the issue when he ran for office in 2006.

"I hope veterans will step forward and continue their service by having the courage and integrity to say what they saw over there -- whether it was positive or negative," Meszaros said. "Then, people will have the real story, not just the sound bites that the politicians throw at each other."

Meszaros wasn't sure if he was a Republican or a Democrat when he got back from Afghanistan, and he attended political debates on both sides of the divide until settling on the Republicans. But he was shocked when he attended his first GOP caucus in St. Michael and found that not enough people had showed up to fill out the slate of delegates his precinct was supposed to elect. He attributes that to the reluctance of average citizens -- including veterans -- to choose sides in a partisan atmosphere.

"A lot of veterans don't want to be associated with the far right or the far left," he said. "So they say, 'I'm an independent.' But at election time, everyone has to choose between Red or Blue. You have to choose one or the other. That's why I don't I think we will move forward in this country until we can get the mainstream involved. "

Meszaros and I are poles apart on the war in Iraq, but I share his concern for veterans' issues, including adequate funding for medical care. And he and I agree fundamentally on this (in his words): "There are a lot of soldiers overseas, still fighting a war. Let's not forget them."

Meszaros' efforts have been recently backed by groups such as Vets For Freedom, a group that includes prominent war supporters such as Sen. Joe Lieberman. But Meszaros began his effort in the homespun hope of getting all veteran viewpoints represented on Feb. 5. He began with simple chain-letter e-mails urging veterans to pass the word to others. (For more information, contact Meszaros at saintmichael@charter.net).

The effort quickly picked up speed (one veteran wrote 850 people) as more and more veterans stumbled on an ancient truth: "History," one pointed out, "belongs to those who show up."

With Minnesota's souped-up early caucuses part of the Tsunami Tuesday voting that may select the presidential candidates for November, a lot of new faces are expected to caucus on Feb. 5.

Many will be attending for the first time, and many may feel out of place, or wonder if they belong there because they may not subscribe to all the tenets of the partisan faiths. But they don't have to.

They just have to be willing to stand up, and serve their country. For some -- those who recently were in uniform -- that should be easy.

Because they already have.

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com