WASHINGTON-Allen West's journey to Capitol Hill began with a gunshot blast over the head of an Iraqi police officer.
In 2003, soldiers under then-Lt. Col. West's command had detained the Iraqi officer inside a military base north of Baghdad. The Americans believed he had information about a planned ambush of U.S. forces, but the Iraqi remained uncooperative. West fired his 9mm pistol near the prisoner's head. The frightened Iraqi cracked, providing the information West sought.
The U.S. military balked at West's interrogation technique and charged him with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Relieved of his command, West potentially faced years in prison. "I know the method I used was not right, but I wanted to take care of my soldiers," he testified at a hearing during the investigation. West avoided a court-martial, but his 22-year Army career was over.
Thousands of people wrote West to offer support, including 95 members of Congress who sent a letter backing West to the secretary of the Army. Now West is a colleague to many of those lawmakers.
West, 51, is the first black Republican to represent Florida since 1876. Pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and anti-big government, he admits he'd still be in the military if the controversial interrogation had not occurred: "As it says in Jeremiah chapter 29 verse 11 to 13, God knows the plans that He has for you. Sometimes He has to get you off one course and onto another. I don't see it as a bad thing. I see it as a time when my faith and my spirit were strengthened."
West may have his faith and spirit strengthened more this year after redistricting put more Democrats into his district along South Florida's east coast. West, who called the changes to his original district an ambush, decided to run for reelection in the new 18th Congressional District where Republicans have a slight edge.
West's blunt manner has made him a standout with conservatives. He was one of 59 House Republicans to vote against a deal with Democrats to prevent a partial federal government shutdown last spring, arguing that the nation's top lawmakers-both Republican and Democratic-must stop their band-aid approach to the country's fiscal situation.
Angered at GOP leaders for their minuscule spending cut proposals, West said last year that the leadership had "to sit down and have a come-to-Jesus with themselves." In December, West again lashed out at top Republicans. He said the House leadership "sold us down the road" over the last-minute agreement to extend the payroll tax credit for two months instead of a full year. West called the temporary extension "absolutely pathetic policy."
West is even more direct when it comes to Democrats. He said the military cuts President Barack Obama announced in January show "incompetence." Last year he called Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman also from Florida, "vile" and "despicable." He described the Democratic Party as "a 21st-century plantation" and called himself "a modern-day Harriet Tubman." He has said former Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels would be "very proud of the Democrat Party because they have an incredible propaganda machine."
West makes many of his fellow politicians uncomfortable with his harsh verbal attacks, but he displayed an easy rapport with rank-and-file Capitol Hill police officers during a walk to his office last year.
Most of Capitol Hill's lawmakers walk right by the army of security officers here, treating them like statues. But West knows many of them by name. "Look forward to seeing you on Fox," said one guard as West waited for his staff to go through a metal detector. "They can't get anyone else," joked West, who has become a regular on the conservative talk-show circuit.
West, who runs about 5 miles every morning, encouraged other guards stationed along the route to his office to get in their own daily exercise. "When you are a commander and it is one or two o'clock in the morning there is nothing wrong with going out to a soldier on guard post and spending 15 to 20 minutes chatting with them, asking them how they feel," he explained.
"People often forget who sent them to Washington," said Donna Brosemer, a Republican political consultant from South Florida who encouraged West to run for office: "But it is hard to imagine that ever happening to Allen."
West calls himself an introvert, "a little fat kid who used to get picked on" during his childhood in inner-city Atlanta. Suffering from severe asthma, he still enjoyed the outdoors. He fished, picked peaches for family-run roadside stores, climbed pecan trees so his grandmother could make fresh pies, and sold Cokes at Atlanta Braves baseball games.
He attended grade school right across the street from Martin Luther King Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church. West's family attended nearby Fort Street United Methodist Church, where he served as an altar boy and sang in the choir: "My parents invested in my spiritual growth as well as my physical and mental growth because they believed in the whole person concept. ... You knew where you were going to be on Sundays. That created a foundation for a life of faith."
His family also instilled in West a desire to serve in the military. His dad was wounded in Italy's Po Valley as an Army corporal during World War II. His mother worked for the Marines as a civilian, and his older brother served in Vietnam as a Marine.
West joined his high school's ROTC program in the ninth grade. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he became a full-time soldier. He says the military helped him step outside his comfort zone. He was afraid of heights, and his first military assignment was with an airborne infantry company: "You don't have to operate in the realm of fear." West, who talks in military metaphors and carries a camouflaged military bag instead of a plain briefcase, carries that attitude "to this battlefield up here in Washington, D.C."
West first ran for Congress in 2008, but lost to the incumbent Democrat, Rep. Ron Klein, by about 10 percentage points. "All I needed was more time," said West, who holds two master's degrees including one in political science.
During the next two years, fears over the rapid growth of government spawned the Tea Party. West became an early activist for the movement. His impromptu speech at a 2009 Tea Party rally in Ft. Lauderdale became an internet sensation, gaining more than 2 million views on YouTube. With only minutes to prepare, West called on conservatives to "stand up, to get your musket, to fix your bayonet, and to charge into the ranks."
In 2010, he faced Rep. Klein again. This time West had name recognition and more than $6.5 million in the bank. He won the House seat 54 percent to 46 percent-in a congressional district where fewer than 5 percent of the voters are black. Of 87 House Republican freshmen, West and Rep. Tim Scott from South Carolina became the first black Republican lawmakers in the House since 2003.
West shares with many Americans the sense that things are not right in Washington D.C.: "The thing that discourages me the most about crossing the Potomac is that there are people up here who are very comfortable with lying."
The military rank and file still back West whenever his 2003 shooting incident is brought up. "Most of us are familiar with your history and most of us love you for it," Col. Mike Miller told West last year during a meeting with a group of military officers. He told them, when discussing his entry into politics, "I went from the most respected profession to the least respected profession."
At the hearing over the shooting incident, West had said, "If it's about the lives of my soldiers at stake, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can." He's now in Congress, which some say has become hellish, with a different kind of gas can.