Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017. Military Times reached out to his campaign for answers on several questions related to his military and veteran policy plans if he is elected president.
To see all of the candidate responses, click here.
President Donald Trump has touted that the U.S. military is now stronger than ever before, due to increases in military spending and fewer battlefield restrictions on troops. What is your assessment of the current state and readiness of the armed forces? Are they in a better place than they were four years ago? Why?
Even after nearly two decades of war, the United States military is the preeminent fighting force in the world. Yet there is no question we can do more to prepare our military for the challenges of tomorrow, including standing by our allies and deterring hostile actions by near-peer competitors. The tragic collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain are an unfortunate example of how increased military spending does not automatically translate into better practices for a military that has been operating at a high pace and with expanded missions.
The Trump administration’s increase in military spending, which seeks to add more troops, more planes, and more nuclear weapons, does not address the readiness demands of the current force, often prioritizing quantity over quality. As president, I will lead civilian and military leaders to both pay greater scrutiny to how the military allocates to advance the American people’s interests.
Furthermore, military readiness is not just about equipment. It’s about direction, leadership, and the esprit de corps of every American who puts on the uniform. I am extremely concerned how decisions, such as the abrupt abandonment of our reliable Kurdish and Arab partners in Syria, will impact the military’s morale.
Additionally, the president’s efforts to publicly interfere in the military justice system and his offers to pardon people accused of war crimes sends a dangerous message of impunity that will corrode the discipline that our armed forces require and pride themselves in. The U.S. military can only be as ready as it’s commander-in-chief is fit to lead, and on this President Trump has unquestionably brought our military to a worse position than four years ago.
After one year of your administration, what size will the U.S. troop presence be in Afghanistan? In Syria and Iraq? In Europe?
For almost two decades, we have asked our military to endure multiple deployments, unforgiving operational tempo, and involvement in a seemingly ever-growing list of conflicts around the world. As president, I will be committed to ending the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq through a political and diplomatic solution. Regardless of erratic decisions President Trump makes in the next year, our goal will be to end the conflicts in ways that guarantee the safety of those who fought with us, lay the groundwork for peaceful resolutions, and ensure that terrorist groups cannot again use these countries as bases for future attacks.
We will support the people of these countries on the path to peace and prosperity while working to remove our troops from a combat role. We will also support the continuing fight against extremism with all the tools of American power, not as unilateral aggressors, but as partners in security.
In Europe, I strongly support our commitments to NATO, including the stationing of U.S. forces in Europe with the consent of our European allies. I also support increased military coordination and the U.S. troop presence in Poland and the Baltic States to deter Russian aggression. I will never forget the support of our Canadian and European allies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the only time NATO’s Article V commitment to collective defense has been invoked, and the Canadians, Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, and other allies who have fought and died alongside their American allies in Afghanistan. We will always stand by them and our nation’s treaty commitments.
Our European allies need to do more to build on their own military capabilities, yet the United States should support their development as partners, not threaten to punish them for any underinvestment. Rather than focus on the commitment from NATO members to dedicate two percent of their GDP on defense, I will prioritize more accurate measures of commitment based on military readiness. Specifically, I will focus on achieving the goals of the Four Thirties NATO Readiness Initiative: NATO allies should be able to assemble 30 land battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat vessels capable of deploying in 30 days or less.
What is the top personnel policy problem you see facing the armed forces today? How will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
As an all-volunteer military, we depend on America’s talented young people to courageously serve our country. We need to do everything we can to ensure that those who do volunteer are treated with dignity and respect. This is essential to addressing the personnel challenges our military faces today: recruiting and retaining top talent, honoring the service of everyone, and doing right by our military families. Our military must look towards a 21st model of talent management that allows for mobility in and out of service.
This means fixing the “up or out” culture, which forces out qualified and talented service members who do not receive promotions, and creating new incentives and protections for those who move in and out of active and reserve duty status. We also need to do better by our reservists and guardsmen by working with the private sector to fully support these citizen-soldiers in meeting their commitments to their country and their families, including by increasing federally-mandated leave for military service and ending the continued and sustained use of reserve and National Guard units as part of ongoing operations. As president, recruiting and retaining talent will be a top national security priority.
We must honor those who serve by allowing them to serve as who they are. This means ensuring LGBTQ servicemembers the equal rights and privileges as everyone else who wears the uniform, including in health care from Tricare and the VA. We must strengthen the path to citizenship for those who serve and for their family members, including by putting an end to deportations of veterans or military family members, allowing deported veterans to return, and directly supporting non-citizens in the ranks through the naturalization process.
Finally, we must address the scourge of sexual harassment and assault in the military. Members of the military should never fear abuse or being attacked by people they live and work with while in service to our nation. As president, we will pass the Military Justice Improvement Act to ensure victims have fair investigations and recourse.
Lastly, we must take care of the military families who sacrifice so much in support of their loved one and our nation. This means providing career and family support for military spouses as they relocate from post to post, enhancing educational and child care services, and investing in upgrades to housing facilities, including the basics like clean water and removal of toxic chemicals and biohazards. No member of our military should feel like their family is worse off for their decision to serve.
Should the Defense Department budget increase or decrease? To what level?
Our nation’s defense budget is the largest in the world. The United States also has the largest economy in the world and is at the nexus of a global system of alliances and relationships. Yet there is no question that we can allocate these extraordinary resources more prudently. Since 9/11, we have committed almost 6 trillion dollars to wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Niger, and other countries; ending or reducing combat operations in these countries alone would bring significant savings to our government, reduce yearly military spending, and free up resources for much needed investments at home.
We can also end spending on legacy systems developed in the Cold War and start investing in 21st Century technologies to keep us safe in the future in areas such as cryptography, electronic warfare, and cybersecurity. It is a priority in particular to ensure that Russia, China, and other foreign powers, are successfully deterred from engaging in any cyber or disinformation operations against our society, our democracy, and our economy. We can do all this at an overall cost savings as we invest in other tools of American power such as a renewed, empowered, and strengthened State Department to advance American leadership and security.
What is your plan to deal with the rising number of suicides in the military and veterans community?
The high rates of veteran and active-duty suicides are tragic and the causes are complex. Last year was the worst year on record for veteran suicides, and our youngest veterans are experiencing higher rates of suicide compared to thier older counterparts. As president, I will devote every resource necessary to identify root causes, and get the necessary care to the people who need it. That includes integrating mental health checks into pre- and post-deployment screenings, ensuring all veterans have the mental health care they deserve through the VA, and integrating information sharing between the DoD and the VA to maintain continuity of records.
At the same time, we must push back against hurtful stereotypes of the “damaged veteran” that prevents veterans from finding opportunities and stigmatizes those seeking care. As a nation, we must eliminate the distinction between mental and physical health care, and invest in improving our mental health infrastructure.
Our service members come from all over our nation, bringing their unique experiences from their communities. Addressing mental health is bigger than just a military problem, it is an American problem. Millions of Americans suffer in silence because of the stigma of mental health. We must ensure that our military culture encourages those who serve to seek help if they need it while serving and afterwards.
What would be your top policy priority involving veterans, and how will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
The debt our nation owes those who served in our armed forces can never be repaid. We must make sure that we care of our servicemembers and their families when they return to civilian life and ensure they are able to take advantage of good job opportunities and put the skills learned in uniform to good use. We also need to keep improving the VA health care system, so that veterans always have the high-quality health care they deserve. My top priority will be to end veteran homelessness.
I am very proud that while serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development we achieved a significant reduction in veteran homelessness - almost halving it from 2011 to 2017. As president, I will finish the job and ensure that every one of the thousands of veterans struggling to find permanent housing has a safe, decent, and dignified place to live. If I am elected, this nation will eliminate veteran homelessness by the end of my first term in office.
Have administration officials gone too far in pushing veterans’ health care services into the private sector? Would you repeal or alter existing VA community care programs?
Heath care is a human right. No one in this country, especially our current and former service members, should be denied affordable, high-quality health care. For the millions of veterans who rely on the Veteran’s Affairs health care system, privatization raises genuine concerns, which is why I will never support privatization of the VA health care system.
I also support veterans receiving specialized or private care in situations where wait times, distance, or quality makes that the preferred option. Additionally, we must address disparities in access to VA care, in particular on Tribal lands, and invest in new facilities to provide the specialized care veterans deserve and need. I will oppose efforts to cut funding for VA community care programs. As president, I will ensure that the VA health care system is fully funded and is the first choice of as many veterans as possible, living up to our nation’s promise to our veterans.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.