South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg served in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 2009 to 2017, including a deployment to Afghanistan. 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?
Strategy to improve readiness of forces prepared to fight a near-peer enemy, such as Russia or China, was established under the Obama administration, and was starting to bear fruit. But President Trump’s impulsive foreign policy decisions have had negative effects on readiness by sowing confusion among military commanders and battlefield troops through abrupt, about-face decisions about our mission in Syria and Afghanistan; by casually threatening military action against Iran and North Korea; and by damaging critical security and military partnerships with our key allies and partners.
After one year of your administration, what size will the U.S. troop presence be in Afghanistan? In Syria and Iraq? In Europe?
The size of troop presence in any theater depends on missions determined by overall strategy and long-term goals, which are well-developed by our political, military, diplomatic and intelligence leaders, not by arbitrary or capricious decision-making based on personal or political interests and executed on a whim.
The next president must set a high bar on the use of force, and an exceedingly high bar on doing so unilaterally. We will stand ready to use force under specific, lawful circumstances and when there is no peaceful alternative. I believe we should use force when there is a clear and present threat to the United States; when it’s necessary to deter and defend against an attack on or imminent threat against the United States, our citizens at home or abroad, or our treaty allies; and when we act as part of a legitimate international coalition to prevent genocide or other atrocities. But when we must use force, we must also have an end game.
In situations like Syria and Afghanistan, large numbers of land troops are not necessary to achieve our stated goals there. Small contingents of special operations forces and intelligence capabilities can be more effective, particularly in tandem with regional allies and partners. President Trump opened a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences and harm to our credibility with his ill-considered decision to give a green light to the Turkish incursion into Syria. Afghanistan: I’ve seen first-hand the costs of our long conflict in Afghanistan. It’s time to end this endless war, and the only question remaining is whether we do it well or recklessly.
The best path forward is a negotiated peace agreement, involving the Afghan government, in which we bring our ground troops home, even as we maintain a residual Special Operations presence to help ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a base for terrorist attacks against the United States or its allies.
Syria: In Syria, my administration would balance our commitment to end endless wars with the recognition that total isolationism is self-defeating in the long run. Chronic instability in Syria and Iraq threatens US national security in a number of ways. We cannot simply pretend that these risks do not exist. By impulsively and erratically pulling the small number of U.S. tripwire troops out of Syria, this President betrayed our Kurdish battlefield partners to disastrous effect, against the advice of essentially every diplomatic, military and intelligence advisor. ISIS detainees have escaped prison and are preparing for a renewed insurgency.
Our Syria policy today suffers from a lack of strategic clarity and poor execution, which is damaging America’s credibility in the region and around the world.
Iraq: American troops remain in Iraq to support the continued multinational fight against ISIS. In Iraq, our troops are working by, with, and through Iraq’s security forces and in partnership with NATO and over 30 other nations. A limited presence of non-combat troops helps train Iraqi security forces, deter adversaries, and counter extremist groups like ISIS. I believe that maintaining this limited presence is necessary to promote stability in Iraq and protect our broader national interests in the Middle East.
Europe: It is in the interest of the United States to uphold our commitment to security interests and democratic values shared with our European allies and partners. Our troop presence in Europe helps deter foreign aggression; preserve international peace and stability; and facilitate rapid deployment of U.S. troops when and where they need to engage to protect U.S. national interests. I want to ensure that U.S. and NATO forces in Europe remain a credible deterrent to any Russian aggression.
My administration will encourage Europeans to do more for their own security as well as continue to serve as force multipliers for American capabilities. I will work with our military leaders to determine the troop levels needed to achieve these goals.
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?
We must support service members throughout their military journey, and integrate veterans back into society in ways that honor their service and experience, respect and meet their needs and those of the families that support them, and enable them to continue to contribute to building a better America. In particular, when we ask our service members to bravely put their lives on the line for America, we must be ready to provide our service members and their families with the care they need to recover from the wounds of war.
Many of our veterans return home with wounds — visible and invisible — only to experience challenges in accessing the benefits that were promised to them for their service. Our veterans need and deserve convenient, timely, transparent, effective, and respectful mental health support. Mental health support must be available to veterans when they need it; not just during work hours.
As president, I will work with Congress to usher in a new standard for VA best-in-class mental health care in the 21st Century, and I will ensure that every veteran — as well as every member of their family — will have access to affordable insurance through Medicare for All Who Want It.
Should the Defense Department budget increase or decrease? To what level?
America’s security challenges demand a military budget that provides both the overall capacity and specific capabilities to deter conflict across the globe and fight and win if necessary. I’ve been clear that we need to maintain absolute military superiority. The question of how much we should spend should be defined by where and how we need to spend it to best protect our citizens and our interests.
We must ensure that our investments are defined by 21st-century realities, and we must be proactive in addressing global military changes. The Chinese are investing huge resources in artificial intelligence. If they develop artificial intelligence and predictive computing superiority over the United States, then the most expensive ships and planes and units we’re putting out in the field just become bigger targets. We also know that strength is more than just military power.
This president has hollowed out and demoralized the Departments of State, Energy, and Treasury (among others) by reducing budgets, leaving positions vacant, and undercutting and demonizing experienced and dedicated career public servants. I will ensure that our military has everything it needs to fulfill the missions it is given, but I will also take a holistic approach to national security spending, which includes not just our military but our intelligence, communications, diplomatic, and development institutions.
What is your plan to deal with the rising number of suicides in the military and veterans community?
Dealing with the rising rates of suicide among active military and veterans will be a top priority when I am president. Every day, some 20 veterans and active service members take their own lives. This is a national crisis, and as president I will strengthen programs that are working and invest in new initiatives where gaps exist.
Suicide prevention is grounded in community, in mutual individual support, and in creating conditions that improve quality of life and well-being. Along with investing in and enhancing the VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide, I will look at the most effective ways to help communities improve local connections to promote a real sense of belonging, while increasing access to services where needed. Every suicide sends a shockwave through the community of the person who died. Family members’ mental health and substance abuse risks increase dramatically.
That’s why I will work to develop robust postvention strategies to reduce the ripple effect of suicide. I will also devote attention and resources to improve research and enable innovative predictive responses for mitigating suicide risk for women and rural veterans. These two groups are quickly growing high-risk populations.
Women veterans are less likely to die by suicide than male veterans; however, they are more likely than civilian women to die by suicide. Research has shown that the history of military sexual assault may be a contributing factor to this difference. I will work to end cultures of sexual assault and harassment where they exist in the military and VA, as well as to implement policies that enable more women veterans to get access to timely, appropriate, and effective mental health care when it is needed.
I am also determined to confront the high rate of suicide among rural veterans by addressing unique needs and risk factors: social isolation, limited healthcare options, and high rates of opioid addiction. We cannot talk about suicide without also talking about guns. Self-inflicted death by firearms is the most common method for veterans. Between 2005 and 2017, over 53,000 military veterans died by suicide as a result of guns — more than 13 times the number of service members who were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
I support gun policies and practices that reinforce what our service members know well from their time in the military: training, safety, and accountability. The VA’s public health approach to mitigating suicide will include a comprehensive strategy for gun safety.
What would be your top policy priority involving veterans, and how will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
My priorities will be:
1. Heal the wounds of war and other service-related injuries and ensure our veterans, recovering service members and those who care for them, have the support they need after service. This will include ensuring that all veterans have streamlined access to affordable, comprehensive health care; expanding benefits for veterans with bad-paper discharges; deploying investment and innovation to secure the health of rural veterans; and ensuring a growing veteran population is better cared for as they age.
2. Support those currently serving, and their families, as they put their lives on the line to defend our country. This includes greater attention to the needs of military children, including training for school administrators and teachers to focus on the needs to belong and feel welcomed in the school environment; unlocking the potential of military spouses; and fixing the military housing crisis.
3. Engage Americans from all walks of life, from communities big and small across the country, to provide opportunities for veterans and military families to thrive. Veterans are not burdens on society — they are strong assets to the communities in which they and their families live and to this nation as a whole.
To take advantage of the contributions our men and women in uniform can and will continue to make to their country, my administration will focus on better addressing the needs of our Vietnam veterans; on providing opportunities for our post-9/11 veterans to leverage their education benefits and start businesses; on honoring the commitments of immigrants who serve; on better addressing the needs of women veterans; on rescinding exclusionary and discriminating policies against LGBTQ+ active military and veterans; on promoting job opportunities for veterans in rural communities; and above all on strongly encouraging Americans from all walks of life and in communities throughout the nation to become more directly involved in community reintegration for returning veterans and their families.
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?
I do not believe in the privatization of the VA or of VA health care services. I am committed to making sure the VA has the resources and the talent — medical and otherwise — to provide all veterans with best-in-class, easily accessible service and support. For too long our government bureaucracies have been siloed, preventing the cooperation necessary to avoid duplication and best serve the American people.
The disconnect between the Department of Defense and the VA on data management and record-keeping has become chronic. And while there are efforts underway to close the gap in healthcare, much more needs to be done to ensure continuity of care and effective use of earned benefits as service members become veterans. Our approach to veteran care and service provision must be veteran-centered, defined by the need to address the individual and personal needs of veterans and their families. This means a VA that is transparent, innovative, responsive, and easy to access and engage with.
My administration will not ask veterans to become masters of antiquated systems; we will use technology to streamline and improve services. We will not demand that veterans make sense of arcane processes and policies; we will make processes and policies easily accessible. We will empower veterans to make decisions about their own care. We will make the VA the best service provider with leading practices and more open to implementing best practices from the private sector, leading research institutions, and transformative startups.
When I am president, we will establish a White House coordinator to work with VA and DoD to once and for all eliminate opaque and confusing data and recordkeeping and other processes that stand in between veterans and healthcare, and in particular mental healthcare. Our goal will be to ensure one lifetime medical record, beginning at the time of enlistment. DoD health records must transfer seamlessly to the VA, so that no one needs to worry about tracking their health records as they transition from active duty to veteran status.
We commit to standardizing eligibility and intake processes, enabling seamless and integrated health record sharing between VA and DoD. We will prioritize efforts to significantly increase the number of medical providers, including medical specialists, available to veterans through the VA. We will implement a veteran-centric patient portal and accelerate the personalized portal for veterans that has been designed and tested with veterans.
We will deploy proactive outreach efforts, improve night and weekend resources, and engage caregivers in the planning of care for veterans. We need to meet veterans where they are, engage them there, and invest in outreach tools that bring the information to veterans in the way they communicate in the 21st century. Serving those who serve is our shared duty as Americans and there will be no higher priority for me as commander-in-chief.
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.