Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was the runner up for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination and served as chairman of Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee from 2013 to 2015. 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?
The United States fields the most powerful military in the world, with unmatched power projection capability. Senator Sanders rejects the idea that U.S. national security suffered under President Obama as a result of the Budget Control Act's spending constraints. The shortfalls and imbalances that occurred resulted from necessary retrenchment after years of poorly conceived operations abroad. The United States can and should make prudent reductions to its military budget in order to support the needs of young, working, and elderly Americans. America's greatness stems from more than just its military budget.
Trump said that he would withdraw the United States from “endless war.” But like everything else he says, that is a lie. Since becoming president, Trump has actually increased U.S. troop levels in the Middle East by over 25 percent. He vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have ended U.S. support for the disastrous Yemen war. He has sent thousands of additional troops to Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Trump has shattered U.S. capacity and credibility to conduct the kind of diplomacy needed to reduce our military presence in a responsible way. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, isolating the United States from its most important allies and pushing us toward another conflict.
As president, Bernie will ensure that the United States pursues diplomacy over militarism to bring about peaceful, negotiated resolutions to conflicts in the Middle East region and elsewhere.
Finally, Bernie believes that if we are truly committed to a military that is ready to defend our country, we must say clearly that discrimination has no place in the U.S. military. As president, he will immediately end Trump’s bigoted transgender troop ban.
After one year of your administration, what size will the U.S. troop presence be in Afghanistan? In Syria and Iraq? In Europe?
American troops have been in Afghanistan for 18 years, the longest war in American history. Our troops have been in Iraq since 2003, and in Syria since 2015, and many other places. It is long past time for Congress to reassert its Constitutional authority over the use of force to end these interventions. Bernie intends to have U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of his first term.
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?
Every individual who swears an oath to protect and defend this nation does so with the understanding that their service and sacrifice will be respected and repaid. However, far too often, servicemembers and veterans who have put their lives on the line face bureaucracy and red tape when they try to access the benefits they have earned.
It is absolutely unacceptable that enlisted servicemembers are paid starvation wages — wages so low that they actually fall under the federal poverty level. Last year, while the CEOs of Lockheed Martin and Raytheon — two of the top four U.S. defense contractors — were each paid more than $20 million in total compensation, our military families were going hungry.
According to one survey from 2017, 15 percent of military families faced food insecurity, and many rely on federal food assistance programs or local pantries to meet their needs. However, many food insecure families are deemed ineligible for programs like SNAP or WIC. In order to make ends meet or ensure their children were fed, 24 percent of families said they skipped meals and ate less healthy food. Even still, 22 percent of children receive free or reduced lunch. In the richest and most powerful society in the world, no one should go hungry, least of all the brave individuals who serve our country and their families.
Enough is enough. We are going to reign in outrageous military contractor compensation and increase the wages of our servicemembers to a livable wage, so that they do not have to struggle to afford necessities like food. And we will expand SNAP, housing assistance, and provide year-round free breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for all students and additional support during the summer months to ensure all our military families get the help they need. We will also direct the DOD to collect comprehensive data on military hunger and reliance on food assistance so we can understand the extent of this problem and respond effectively.
The prevalence of sexual assault across all military branches is reprehensible, and not enough has been done to put this crisis to an end. In 2018, over 20,500 U.S. servicemembers were sexually assaulted. The rate of sexual assault increased for women, especiallly for young women ages 17-24, from the prior year. Only one in three survivors reported their sexual assault to a DOD authority, and about one in four actually participated in the military justice process to hold assailants responsible. Throughout these processes, many survivors feared and experienced retaliation. Tragically, servicemembers who were assaulted are nine times more likely to suffer from PTSD, and are often left to deal with the psychological trauma inflicted by assault without support. Bernie is proud of his work in Congress to make treatment more easily available to these survivors, but we must do more than expand treatment — we must stop the cycle of abuse and assault.
When Bernie is president, we will pass the Military Justice Improvement Act to ensure survivors of rape and sexual assault in the military have a fair and independent system outside the chain of command to report these types of crimes. Individuals within the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office will undergo a comprehensive review of their training, qualifications, and experience.
Bernie will mandate that servicememebers found guilty of sexual assault be immediatley and dishonorably discharged. He will also make sure that active duty servicemembers and veterans who have survived such crimes receive real options and sustained resources to help them and their families, including mental health care, trauma recovery services, and more.
And in announcing a ban on transgender people in the military, the Trump administration has shown once again that it is on the wrong side of history. There is a reason the administration has not provided any scientific evidence to justify this policy: there is no justification for this sort of discrimination. Transgender people have served and continue to serve our country honorably in the military. Unfortunately, this administration is not treating them honorably.
The struggle for equality for all Americans continues, and Donald Trump’s efforts to divide us will not succeed. As president, Bernie will immediatly repeal the Trump administration’s bigoted ban on transgender people from serving in the U.S. military. We will also pass the Equality Act and other bills to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.
Should the Defense Department budget increase or decrease? To what level?
In Bernie’s view we should not be spending more on the military than the next ten nations combined. We should not be engaged in endless wars. And we should not, under any circumstance, provide limitless funding to go to war, while then failing to provide the funding needed to make good on our promises to the millions of servicemembers and veterans who fought those wars.
The Pentagon is the only federal agency that cannot pass an independent audit, virtually every major defense contractor has been found guilty of fraud, and the Defense Department tried to bury a report highlighting $125 billion in bureaucratic waste at the Pentagon. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that 65 percent of the American people oppose spending more money on defense spending.
Bernie believes in a strong military. But at a time when 40 million Americans are living in poverty, over 30 million Americans have no health insurance and 50 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, we cannot continue to give the Pentagon and defense contractors a blank check.
It is time that we as a nation get our priorities straight. We need to create an economy and a government that works for all of us, not just the one percent and big defense contractors.
What is your plan to deal with the rising number of suicides in the military and veterans community?
If we truly believe that every suicide is a tragedy, as Bernie does, then we must change our policies to actually prevent suicides in the future. To do this, we must look to the data on suicide deaths, which shows us who is at greatest risk. We know that one of the groups at highest risk for suicide are those members of the National Guard who never deployed.
To help these brave individuals, we must change our laws to ensure they can access the same health care services as their brothers and sisters who have deployed. We must also be willing to grapple with difficult statistics, like the fact that nearly 70 percent of all veteran suicide deaths in 2017 were the result of a firearm injury. And we must look to the data that shows that veterans who have not accessed the VA are far more likely to die by suicide than those who have, making it clear that we must invest in the VA, so more veterans can seek the care they need, which is a critical aspect of suicide prevention.
We must, once and for all, end the stigma around mental health care. And we must guarantee health care, including mental health care, to all as a human right. Bernie’s Medicare for All plan leaves the VA health care system fully intact, ensuring veterans remain able to get the specialized care they have earned through their service that VA is uniquely positioned to provide. We will improve both VA health care and Medicare, so veterans can use VA facilities and their Medicare coverage without hassle or cost. The benefits package under Medicare for All is extremely generous: mental health services will be free at the point of service with no co-payments, deductibles, premiums or surprise bills.
What would be your top policy priority involving veterans, and how will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
Just as tanks and bombs are part of the cost of war, so too is caring for our service members when they come home. As president, Bernie will fully resource the VA with the funding, staff and infrastructure needed to ensure our country keeps its promise to our veterans. Bernie knows the overwhelming majority of veterans are happy with the care they receive from the VA and it’s our job to make it easier for them to get that high-quality care. We will undo the damage done by corrupt billionaires profiteering off veterans and taxpayers.
We will improve the claims process so veterans receive the compensation they have earned quickly, accurately and without bureaucratic red tape. We will fully fund VA’s Caregiver Program, expand mental health services for veterans and members of the National Guard, and finally make comprehensive dental care available to all veterans through the VA.
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?
In a word, yes. As a nation, we have a moral obligation to keep our promise to those who have put their lives on the line to defend our country. Part of our promise to all those who have served is to provide comprehensive health care to our veterans when they return home. As such, it is critical that we fully resource and staff the VA to ensure veterans get high-quality care where and when they need it. Survey after survey has shown that when veterans can get into the VA for care, they are satisfied with their experience and with the care they receive. To Bernie, that means we should provide more funding, more staffing and more infrastructure, not less.
That means that instead of privatizing the VA — diverting taxpayer dollars to corporate, private sector health care systems that can act without government oversight or accountability — we should be strengthening it. As president, Bernie will roll back disastrous attempts to privatize the VA, lining the pockets of wealthy CEOs, and instead invest in the VA, and 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.