Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Military Times reached out to her 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?
All three of my brothers served in the military, and I know our service members and their families are smart, tough, and resourceful. But “more of everything” defense budgets are no substitute for sound strategy. Having an effective military deterrent also means showing the good judgment to exercise appropriate restraint, and making difficult choices to prioritize the challenges that matter most to the security of the American people.
Eighteen years of conflict have degraded equipment and forced the postponement of investment in critical military capabilities. It has distracted Washington from growing dangers in other parts of the world: a long-term struggle for power in Asia, a revanchist Russia that threatens Europe, and looming unrest in our own hemisphere. And a punishing operational tempo has sapped the readiness of our force.
As a candidate, Trump promised to bring U.S. troops home. Instead, he has picked fights and created crises and chaos across the globe. His erratic and reckless policies have made us less safe, and our military less prepared.
After one year of your administration, what size will the U.S. troop presence be in Afghanistan? In Syria and Iraq? In Europe?
U.S. forces are deployed in over a hundred countries overseas. They train our allies and partners, protect our embassies, provide humanitarian relief, and protect freedom of navigation around the world. Our presence can be a tremendous force for good — but having a strong military doesn’t mean we need to constantly use it.
For nearly two decades, America has been mired in a series of wars in the Middle East and beyond, conflicts that have cost trillions of dollars and taken a staggering human toll. It’s time to responsibly end these conflicts and bring our troops home — starting now.
As we draw down these conflicts and refocus our attention and resources on the challenges that will define our national security for the next generation, it is appropriate to review of our global force posture and the missions assigned to our troops around the world.
In doing so, our guiding principle will be to prioritize our critical network of partners and alliances — recognizing that we best serve American interests when we leverage the support of allies and partners, including in Europe and Asia. My administration will have an unwavering commitment to our alliances, and we will ensure the U.S. maintains a sufficiently robust presence to reassure them and deter potential adversaries.
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?
Our people are our biggest comparative advantage, and as commander in chief, I’ll focus on recruiting and retaining the force we need to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
We can start by modernizing our personnel systems to meet the expectations of a new generation of military personnel. Outdated and inflexible talent acquisition and personnel management systems should not deter people from military service — instead we need processes to incentivize needed talent to join, serve, and grow.
To retain the best of our mid-ranks, we must prioritize the needs of military families, which form the backbone of our armed forces. That means addressing the high unemployment rate for military spouses, ensuring families have high-quality child care and education, providing safe and affordable housing, and caring for our wounded warriors and their caregivers.
We also have to treat protecting our force as a military readiness issue. I'll fight to eliminate military sexual assault and sexual harassment in the ranks, expand mental health services and work to end military and veteran suicide, and treat the opioid and addiction crisis.
And I’ll work to prevent discrimination and create opportunities for all our service members, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation — because the only thing that should matter when it comes to our military personnel is whether they can handle the job.
Should the Defense Department budget increase or decrease? To what level?
We need a strong military to protect our interests, with funding set at sustainable levels. But if more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now. The Pentagon budget will cost more this year than everything else in the discretionary budget put together. That’s wrong, and it’s unsustainable.
I’ve called for an end to endless wars in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and to reduce our overall defense spending and responsibly bring our combat troops home. Instead, we should prioritize diplomacy and reinvest in the network of partners and allies that is our unique strength.
I have a plan to rebuild the State Department, including by doubling the size of the foreign service, recruiting a new generation of foreign service officers to represent our country, and opening new diplomatic posts in underserved areas around the world.
Just as important as what we spend on defense is how we spend it. Today, too much of our defense spending is driven by failure to prioritize, the inertia of legacy systems, and privileging special interests over American security — even as would-be rivals are hard at work developing advanced technologies and tactics to leapfrog the United States.
To maintain our edge, it’s past time to identify which programs actually benefit American security, and prioritize them. At the same time, we need to identify which programs merely line the pockets of defense contractors — and then pull out a sharp knife and make some cuts.
What is your plan to deal with the rising number of suicides in the military and veterans community?
In 2017, 6,139 U.S. veterans died by suicide. Every single one of these deaths is a tragedy that could have been prevented. As president, I will set a goal of cutting veteran suicides in half within my first term — and pursue a suite of concrete policies to make sure we get there.
To start, we need to provide consistent, accessible, high-quality mental health care for all of our service members and veterans. Under Medicare for All every person will have this essential care covered. But we also need to make it easier for service members and veterans to see a mental health professional, including by significantly increasing the number of mental health specialists at DOD and VA and in the areas where veterans live, streamlining appointment processes, and enhancing access to telehealth options for those who cannot come to a VA facility.
We should also focus on preventive care, including by incorporating annual mental health exams for service members in the same way they receive annual physical exams. We need to invest more in research into the causes of suicide, with a specific focus on contributing factors that are specific to the military experience or particular subgroups of veterans. And we need to enact common-sense gun safety policies — like waiting periods and extreme risk protection laws — that have been proven to reduce suicides by gun.
Above all, we must continue to reduce the stigma around seeking help, making it clear that while our service members are resilient, even the strongest warriors need care.
What would be your top policy priority involving veterans, and how will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
Veterans overwhelmingly prefer receiving their health care at the VA, and the data show that VA health care consistently delivers similar or better outcomes for what is often considered to be a more vulnerable population than private health systems. Rather than undermine the VA system as the current administration has done, we need to invest more in strengthening existing VA infrastructure.
This includes filling staffing vacancies; expanding access to fill gaps in care, benefits, or other services in underserved regions, including rural areas and on tribal lands; and further integrating federally-qualified health centers, DOD facilities, and the Indian Health System as appropriate. Veterans should be able to remain in the care of their VA doctor if they prefer it.
We also need to see our veterans service organizations as equal partners — not occasional sounding boards to be kept at arm’s length. In every step of the policy-making and policy-executing process, the VA must meaningfully consult with VSOs of different stripes to ensure health care and other policies and procedures reflect the lived experiences of veterans. There is no better source of advice about how to best care for veterans than veterans themselves.
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 recent years, attacks on VA have intensified as Republicans have pressed to privatize large chunks of VA service. The truth is that care provided by VA outperforms care at non-VA hospitals, and veterans who use VA care prefer it. VA has pioneered innovations in medical care and service delivery. It provides world-class care for uniquely service-connected injuries, including treatment for polytrauma, amputations, and spinal cord injuries.
I support flexible options for veterans who have been waiting too long or have an unreasonably long journey to see their health care provider. And I will be clear-eyed about leadership challenges at VA. We will hold accountable leaders who fail to put veterans first or misuse resources, and we will empower whistleblowers who report wrongdoing to address their concerns and protect them from retaliation.
But let me be clear: I will not cut the high-quality, evidence-based, culturally competent programs that our veterans rely on. To keep our promises to our veterans, we must strengthen VA infrastructure and personnel — not siphon off resources to private providers. A Warren administration will invest in the VA, not further dismantle it.
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.