From left, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, businessman Tom Steyer, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate on Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. (John Minchillo/AP)
So far, the race to replace President Donald Trump as commander in chief hasn’t focused much on how Democratic hopefuls would run the military.
In the four televised debates already completed, only a few questions have focused on foreign policy and national defense, and those have been largely confined to Trump’s recent moves in the Middle East. Military personnel issues, veterans suicide prevention and other topics of particular interest to those in the ranks have largely been confined to local campaign speeches and individual candidate statements.
To fix that, Military Times reached out to the Democratic campaigns in recent weeks with a series of military- and veterans-focused questions that have been overlooked in the broader national election conversation.
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?
I have enormous admiration and respect for our men and women in uniform and those who support them. These amazing people work with dedication and professionalism to make our military as ready and effective as possible. Notwithstanding the increased funding for the Department of Defense, the stress on the force remains a great concern, as President Trump has expanded our troop presence in Afghanistan, and, despite his rhetoric about getting out of the Middle East, increased the number of forces deployed there in recent months.
President Trump seems to be more interested in fighting the wars of the last century than anticipating future threats. He is over-investing in legacy capabilities, and not doing enough to address new challenges in areas such as space and cyberspace. And on the whole, he is not making progress to deal with the high-end threats – Russia and China – that are of greatest concern to our security.
Of equal concern is the damage that President Trump has caused to our alliances, one of our most important strategic assets. He has taken a battering ram to NATO and abandoned close friends who sacrificed themselves in battle fighting ISIS on our behalf, causing other potential partners to question the credibility of the United States. None of this leaves us in a better place.
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.
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.
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.
We have the strongest and most capable military on the face of the planet Earth, but we can’t talk about military readiness without talking about issues like child care, public education, and the availability of good jobs for military spouses. Just last year, all three military service secretaries sent a letter to the National Governors Association identifying quality schools and the ability of military spouses to obtain good jobs as barriers to military readiness. Earlier this year, defense leaders told Congress that if they want to improve military readiness, they need to address child care.
When I am president, I will fight to pass the Child Care for Working Families Act into law, which would cap child care costs at 7 percent of income for all low and middle income families, in addition to providing universal access to preschool programs for all 3- and 4-year olds, which would help the vast majority of military families. I will dramatically increase our investments in public schools to ensure that every kid, no matter their zip code, has access to an outstanding public school education.
And, I will implement my Justice for Workers plan, which is dedicated to ensuring that all workers have opportunities for higher wages and meaningful benefits. I will also work with Congress and the Department of Defense to finally pass a budget—providing our military leaders with the certainty they need to make long-term strategic decisions to protect our nation.
Senator Klobuchar believes the men and women of our armed forces have faced tremendous challenges in recent years and responded with great skill, courage, and honor. The senator is committed to ensuring that our troops continue to be the best-trained and best-equipped in the world, while also providing for their families at home. She strongly opposes efforts by the Trump administration to cut military construction funding, including for schools, to pay for President Trump’s border wall. She also believes our troops deserve better than foreign policy by Tweet and will treat our servicemembers with the respect and honor they have earned.
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.
President Trump does not have a strategy guiding how and where our forces are currently deployed around the world, and Bennet knows our military remains overutilized and unmoored to overarching goals. Operational tempo remains high, putting constant strain on servicemembers and their families. Bennet is concerned we are making ad hoc decisions without clear and achievable political goals.
He believes that to maintain alliances and influence, we need a rapidly deployable and forward-engaged force, but we must take a hard look at where we’re using force around the world and make tough decisions about U.S. presence. Without such a conversation, the readiness of U.S. forces will not be optimal. This is a question the political leadership of the nation has failed to answer for nearly 20 years, and that Bennet intends to answer as president.
Our military is excellent in many regards, but it is insufficient in its readiness to meet all the threats of the 21st century and needs to be truly transformed. You can see this in the U.S. commander of the Pacific’s comment that China now commands the Western Pacific. In the face of a rising China, along with authoritarian regimes from Brazil to the Philippines to Turkey to Russia, and the constant presence of belligerent non-state actors, we need to reform our military to deal with asymmetrical threats.
For more than a decade and a half — since I presented a shipbuilding plan to Congress when in charge of Navy warfare requirements that we should reduce our fleet from 385 ships to 260, and re-focus on cyberspace capability (and other capability, like high-tech sensors) — I have been advocating a significant shift in our military funding priorities. We need to focus not merely on force structure, but force posture — which means considering capability, not just capacity. In other words, rather than just considering numbers — more ships, more airplanes, more munitions — we need to consider the threats we actually face.
We did more to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions with a computer virus than we ever could have with bombs (and we did still more with diplomacy — the abandonment of which is also bad for our military, because militaries can only stop a problem, not fix a problem). One aircraft carrier can now strike over eight times more targets than it could 20 years ago in a 24 hour period, so should we build another aircraft carrier or should we invest more in cyberspace, as well as high tech sensors, robotics, satellites, artificial intelligence, and more?
I believe the answer is clear. We can improve the military at less cost and with increased capability. It’s not acceptable to keep investing in structure when we would be wiser to invest in dominating the new warfare domain of cyberspace.
As a country, we are not in a better place than we were four years ago. With broken promises and mistrust of military leadership, increased homelessness, soaring gun violence and suicide rates, defense spending that was not requested by the DOD, failure to tackle the climate threat, and incompetent leadership in the Department of Veterans Affairs, this president has committed crimes, gutted our institutions, and abused the power of the presidency out in the open. We must protect our republic.
As president, I would honor the solemn commitment that 2.4 million servicemen and women serving in our armed forces and reserves. They, alongside 18.2 million military veterans, embody the highest ideals of service to country.
I would consider a comprehensive proposal to strengthen our military. This would include identifying and securing national public service opportunities within government departments to complement the missions of armed services personnel with an emphasis placed on finding opportunities that focus on pressing economic and social challenges such as assisting veterans and military families. I would undo the ban on transgender people in the military. I would secure armed forces and military bases against extreme weather through smart infrastructure investments and planning, and eliminate risks to military personnel that arise out of our reliance on fossil fuels by transitioning to a safe and clean economy.
For decades, the U.S. military has been the most capable and combat-experienced in the world. That remains true today. With no military peer competitor, the American people can be confident that the men and women of our armed forces can meet any conventional security threat.
However, while the U.S. military is a professional, disciplined force, I don’t think that President Trump has treated it as such. He has ignored the advice of senior officers, overruled commanders’ advice on military punishments and made strategic decisions that have abandoned our partners on the battlefield. China and Russia are making major systematic efforts, with some success, to erode U.S. military advantages. Both clearly hope to deter the U.S. from taking military action in regional crises which engage their national interests.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has continued to invest in retrograde legacy platforms rather than funding the transition to advanced new technologies which will define the future battle space. His administration hasn’t invested nearly enough resources in unmanned aircraft, ships, submarines and drones; cyber weapons; new space capabilities; and the applications of AI and machine learning to the battlefield. Our adversaries are not making the same mistakes.
The Army is to be commended for substantially improving its readiness. But I believe that readiness requires intense focus and hard choices. With President Trump’s limited understanding of the world and his constant misapplication of American power, he undermines the capabilities of U.S. armed forces, weakens our alliances and emboldens our enemies. That is hardly an endorsement of the president’s defense policies.
After one year of your administration, what size will the U.S. troop presence be in Afghanistan? In Syria and Iraq? In Europe?
In Afghanistan and the Middle East, our security interests are enduring but not unlimited. Our top priority should be counterterrorism. There is a huge difference between the open-ended deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops without a clear mission or exit strategy and small numbers of special operators and intelligence assets who can leverage local partners, keep the pressure on terrorist networks, and deter aggression.
I would end the former but support the latter as a smart, strong, and sustainable use of American power. I would bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan during my first term. We can end the war responsibly, in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our homeland — from remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State there and in Pakistan — and never have to go back. As part of this effort, we should pursue diplomatic engagement with the Taliban and support talks between Afghan leaders and the Taliban.
This past September, President Trump terminated a diplomatic effort with the Taliban that was showing promise. He tried to create a made-for-TV moment by inviting the Taliban to Camp David – an appalling move on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary – and then just as thoughtlessly said he was calling off the negotiations. In the Middle East, we must keep the Islamic State from rebounding, a real concern even after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
President Trump’s abrupt and irresponsible decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria was also dangerous. He betrayed our Kurdish partners who made tremendous sacrifices to recover territory from ISIS in Syria. Turkey’s incursion and America’s retreat have seriously destabilized an already fragile and war-torn region, causing a humanitarian disaster and empowering U.S. adversaries, including Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. It also sent a message to anyone who would work with us that the United States under a Trump administration cannot be trusted.
U.S. forces also have important roles to play in the Middle East in deterring Iran’s provocative behavior and keeping open pathways for the global economy. A lean regional presence, coupled with robust diplomacy, can help secure these goals. In Europe, our forces and the European Defense Initiative are integral to fulfilling the commitment of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. These forces and prepositioned equipment in Europe also serve U.S. interests when we undertake missions in neighboring regions. We should also ensure that NATO partners are continuing to increase their contributions to the common defense, consistent with the commitments made in the Wales Summit declaration in 2014.
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.
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.
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.
We have been in Afghanistan for far too long, and I am determined to bring our troops home as quickly as possible. As soon as I become president, I will immediately begin a process to bring our troops home in a way that won’t allow Afghanistan to again become a safe haven for launching attacks against the U.S. I’ve also signed on to the pledge to end the endless wars in over a dozen countries – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Niger, Somalia, and Thailand — and, as President, I will act to bring these military engagements to a responsible and expedient conclusion.
I’ve also pledged to the American people, and our military community in particular, that I will respect and submit to Congress’s constitutional authority to authorize the use of military force. The challenges we face around the world are not challenges that can be solved with our military alone. We’ll also need to meet these challenges by empowering our diplomatic corps, recommitting to the robust and thoughtful application of foreign aid, and working closely with our allies.
U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan longer than some of our younger servicemembers have been alive. Senator Klobuchar believes it is time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. She would support maintaining counterterrorism and intelligence capabilities to prevent Afghanistan from again being used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against the United States or our allies.
Senator Klobuchar believes we should not have withdrawn troops from Syria before there was a responsible and enforceable plan in place that protected our Kurdish allies and prevented ISIS from re-grouping. The reported release of ISIS terrorists was a shameful result of the president’s action.
She supports keeping U.S. forces stationed overseas as a force for stability, capacity building, and training.
She supports keeping U.S. forces stationed overseas as a force for stability, capacity building, and training.
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.
The position and number of U.S. forces abroad must be determined on a case-by-case basis and based on political objectives.
For example, Bennet believes that there is not a military solution in Afghanistan, and it is time to draw down forces. The United States needs to work towards a political solution in which we are clear about what we aim to achieve. We must determine our objective, something that hasn’t been clear in Afghanistan for a number of years, and withdraw forces based on that mission.
Regarding Iraq and Syria, Bennet believes that it would be unwise to speculate as to a specific troop level given the complexity and changing dynamics in the region and the nature of the threat. As the security environment evolves, Bennet will ensure we are equipped to combat the threat of ISIS and other violent extremist groups.
Bennet knows that U.S. investment in the NATO alliance, including through our presence on the continent, is critical to long-term stability, peace, and security. While Russia continues its threatening behavior, Bennet will continue to support efforts to deter and defend against Russian aggression, including through rotational deployments and multinational training and exercises. As president, Bennet will constantly reevaluate our posture related to the threat, in close coordination with our allies and partners.
In Europe, about the same. In Syria and Iraq, I would expect a minimal presence, dependent upon our ability (after the wrongful withdrawal of troops from Syria and abandoning our Kurd allies) to make a difference and assist our allies on the ground. It will depend upon the circumstances upon taking office. As for Afghanistan, it will be dependent upon the results of our efforts at negotiating peace. We need a comprehensive settlement in Afghanistan, which I would expect will take at least one or two years to properly negotiate.
But such peace talks must bring in not only the Afghan government and the Taliban, but others that must be invested in the peace afterwards: China (which is increasing its presence throughout Afghanistan as part of its Belt and Road Initiative), Pakistan (which supports the Taliban), India (which supports the Afghan government), NATO (which has been involved with us for almost two decades there), and Iran (which shares deep historical and cultural ties to Afghanistan, especially to the fifth of the Afghan population who are Shiites and are now frequent targets of ISIS violence). If all parties involved don’t own the peace, it will never hold. So only that outcome will determine when we can finally leave Afghanistan.
I would withdraw American troops out of Afghanistan within my first year in office.
In Syria and Iraq: Donald Trump sold out the United States and our allies for the benefit of Vladimir Putin and Russia with this latest foreign policy blunder. The Middle East is a complex region. We had a relationship with the Kurds, a commitment there where they were helping us and we were helping them, and we were being successful.
We had a very specific mission to protect American lives, to control ISIS, and to work with our allies to do so. It was limited, it was successful, and we were working in coalition with people around the world. President Trump doesn’t believe in values, he doesn’t believe in missions, and he certainly doesn’t believe in coalitions, allies, or partners. For the past 10 years, I have been successful working with people, on the ground, in coalition, to solve problems. We need to work together, not have the go-it-alone approach currently employed.
In Europe: Near-unanimous support of NATO shows that Trump’s antics are not in line with the wishes of the American people. Yet he will continue to act unilaterally to alienate our allies, including those in Europe. Donald Trump has no consistent plan for our nation’s military. I will, on day one, assume my full responsibilities as commander in chief. We have to go back to being a value driven country, that operates transparently, that supports its European allies and works together in concert to get things done.
We must end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home. But we must do it in a wise and deliberate manner. The first thing I will do, in conjunction with the Afghan government, our NATO allies who are with us in Afghanistan and other partners in the region, is to reenergize the talks with the Taliban that President Trump so cavalierly cut off and bring all our diplomatic resources to bear to foster a lasting peace in Afghanistan.
At the same time, as mayor, I led the New York City’s recovery from the 9/11 attacks by organizing local, state, federal and international partners to protect the city. I am determined not to allow terrorists to strike America again. I would leave a small, residual force in Afghanistan focused solely on intelligence-gathering and counterterrorism, to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda and Islamic State. U.S. special operations units have also served bravely and effectively in Iraq and Syria to roll back Islamic State. Unlike President Trump, I would not withdraw those forces suddenly, placing them and the larger mission at risk, on a whim or a phone call.
The stationing of U.S. forces in Europe is a sign of our commitment to the stability and security of our NATO allies. Any troop drawdown there, especially one based on little but mercenary concerns, would only encourage Russian adventurism. As president, I would work to ensure NATO remains strong, united and vigilant.
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 security depends on personnel policies that give us the ability to both recruit and retain the diverse cross-section of the American people that we need to deal with the threats we face. All Americans who are qualified and capable of serving should have the opportunity to do so, a principle that the Trump administration has violated.
A Biden administration will focus intensely on the health of the force, and build on the work of the Joining Forces Initiative to support military families. I will prioritize funding to ensure world-class training, intellectual development, and superior technical capabilities within the military.
I will also pursue more flexible personnel policies to continue evolving our military talent management system to help develop and retain our members with critical skills. My Administration will also support military family-friendly initiatives such as: increasing time between moves to provide greater stability; investing in the health infrastructure necessary to ensure that dependents, spouses, and children have access to the support they need; and providing a comprehensive Resident Bill of Rights for all military families as a credible step toward regaining confidence in on-base Housing.
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.
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.
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.
When I am president, we will lead with our values. Balancing our budget on the backs of those who serve, banning transgender servicemembers from the military, and failing to protect those in uniform from sexual abuse is not representative of our values or who we are as a nation. On Day One, I will reverse this president’s un-American ban on transgender people serving in the military. I will ensure that those serving in the military have pay and annual cost of living adjustments that ensure they are economically secure and can get ahead, not just get by.
And, I will fight to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act, a bill I co-sponsored in the Senate, which will protect our service members from sexual abuse and protect service members who report abuse from retaliation.
Senator Klobuchar believes the military’s personnel system must be prepared for a future dominated by new technologies, especially cyber threats. As president, she will adopt innovative approaches like allowing servicemembers to take temporary leave to gain new skills in the civilian workforce and bringing in civilian cyber experts for tours of duty in the U.S. government. Senator Klobuchar will make this a top priority for the Defense Department and direct the armed services to examine promotion policies to ensure that we are building a diverse and innovative force to tackle future threats.
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.
Bennet believes that one of the biggest personnel problems facing the armed forces today is the ability to recruit and retain servicemembers in advanced technology fields. As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and as the senior senator from the state of Colorado —which is home to some of the nation’s most critical military missions and is the second largest aerospace economy — Bennet has seen what effective investment in these fields can do for our national security.
To maintain U.S. military superiority, the national security community must invest in emerging technology and, critically, in a workforce that excels at pursuing our national interests through this technology. Space, cyber space, nuclear, and artificial intelligence are important fields for our national security, and the Department of Defense must think innovatively about how to recruit, train, and retain personnel who will lead the U.S. force and sustain U.S. military superiority in the face of next-generation threats.
This must include partnership with the private sector and academia, and pipelines that increase diversity in these fields, on which Colorado has taken a leading role.
There are two: sexual trauma and suicide, both of which appear to be on the rise, when they should be decreasing.
On the first, it is clearly an issue of accountability. Senior officers in command must be held accountable. When a report is provided that shows sexual trauma is happening at increasing levels in the military, action must be taken at all levels for holding commanders accountable for good order and discipline, from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs on down.
This issue must rise to the very top and it is unacceptable that a part of our military personnel is so pervasively abused. Such abuse of military personnel must never be allowed, or worse, condoned. Suicide prevention must be looked at as a public health issue and we must better understand and provide supportive services and command openness to the trauma that our servicemembers undergo whether through combat or long deployments separated from family, as well as a myriad of other challenges.
We must make sure the stigma is removed around mental health and commanders must make it clear on a consistent basis that their door is open for everyone. Servicemembers need to know that command is there for them, to offer assistance however and wherever needed. Of great importance, recommendations offered in studies of military suicides, like those done recently for the Pentagon, must be heeded and implemented.
On day one of my presidency, I will commit to establishing strong leadership in the armed forces and work tirelessly to fill remaining positions that are open. This commander in chief has been a horrible leader for our service members. Our nation’s warriors need to know that their country’s leadership is program and mission oriented and their safety is tantamount in the decisions leaders make. I will honor the solemn commitment that every American has made to serving our nation and I will pledge to place trust and faith in our military leadership.
The U.S. has been involved in the lengthiest period of conflict in its history. Despite the sacrifice and danger, young men and women continue to respond to the need to defend the country. While their commitment has been noteworthy, we cannot demand such sacrifices in perpetuity. With only one percent of the country involved in military service, strains on this system are already beginning to show. Recruiters are challenged by an ever-dwindling pool of qualified and interested youth, coupled with low unemployment that provides alternatives to military service. For those already in uniform, the erosion of benefits, truncated retirement system and perceived disrespect from their commander-in-chief have many military families questioning their resolve to continue to serve.
I am committed to a drawdown in U.S. troops in Greater Middle East conflicts to help alleviate that strain. But this should be carried out in a responsible fashion, using patient and consistent diplomacy to protect our vital interests and prevent further instability – which the Trump Administration has failed to do. Additionally, my administration will candidly acknowledge the stresses imposed on our servicemembers. Mental-health, over-prescription of opioids, toxic base housing and an under-acknowledged sexual assault crisis are challenges to building a cohesive, strong defense that is worthy of the sacrifice of our citizens.
Counseling services and expanded educational opportunities for transitioning service members and veterans will help staunch the erosion of trust. I will also prioritize investments in quality military housing, schools, education, community and base facilities, with rigorous oversight and transparency in budgetary outlays and construction results. Finally, I will restore the armed forces’ trust in their commander-in-chief, by respecting the chain of command and once again honoring the rule of law.
Should the Defense Department budget increase or decrease? To what level?
The United States has the best-trained and best-equipped military force the world has ever seen, but our superiority is being challenged in ways not seen since the Cold War. With the return to great power competition posed by the rise of China and a revanchist Russia, we need to maintain our superiority, but we must do so affordably and by preparing for the wars of tomorrow.
President Trump has abandoned all fiscal discipline when it comes to defense spending. His budget is dominated by investments in aging legacy capabilities. At a time when we’re winding down our main combat efforts from the last two decades, we need to make smarter investments in our military. We can maintain a strong defense and protect our safety and security for less. The real question is not how much we invest — it’s how we invest.
We have to make smart investments in technologies and innovations — including in cyber, space, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence — that will be necessary to meet the threats of the future. We have to move away from investments in legacy systems that won’t be relevant for tomorrow’s wars and we have to rethink the contributions we and our allies make to our collective security.
And we have to invest in our other elements of national power. Our military is one tool in our toolbox. We have become over-dependent on the military to advance our security interests overseas — and underinvested in other tools including diplomacy, economic power, education, and science and technology.
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.
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.
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.
We need to make sure that we have a military that’s well-resourced and prepared, but right now, we spend nearly as much on defense as the next eight countries combined. I voted against the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act because $750 billion is too much to spend on defense while we scale-back our military operations and under-resource essential services that make us stronger at home, like veterans’ health care, public education, and infrastructure.
We need to bring our troops home from Afghanistan as quickly as possible and reduce defense spending to appropriate levels, which I will work to identify with the help of experts and stakeholders.
Senator Klobuchar is committed to maintaining and extending our military superiority over any adversary and ensuring that our troops are the best-trained and best-equipped in the world. Virtually every analysis of the Pentagon’s budget has found duplicative and unnecessary programs and, as president, she would order her secretary of defense to undertake a comprehensive review of the DOD budget and identify a list of cuts and efficiencies, as well as potential gaps in defense spending. Her focus would be on providing our servicemembers, and not defense contractors, with what they need.
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.
Bennet believes there is waste and inefficiency within the Pentagon that can and should be addressed, including by reducing bureaucracy and streamlining our acquisition process. As president, Bennet will prioritize funding away from expensive, legacy programs to focus on next-generation threats, and in order to do that, he will take a hard look at where we’re using force around the world and make tough decisions about our presence in places like Afghanistan.
Our nation’s security comes from more than the size of our military, and we must invest in the other elements of American security, like our intelligence capabilities, and our diplomatic and economic power.
While overall funding will decrease as we move more into cyberspace instead of basic force structure, the exact level of defense funding needs to be determined as we reach milestones toward measuring capability in terms of capability, not merely capacity.
I would support a reduction.
The Department of Defense’s budget should match the scope, scale, and threat that the United States faces today. The armed services work diligently to develop requirements and then the systems to meet the requirements — from sustaining a technological edge to deterrence. A combination of sequestration and continuing resolutions has a direct impact on the budget, especially on readiness. I will take these into consideration when evaluating the military budget.
I will also look at preparing for new dangers that are emerging or expected. Today’s wars between superpowers are different: they’re trade wars and information wars. It is vital that we modernize and reprioritize our defense and intelligence capabilities to meet the enemies we face today and keep our country safe, including climate threats and threat multipliers.
To create a safer and more secure America, we must secure our military bases against extreme weather, and improve our systems to prevent and recover from disasters. I will declare a climate emergency on day one of my presidency, and will supplement and prioritize defense spending to be aligned with our global national security priorities.
As commander-in-chief, I would ensure that the U.S. military remains the best-trained, best-equipped and most lethal force in the world. At the same time, a spiraling national debt poses a major threat to our national security and reducing it requires that we undertake a careful review of the Pentagon’s budget and acquisitions allocations.
We need to stop wasting precious resources on weapons platforms that may be outdated before they’re ever deployed. The Pentagon must introduce greater rationality and discipline into its budgeting process, while broadening competition among and spurring greater innovation by defense contractors. And we have to reduce corporate influence on this absolutely vital process.
Today’s wars, not tomorrow’s, are increasingly fought using electronic, cyber and space weaponry, and using rapid advances in artificial intelligence. These are the conflicts for which we must prepare and, as always, doing so will strengthen the American innovation economy – our unique strategic advantage.
In addition to military spending, our country’s security depends on investing in education, diplomacy, foreign aid, alliances and scientific research and innovation. The Trump administration has proposed slashing or sabotaging budgets in all these vital areas including, specifically, cutting funding for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development by nearly 30 percent. That’s the last thing we should be doing and, as president, I would ensure those diplomatic and development budgets are increased rather than cut.
What is your plan to deal with the rising number of suicides in the military and veterans community?
Suicide is a national public health crisis, and it is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. As a society, we need to work together to eliminate the stigma felt by those who are suffering and struggling with their mental health. There is no shame in asking for help.
Service members and veterans are at an elevated risk of dying by suicide — and the rates for veterans exceed the national averages — and the rate is rising alarmingly among some groups. Even one death by suicide is devastating, and we must stem this tide.
Within the first 200 days of taking office, my administration will publish a comprehensive, public health and cross-sector approach to addressing suicide in veterans, service members, and their families. The Trump administration has grossly mismanaged the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), at one point leaving millions of dollars dedicated to suicide prevention efforts unused, and that’s just not right.
In my administration, the Defense Department’s Suicide Prevention Office and the VA will have the resources and staff they need to make smart investments with the allocated funds. I will ensure that all those in need of care have quality support and assistance by strengthening coordination with stakeholders and the private sector.
My administration will also tackle the issues that contribute to higher suicide risk, such as PTSD, sexual assault, and harassment. We will develop better interventions to mitigate pain and economic vulnerability and address safe firearm storage. I will increase access to mental health treatment by enforcing full mental health parity and ensuring all Americans have access to high quality mental health care, regardless of their insurance coverage status.
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.
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.
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.
There are more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year — nearly 70 percent of which result from firearm injury. I am the only candidate running for president that has released an entire plan solely dedicated to preventing deaths by suicide. It builds off my plan to end the epidemic of gun violence — the most sweeping gun safety proposal ever introduced by a presidential candidate — which would implement a federal gun licensing program — because if you need a license to drive a car, you should need one to own a gun.
Securing a federal license would require a background check, firearm safety training, and an in-person appointment — steps that combine to keep individuals in a moment of acute crisis from acting on their suicidality. A recent study found that gun licensure led to a 15 percent drop in firearm suicide rates. My plan would also require the safe storage of firearms and expand education and training for health professionals on suicide prevention.
In addition, I will appoint and empower a senior-level White House official with the single goal of working across agencies to deploy every available tool to cut the suicide rate. I would also significantly increase our investments into mental health and strengthen the Federal Parity Law to prevent insurers from illegally denying coverage of care for mental health and addiction treatment services.
Too many veterans and servicemembers dealing with mental health and addiction don’t have access to the services they need. Senator Klobuchar’s plan to combat addiction and prioritize mental health focuses on military personnel and veterans and specifically addresses the high rates of suicide among veterans. As president, she will invest in the mental health workforce at the VA, increase counseling services, and expand resources to help the tens of thousands of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health needs. She will also expand the VA’s family caregiver program to place a greater emphasis on mental health.
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.
TThere is not a single solution to address the increasing suicide rates in both military and veteran populations—it will require a president to take a holistic community approach. As president, Bennet will work to develop a culture that treats mental and physical health as equally critical to military readiness.
He will ensure the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs invest substantially in access to mental and behavioral health care and work to encourage a culture that recognizes the importance of this care and decreases stigma associated with seeking it. And he will ensure the military invests in training leadership to recognize indicators associated with risk and encourages leaders to speak openly about mental health and seeking care.
For veterans, an ongoing study presently being conducted for the VA will offer recommendations that must be implemented. We must ensure that there is much better horizontal integration among the various organizations within VA headquarters that have to do not necessarily with suicide itself directly, but the challenges that can bring it on. These bureaucratic organizations include those focused on mental health and addiction in particular.
This horizontal integration at headquarters is an absolute imperative, to ensure cohesive policies and appropriately applied resources within that overarching and comprehensive policy are applied. Community-based organizations — from veterans halls and food pantries to civilian medical care facilities and non-profit advocacy groups — often engage veterans who are not within the VA (the vast majority), so they can help get veterans in need acknowledged and aware of VA efforts to support suicide prevention.
Often these community organizations are the first line of defense for the vets outside the VA and we must ensure their integration to assist these veterans with the VA. In short, we must stop the bureaucratic stovepiping at headquarters and fix the lack of integration of the VA with those on Main Street working with veterans in everyday life.
With soaring suicide rates in the military and veterans communities, it is urgent that we address this public health crisis. We must start with a strong Department of Veterans Affairs and support our military leadership: it is the first way to attack this.
Our nation’s warriors deserve the best — both on the field and when they return home. While strides have been made in suicide awareness, prevention and treatment, there are still serious gaps in funding and access to providers. Veterans experience different issues from most civilians, such as higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Sadly, veterans are more likely to act on a suicidal plan. I will work tirelessly to address the challenge of preventing suicides among our servicemen and women, and to expand health services for veterans, including ways to seek help from a mental health professionals.
Non-mental health physicians and frontline healthcare providers are in a key position to screen for PTSD, depression, and suicidal ideation in these patients. We need to work with advocates, veterans medical professions so our veterans receive the care they need and interventions can be achieved. I also stand ready to implement the urgent common-sense gun safety reforms we desperately need to tackle suicide rates.
Every day across our country and abroad, servicemembers, veterans and even family members take their own lives at an astonishing rate. Among veterans, the number has reached up to 20 a day. We are losing more men and women to suicides than to combat. And the problem is getting worse, not better, so whatever we are doing is not working.
This epidemic is not just tragic, it is unacceptable – and as president I will take immediate action to address it. The first step is to bring this crisis into the open, both to educate the public on the challenges that service members and veterans face, and to eliminate the stigma associated with mental-health issues. I will increase funding for the VA’s Executive Director for Suicide Prevention office and will direct the VA and DOD to conduct a thorough study of the root causes of rising suicide rates, along with recommendations for how to address them.
Critically, we need to recognize that this isn’t just a problem for the VA, which does not provide the necessary scale or range of mental health services and therapists. I will work to break down barriers between the VA, DOD and other relevant government agencies, so that we develop a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach focused on prevention and mental health providers. This includes making robust mental-health services available for active-duty service members before they leave the military and partnering with non-profits and peer networks in communities across the country.
Unlike President Trump, who has done nothing to address the link between military and veteran suicide and its association with firearms, I will enact common-sense laws that will significantly reduce access to guns for people who pose a danger to themselves or others. Let’s remove the critical enabler for this at-risk population. I will include stronger background checks and a national permitting system that would allow law-enforcement authorities to block the sale of guns to people with a history of violence or behavioral health risks. I will also work with Congress to pass a federal “red-flag” law so that families can protect their loved ones from suicide by petitioning courts to temporarily remove their guns.
What would be your top policy priority involving veterans, and how will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
For starters, I will not out-source policy-making as Trump has done by allowing some of his Mar-a-Lago friends to influence decisions at the highest level of the VA. We have a solemn obligation as a government to prepare and equip the men and women we send to war, and to care for them when they return.
My administration will increase the VA’s capacity by investing in hiring, training, and equipping our VA to deliver the very best in programs and services. We owe it to our veterans to be at the forefront of innovation, quality, safety, and efficiency. My administration will eliminate barriers that slow benefit delivery and invest in programs that will modernize systems, improve facilities, and ensure the VA is a leader in health care.
I am committed to protecting veterans from predatory individuals and organizations, like some for-profit colleges that have enriched themselves with G.I. Bill funds while providing veterans with a sub-par education.
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.
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.
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.
The way we treat our veterans in this country is a national disgrace. Our National Anthem says that we’re the home of the brave, but when our brave comes home they can’t count on adequate housing or health care. On any given night, more than 50,000 veterans are homeless. When I am president, I am going to implement my plan to provide safe, affordable housing for all Americans and eliminate homelessness.
My housing plan would create a renters’ credit to cap rental costs at 30 percent of income for working and middle-class Americans, increase affordable housing, and fully fund homelessness prevention programs to totally eliminate homelessness in America. I would also stand up against VA privatization and ensure that VA health care is funded at a level that guarantees world class health care, including mental health care services, accessible and easy to navigate for all our veterans and military families.
Senator Klobuchar believes that when we ask our young men and women to serve in defense of our country, we make a promise to provide them the full resources they need to do their jobs and to take care of them when they return home. Building on her strong record in the Senate, Senator Klobuchar has released a plan to take immediate action as President to uphold the federal government’s responsibility to those who have served and provide them and their families the health care, full benefits, and education and economic opportunities they deserve.
Her top priorities include strengthening the Veterans Health Administration, increasing accountability and improving implementation of the Mission Act to make sure our veterans are receiving the best possible care, doubling the number of apprenticeships in our country with a strong focus on supporting our veterans, streamlining the certification and licensing requirements for veterans who have gained relevant skills during their service, and making sure our veterans and their families receive full retirement pay and disability benefits.
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.
Bennet’s top priority is ensuring timely and efficient access to quality mental and behavioral health care and comprehensive resources in support of those services. This will require investment from the federal level but also partnership with individual communities to ensure that mechanisms for care and resources are built based on local and regional needs and solutions.
Mental health, suicide prevention, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness are so intertwined, and together they will be my top priority (and included in this is fixing the VBA, which is absolutely inadequate at approving in a timely manner those who rightly apply for VA benefits, particularly medical). As mentioned above, the biggest problem with the VA is that they stovepipe these issues rather than dealing with them collectively, especially at headquarters, to ensure best policies and data integration.
Often our frontline healthcare providers at the VA are well integrated across these areas, but the cohesive approach of the entire VA is suffering as resources are not properly allocated because of stovepiping. I will also ensure that our veterans in prison are not forgotten, and that records and other support (for those of the VA) are immediately transferred, and contact with them is maintained, to ensure that they can better integrate through re-entry programs when they end their term of incarceration.
Our nation’s veterans deserve our respect, our gratitude, and the solemn pledge from their commander in chief that America will never waver in its commitment to them. I’m committed to veterans returning to their families and communities and to every dollar committed to their long-term well being.
I was the only presidential candidate to call for canceling the student loan debt for permanently disabled veterans. I will work tirelessly toward supporting many top priorities involving veterans, including high suicide rates, homelessness, workforce training, mental health treatment, and student loan debt.
America cannot ask its next generation of young men and women to serve if we do not properly care for the previous one. As president, I would immediately fill the nearly 50,000 empty positions within the Veterans Administration, hiring the best medical staff the country can afford so that veterans aren’t forced to rely on lower-quality, more expensive and slower treatment in private hospitals.
I would especially ensure that the resources devoted to mental health and suicide prevention are robust, easily accessible and available to every veteran and their family, wherever they may be. Having built a world-class business whose lifeblood is data, I would also work to ensure that every servicemember can finally have a single medical record from recruitment to retirement, and that veterans have a single point of access through which they can take advantage of all the benefits they and their loved ones have earned.
But, care goes beyond health. I’ve seen first-hand how hard it is for veterans to find the kind of long-term careers that are as fulfilling as their service in the military, and how much trouble even well-meaning companies have recruiting and retaining veteran employees. One of my top priorities would be to establish a true partnership between the military and the private sector, crystallized in a network of centers across the country that would reinvent the process of transitioning to civilian life.
These would give new veterans the tools and training they need to find lasting careers or start their own businesses, while educating companies about the intangible skills they offer and how best to nurture them. Veterans represent the elite of American youth. If the country doesn’t take advantage of the talents, dedication and drive these young men and women have already shown in their years of service, we will all lose.
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?
President Trump has allowed his unqualified and unappointed friends to advance radical theories of privatization and push for the closure of VA facilities. We owe it to our veterans to keep our promises, particularly the guarantee of access to quality health care — health care they earned in service to our country.
During the Obama-Biden administration, we improved access to health care offerings for veterans in their communities, but there is still more work to do. Private sector points of care were designed to provide care to veterans when it was faster, closer, or offered superior services for a particular veteran’s needs. We must ensure that health care purchased in the community actually improves access and convenience and does not compromise the health of our veterans.
My administration will establish the right balance of VA care and purchased care, region by region, based on veteran needs, existing VA capacity, and availability of market alternatives.
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.
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.
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.
I am deeply concerned about Republicans’ efforts to privatize the VA. Earlier this year, I joined a letter to Secretary Wilkie criticizing the implementation of the VA Mission Act—decisions that impact the care veterans receive should be made transparently and in partnership with veterans’ groups. Community providers should provide the same quality care, and be held to the same standard, as VA providers.
Senator Klobuchar opposes efforts to privatize the VA and believes that expanding access to private care cannot come at the expense of fully funding and expanding the current Veterans Health Administration (VHA) infrastructure. As president, Senator Klobuchar will direct the VHA to use data on private care usage only as a means to help guide investments in its own growth, not as a way to further privatize its core functions.
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.
Bennet does not believe veterans care should be privatized. As president, Bennet will work to ensure veterans have timely access to quality care in a manner that makes sense for them. At times, this may mean access to care in the community. Bennet will focus on ensuring the process for accessing care in the community is streamlined and efficient and that the VA is resourced to provide veterans the world-class care they deserve.
Yes they have gone too far. As you can see in the first effort by the Trump administration to privatize, there were significant cost overruns and overbilling. What’s more, the New England Journal of Medicine and the Rand Corporation, in the 11 major indices of healthcare, have rated the VA as equal to or better than any public or private provider.
There are areas to fix, and we must do that, but privatization efforts will fail our vets, with the exception of certain accountable services being provided, especially in mental health and traumatic brain injury, by private organizations where the VA lacks a sufficient presence. I would take a close look at community care programs to ensure that veterans are getting the best care possible.
Have officials gone too far? Absolutely — this is not a policy I will pursue.
Access to healthcare is a fundamental right for all Americans. The unique healthcare needs of veterans are best met through the VA, which is a fully integrated health care system in the country and the only health care system designed specifically for veterans.
Our first priority should be to make a commitment to the care that our veterans need. We need to build upon the success of the VA hospital system, and I will make the investments necessary to ensure that the system is properly resourced and modernized.
While the private sector has a large role to play in transitioning veterans to civilian work, it is the government’s responsibility to provide the high-quality, low-cost and accessible care they so richly deserve.
Rather than privatizing the VA’s healthcare services, which, in some areas, can lead to poorer quality care, I would ensure the VA has the resources it needs to fill gaps in care, and work to develop the cutting-edge technology needed to make access seamless and easy. Veterans should have the right and the resources to use private doctors and hospitals if they cannot reach a VA facility without undue burden. But they should never be forced to do so because we have failed in our responsibilities to them.
Candidates Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard were contacted by the paper but did not respond to repeated requests for participation. Candidate Deval Patrick announced his participation in the Democratic primary after the deadline for all candidate questionnaires to be submitted.
Candidate Mike Bloomberg entered the presidential race after the questionnaires were originally posted. His responses were submitted to Military Times in January.
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.