Pete Buttigieg’s, mayor of South Bend, Ind., first-hand experience as a Navy Reserve officer provides an almost unrivaled political awareness of what military service members and their families necessitate.
In fact, Buttigieg’s military background aligns with the need of 86% of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members that say more veterans in Congress would have a more positive impact on addressing national issues. Yet only 36% of those veterans have considered running for public office. In spite of the statistics, though, three veterans — Buttigieg, Rep. Seth Moulton and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — are running to be selected as the 2020 Democratic nominee.
Buttigieg served in the reserves from 2009 to 2017 as an intelligence officer, and deployed to Afghanistan during his active tenure as mayor. In April, he officially opened a campaign seeking presidency.
Reserve & National Guard Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Buttigieg over the phone about his combat duty service, and why he decided that he wants to jump from being a city mayor to the country’s president.
Question: What did your experience deploying to a war zone teach you, and how would it affect the decisions you would make as president?
Answer: Well, of course, the biggest thing it teaches you is what’s at stake when a president makes a decision to send people into a conflict zone. You know, there are so many different responsibilities that go with that office, but none more grave than deciding that service members are going to be deployed, and it’s not one to be taken lightly. It’s not one to be sleepwalked into. And I think you get just a different gut sense of that when you’ve actually had a set of orders in your hand and packed your bags.
The biggest thing I learned down range was how to work with people who are very different than I was and very quickly establish trust. So you get thrown into a deployed environment with people who are from a different background than you are, and maybe they have different politics than you do, and you learn to trust them with your life … . I’m always looking for ways to take that back to the state side because, ya know, I think we shouldn’t have to go to war to have that kind of experience, but it’s certainly something that I think service members bring home with them when they’ve been deployed. That sense of how to form a connection with people who you may have almost nothing in common with other than the fact that you are all serving.
Q: Why serve your country versus other “lucrative” money making paths, and what spurred that decision?
A: Well, there had always been a family tradition of service. My grandfather was career military, and could trace people going back through the generations who had served. So it was always in the back of my head, but I also always had some excuse to do other things when I was a student and when I was starting my career. But the older I got, the more I realized that if I wanted to do this, I had to step up at some point.
And the thing that put me over the top was an experience when I was knocking on doors in Iowa as a campaign volunteer. It felt like I was in smaller, rural communities and some of these places as I got to talking to people and saw just how many young people were headed into the service, I began to feel this disconnect between a bigger city where I lived and these rural communities. I realized I might be part of the problem, and I could also be a part of the solution.
And I think I was also excited to do something that was just different than the everyday life that I had. I enjoyed what I was doing in business and later in public service, but military service is something very different, very compelling, is meaningful and a way to see the world, as they say, but also just learn things you wouldn’t learn anywhere else.
Q: What are your thoughts on America’s patriotism today versus when you first started serving?
A: I think, the good news is, I think America has a sense of belief in our country and support for the military that our generation has really benefited from that was harder for, for example, the Vietnam generation. Now, I think it’s much more commonplace that even if you disagree with policy about going to war, you still support the men and women who are sent to carry that policy out because you draw a distinction between the political decision process and the men and women in uniform. So that’s the good news.
The thing that worries me, is that in order for us to really have a strong national identity, we also have to be united more than we’re divided. And I worry, especially under this presidency, that we’re deeply divided against each other. And of course, there are foreign adversaries that have been working very hard to exploit and deepen those divisions because they know it makes our country weaker and it’s something they can take advantage of.
Q: What have you learned from your own failures?
A: Every time something goes different than you expected, you learn to adjust from it and move on. That’s certainly true in the military and it’s true in policy making, too. I think the biggest thing you have to learn is to take ownership, and when something goes well and when something doesn’t, to own the decision, own the process, and above all own the changes you are gonna make to get to a better solution.
Q: Other than your own military background, what do you offer today’s military families that have such varied beliefs?
A: Well, first of all that I’m really focused on taking care of them because I know what’s at stake. And that’s not just from my experiences … . We were one of the first cities in the country to help launch a program, called Veterans Community Connections, which is all about helping military families and people coming off active duty feel supported and feel at home in our city of South Bend by connecting them to volunteers who were looking to do more than say ‘thank you for your service,’ by helping people navigate their new community and their new home.
Ya know, when I look at the bigger, national picture, military families need a president who respects service. Of course it helps to have a president who knows what it means to serve personally, but also just a willingness to put country over politics. A promise to never use military families as props, to only deploy them when there is a necessity of that. And also to make sure that funding is never put at risk. There was talk of diverting funding from things like housing for military families in order to send it to the border. I think that’s the exact wrong direction, and a president who knows what it is to be on a base, in uniform, I think will come at those decisions very differently.
Q: What made you actually take a leap from being the South Bend mayor to being the president?
A: Well, it’s a leap. And it’s definitely not what I had in mind when I first ran for mayor nor is it how I guessed I’d be spending this part of my life. But, I see a country that is in real need of vision. I mean, we are at one of those moments that, really, I think decides how an era in American history is going to go. These moments come along every 40 or 50 years. The beginning of the New Deal was a moment like that. The beginning of the Reagan era was a moment like that. I think we are another one where there is going to be a real difference between what we are used to and what’s coming next. And that is part of why everything is so unstable and complicated right now.
So it means that what’s at stake is not just which party wins the White House, but really do we have a serious big picture vision. And I think coming from a new generation equips me to do that. I’m putting forward ideas about how our economy is going to work in the 21st century, why 21st century security is different than it used to be, why we have to take things like climate and cyber security seriously in a way that we didn’t before, and understanding how policies really affect our freedom at home. Not just from the security perspective but the economic freedoms that come with making adequate wage and investing in education and infrastructure.
And I think being a mayor gives me a different outlook on these things, too, because when you are a mayor, you don’t debate these things in committees, you have to fix them. When there is a problem with infrastructure or safety or people being divided, you just have to figure out how to make it better. And I think we need a little more of that attitude in Washington.
Q: Anything else you want to share with us?
A: One other thing I just wanted to mention about the Reserve and Guard because I think it’s important. One thing I saw is how important civilian skills and capabilities people have that can be integrated into the military, and one of the things that would be on my mind as president is how a 21st century Guard and Reserve really links those things together because those skills really matter. I think we haven’t paid enough attention to how they fit. So one thing that I’ll be trying to do is, not just talk about military issues, but specific to the Guard and Reserve, I think it’s really important that we’re paying attention to that. And also that we honor the disruption that people go through willingly in order to get mobilized that everybody, whether it’s as a mayor or as a mother, everybody is leaving something really important behind when they serve.
Editor’s note: Reserve & National Guard Magazine is a non-biased publication and does not endorse any political candidates. Ellipses were used to indicate brief moments when the phone connection cut out.Read comments