by Leo Shane III – Nov 18, 2019 (MilitaryTimes.com)
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: After one year of your administration, what size will the U.S. troop presence be in Afghanistan? In Syria and Iraq? In Europe?
A: 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. Sign up for the Early Bird Brief
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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
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.
Q: 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?
A: 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
Q: Should the Defense Department budget increase or decrease? To what level?
A: 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
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.
Q: What is your plan to deal with the rising number of suicides in the military and veterans community?
A: 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
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
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.
Q: What would be your top policy priority involving veterans, and how will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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