What veterans want in a commander in chief

Courtesy of Mike Waltz
Green Beret Mike Waltz (r.) instructs a member of the Afghan National Police (l., blue shirt) in basic tactics in an undisclosed location. The police were ill-equipped and poorly trained for the isolated paramilitary operations required to combat the Taliban.
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What do veterans want in a commander in chief? Some praise President Donald Trump for his assertiveness, contrasting it with former President Barack Obama’s “apologizing.” Others say Mr. Trump seems brash and uninformed. As America begins anew the process of choosing a president, three young Democratic veterans of the 9/11 wars are vying to replace him in 2020.

Those who know better than most the cost of military ventures feel keenly the importance of electing a commander in chief who will remember there’s a person behind each uniform, who will bring the country together, and defend its moral standing in the world.

Why We Wrote This

Veterans we spoke to emphasized the importance of strong leadership and humility – and not just in the White House. Both parties are trying to recruit more veterans to run for Congress, while three young vets are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I want to be inspired. I want to be proud,” says retired Navy Lt. Brad Snyder, who was blinded by an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Afghanistan. As he sees it, there’s a broad need right now, across government and society.

“We’re kind of in a vacuum of character-based leadership,” adds Lieutenant Snyder, who now teaches leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “We don’t [just] need the one good leader to be president. We need leaders in Congress, in the private sector.”

Mike Waltz remembers being in Afghanistan as a Green Beret when President Barack Obama announced badly needed troop increases – and, simultaneously, a timeline for withdrawal.

A colleague turned to him and said, “Sir, can you imagine Franklin Delano Roosevelt announcing to the world that we have just embarked on D-Day, but telling the Germans we would only be there six months?”

The frustration of that experience impelled him – like a growing number of other veterans – to enter politics, so he can help shape how America deploys its strength abroad.

Why We Wrote This

Veterans we spoke to emphasized the importance of strong leadership and humility – and not just in the White House. Both parties are trying to recruit more veterans to run for Congress, while three young vets are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

“What do we value in a commander in chief? I would say, No. 1., it’s letting the military do their job, and not tying their hands from Washington, D.C.,” says Congressman Waltz, who now represents Florida as a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He is part of a new generation of veterans indelibly shaped by the post-9/11 war on terror. They have put their lives on the line for American ideals, making nosedive landings in their cargo planes and rescuing buddies hit by insurgents rolling hand grenades at them. As a deeply divided America embarks once more on the process of choosing a president, many say they feel keenly the importance of electing a commander in chief who will bring the country together, protect its interests abroad, and defend its moral standing in the world.

“When you encounter people around the world who actually believe in America and what it stands for, you realize how important it is to behave like a world leader,” says a career veteran of the U.S. military’s special forces, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is still active duty and not authorized to comment publicly. “If America loses the moral high ground, then what reason does the rest of the world have to follow the U.S. instead of some other dominant power?”

In the 2020 Democratic presidential race, three young veterans are vying to be the next commander in chief. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who served seven months in Afghanistan as a Naval Reserves intelligence officer, took aim today at President Donald Trump for his four academic deferments and questionable medical exemption during the Vietnam War. 

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard completed two tours – in Iraq and Kuwait – with the Hawaii Army National Guard as a military police officer. And Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a decorated Marine infantry officer who fought four combat tours in Iraq, is challenging Mr. Trump in his capacity as commander in chief.

Cheryl Senter/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., shakes hands with veterans at a campaign event held at Liberty House in Manchester, N.H., April 23, 2019.

“As a platoon commander, [my job] was to get … Americans from all over this country with diverse backgrounds, religious beliefs, political beliefs, all united behind a common mission to serve our country, to serve America,” said Congressman Moulton at a May 19 campaign stop in Rye, New Hampshire. “And in a lot of ways, I think that’s exactly the kind of leadership we need from the next president of the United States, especially at a terribly divided time in American history.”

On both sides of the aisle, veterans emphasize the importance of putting the country’s interests ahead of party politics. They know better than most the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the most expensive in America’s history.

Patriots, rain or shine

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks solidified his decision to enter the Navy, Brad Snyder was marching through fields of grapes in Afghanistan when his platoon hit a chokepoint.

The narrow opening in a 10-foot wall was an ideal spot for insurgents to plant an IED – an improvised explosive device – the kind fashioned from a cooking oil jug filled with fertilizer.

Lieutenant Snyder was one of two IED experts assigned to protect this Navy SEAL platoon from such threats.

His partner was leading that day, scanning the ground with a metal detector as they walked through the Panjwai Valley, not far from Osama Bin Laden’s old training grounds. The first three SEALs followed him without incident.

But the next man, one of the Afghan commandos they were training, broke out of the single-file line and stepped on an IED equivalent to 40 pounds of TNT.

The blast severely wounded the commando. Lieutenant Snyder rushed forward to help get him to a medivac, and was going back for another wounded Afghan when he stepped on a second IED.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is what it feels like to be blown up, to die – this is it,’” says Lieutenant Snyder, who is now retired from the service.

He woke up in Maryland’s Walter Reed hospital a few days later, blind yet grateful to be alive. He says he has never regretted his decision to serve – despite the loss of his sight, and the niggling questions he’d started to have that year about what the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan.

“You can’t be a fair-weather patriot,” says Lieutenant Snyder. “I have to stand with my countrymen, mistakes or victories.”

He isn’t so concerned with whether his commander in chief shares his political viewpoints, but he wants someone he can trust, a leader with integrity – adding that the president doesn't have to be a veteran.

“I want to be inspired. I want to be proud,” he says. 

As he sees it, there’s a broad need right now, across government and society. “We’re kind of in a vacuum of character-based leadership,” says Lieutenant Snyder, who now teaches leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “We don’t [just] need the one good leader to be president. We need leaders in Congress, in the private sector.”

Leading with strength and humility

Among those sent into combat, confidence and strength are frequently invoked as critical traits in leaders. When it comes to a commander in chief, there’s a desire that he or she project strength to the world – but also restraint.

“You want someone who can convey that they understand the gravity of war – someone who won’t send you needlessly into war,” says the special forces veteran. “[The late Arizona Sen.] John McCain was perhaps a good example of someone who, through his experience, would view war as a last resort. But if that was the only option left, he would hold nothing back and he would fight to win.”

Indeed, moral courage must be paired with humility and discernment, says Rob Nofsinger, a former Marine captain who served three tours in Iraq and went on to become an Army chaplain.

“If you have moral courage, but you don’t have the humility or discernment … now you’re leading everyone down a dangerous path because you can’t see the right one to take,” he says.

Once the course is established, central to the mission is taking care of the people under your command. “[A commander in chief] should be able to show compassion,” says Keith Robinson, a 32-year reservist, citing former President George W. Bush as an example.

Sgt. Joseph Knabel, a recruiter for the Texas Army National Guard, agrees – and says that leaders need to remember that people are more important than the mission. “They forget that there’s a person behind that soldier, there’s a person in that uniform,” he says. “If you give people purpose, direction, and motivation, that makes all the difference.”

Articulating a mission, strategy, and vision unites the country behind those serving, says former Navy pilot Ryan Smits. “When they know their country is behind them, they’re unstoppable,” he says.

Courtesy of Mike Waltz
Mike Waltz, who previously served in Afghanistan as a Green Beret, rides aboard an Afghan Mi-17 helicopter during a return visit in 2007 when he was director for Afghanistan policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The dozen-plus veterans interviewed for this article were hesitant to speak on the record about President Trump’s performance as commander in chief. Privately, some praise the strength he projects, contrasting it with Mr. Obama’s “apologizing.” But they also express concern that Mr. Trump’s decisions seem flippant, uninformed, and poorly explained, as compared with Mr. Obama’s articulate, dignified presence on the world stage.  

Still, at the end of the day “it doesn’t matter who’s in the White House, because they’re our boss and we will always follow the commander in chief’s order and support whatever they need us to do,” says Corey Lutton, a former Navy lieutenant who served in the Middle East and Japan. “That’s something that veterans bring to any organization, including Congress and the White House.”

That ethos of service is precisely why Congressman Waltz, along with Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL, and other House Republicans announced on Wednesday a new effort to recruit more GOP veterans to run for office. They hope to mirror Congressman Moulton’s success in helping a new wave of Democratic veterans get elected to Congress last fall.

As Congressman Waltz – a four-time recipient of the Bronze Star – wrapped up the event, he referenced his Christian background as an inspiration for the kind of leadership that is needed today.

“If you look at how Jesus led when he was on earth, he walked the walk, right? He led by example,” he said. “He led with strength, but he also led with humility.”

Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.

This story was updated to correct the location of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's second tour in the Middle East.

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