Former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak served in the U.S. Navy from 1974 to 2005. Military Times reached out to his campaign for answers on several questions related to his military and veteran policy plans if he is elected president.
To see all of the candidate responses, click here.
President Donald Trump has touted that the U.S. military is now stronger than ever before, due to increases in military spending and fewer battlefield restrictions on troops. What is your assessment of the current state and readiness of the armed forces? Are they in a better place than they were four years ago? Why?
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.
After one year of your administration, what size will the U.S. troop presence be in Afghanistan? In Syria and Iraq? In Europe?
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.
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?
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.
Should the Defense Department budget increase or decrease? To what level?
See question 1. 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.
What is your plan to deal with the rising number of suicides in the military and veterans community?
See question 3 for the military community, but 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.
What would be your top policy priority involving veterans, and how will you approach that issue differently from the current administration?
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.
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?
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.
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.