Mayor Buttigieg talks veterans’ issues, his service, and adjusting back to civilian life

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Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks with Jim Irizarry
Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks with Jim Irizarry

Staff Writer

Jim Irizarry: First of all, in regards to IUSB, the Veterans Book Club meeting is coming up on the 10th, and you’re going to be making an appearance. How did that come about?

Pete Buttigieg: I have a lot of regard for the Student Veteran Organization there. It’s a relatively young organization. I think it’s just stood up in the last couple of years, and I always try to make myself available when they’re doing something, and my team knows that. So, I’m sure when they reached out, it was just a matter of seeing if it fit on the calendar, and I’m glad it did.

JI: You, yourself, of course, being a veteran — and thank you for your service, by the way —

PB: Definitely.

JI: — is there anything that you feel is a misperception of veterans today?

PB: Well, I think that, you know, the face of the American veteran is changing, and that’s true with every generation, and it’s true with every conflict. I think the experience of the WWII veteran or the Korea veteran is very different from the experience of the Vietnam generation, and that, in turn, very different from the experience of the Iraq and Afghanistan, post-9/11 vets.

But, what everybody has in common is we all took that same oath. It’s great to be able to have something in common with people of a totally different background and age. It’s one of my favorite things about it, but there are a lot big differences, and I think the country’s still figuring out how to respond to the post-9/11 generation of war veterans. The biggest thing that I think is important to adjust is to see veterans in terms of what they bring to the table, instead of only in terms of needs.

You have people coming back to our communities from deployments from active duty who have an amazing skillset. You have people who are, at a very young age, called on to make important leadership decisions and do very high-stakes work on the strength of very short and very intense training. These are exactly the kinds of people we need to power our communities going forward, and my view is South Bend is the kind of community that ought to be competing for more veterans to want to live here by showing our friendliness to military and veteran families.

JI: That’s why you brought up the Vets’ Community Connections. Give me a brief overview of that program.

PB: What we’re trying to achieve with VCC is to establish South Bend as an unusually veteran and military family friendly community. This is different from VA issues. This is not another website; this is not a benefits program. There’s a lot going on in that area, too. This is about the human connection, and so the idea of Vets’ Community Connections is to activate a network of community volunteers willing to take a phone call or an email to help a military family or veteran navigate our community.

You got a lot of people who really could decide to live anywhere they want in the country. I want them to decide to live here, and one way we can have an edge in that is for a military family to know that there’s a network of people just one phone call away who are able to help them find anything from a good dentist to helping to navigate the school system.

The model I always think of is my right-hand man when I was in Afghanistan, a Marine gunnery sergeant who will soon be retiring at the old age of 38 or so after his service in the Marines. He’s got four boys, and he’s ready to start his second career, and he’s going to choose somewhere in America to live, and he and Mrs. Gunny and their four boys are going to go somewhere. I want them to want to come here, maybe go to a place like IUSB. He’s interested in coaching or teaching, and when he does, I want him to know that there’s a network of people in the community ready to help that family get settled in.

That’s what this is about, and I think if we get it right, it helps shift the dialogue from just veterans as people with issues that we need to help deal with to veterans as the kind of people we ought to be competing over because they can add so much to our neighborhoods, to our communities, to our schools and to our economy.

JI: That seems to be the big misconception. You watch any crime drama, whenever they’re dealing with any veteran on that show, it’s always the vet has gone crazy or suffers from PTSD, something to that extent. Does fighting that perception — does that start on a local level here with something like a VCC program? Does more need to be done nationally?

PB: No, I think it starts with just getting to know people. It’s like any other group that’s misunderstood. It usually has to do with not knowing any. So, you know, today’s military is very different from what it was a couple generations ago.

In the WWII generation, there was nobody of a military age who didn’t personally have a friend or family member who was serving if they didn’t themselves. I think members of the military then were less revered and more understood. There was respect, but there was nothing exotic about serving in the military. It was actually kind of a norm.

Now, less than 1 percent of the country’s in service at any given time. That’s how it works with the all-volunteer force, and what it means is there are, frankly, just fewer people who know veterans, certainly veterans who served in the current conflicts. And, yes, I do think something like VCC can break that down a little bit by inviting people not with any special training other than just being experts in the community to reach out and be willing to help a military family and find out that these are very normal and very special families at the same time.

JI: Was there any sort of trouble adjusting for you? Is it just ‘I don’t know where to go to get benefits if I need them? I don’t know, you know, something simple like a doctor or whatever it is that they need. Is every case different?

PB: Any change, any transition is challenging. When you’re coming out of a deployment in a war zone, everything is a little different. Everything’s very different. Over there, the entire environment is designed to allow you to focus on just one thing. You don’t have family. You don’t have any of the just normal kind of things, which you miss, but also not having them there lets you concentrate. You come back; you come back to a world with a different kind of complexity, and it can be a bit of a jolt to come back into that world, even if that’s where you came from in the first place.

Also, most people have very different roles in civilian life than they did in the military, and I’m especially aware of this as a reservist. So, a lot of reservists have radically different professional lives as they do in uniform. Certainly for me. You know, I went from being the mayor of a city to a pretty green lieutenant, and, you know, I was doing things for my commanders that I was used to having done for me and I had a very different set of responsibilities. So that kind of change can throw you, but it also is one of the things that makes veterans some of our most flexible and capable citizens in our community.

I spent a lot of my time driving outside the wire, so a big part of my responsibility was to just make sure my commander or the enlisted guys who were with me were getting from point A to point B safely. Even picking somebody up at the airport is a very complicated thing when you’re doing it in a war zone, and so just driving around here felt very different when I got home. It was two or three weeks before I stopped feeling for the buttstock of my rifle –

JI: Oh wow.

PB: — at my right-hand side because I never left the wire, without a rifle, a pistol, body armor and at least one non-commissioned officer with me. So, yeah, I remember asking my mother if we were clear right when we pulled onto the toll road –

JI: Did she just go, “What?”

PB: Yeah.

JI: “What do you mean by that?”

PB: I was up here once, and there was a bomb threat at the courthouse next door, and it was my first or second week back. My chief of staff came in to let me know and asked what we should do. I looked out the windows, and thought about it for a sec, and I thought, you know, we’re probably outside the blast radius, so I wouldn’t worry about it. And –

JI: That’s a moment of quiet reflection. “Eh, we’re probably outside of it. We’re good.”

PB: And then she skipped a beat, and she said, “Are you thinking about this as a civilian?” And I said, “yeah, if you put it that way….”

JI: (laughs) I guess we should clear the building.

PB: (laughs) We should see if there’s a protocol to evacuate the building. Everything was fine, but your perspective is just different.

JI: An organization like the Student Veterans Organization, how unique is that for a university?

PB: You know, I think it’s one of the great examples where the uniqueness of IUSB really shines through. We’re blessed to have a lot of great colleges and universities, but most of them, most of the undergraduates haven’t had much real-world experience. You look at Notre Dame. Fantastic ROTC programs, but you’re not going to see an undergraduate veteran organization because very, very few freshmen are older than 18 when they get there.

IU South Bend’s a little different. You got a lot of people who arrive with some life experience under their belt, and I think students are able to support each other in a different way when they have that experience. So I think it’s terrific, and I’m glad that those students have decided to support each other

JI: Do you ever have any high school or college kids who are thinking about enlisting say, “Hey, I’m getting my inspiration to enlist from you?”

PB: I’ve definitely had people approach me to ask about serving, and I try to give them good advice. You know, it’s not for everybody, but all the people I talked to are doing it for the right reasons, and I keep in touch with the ones who rogered up, and I think that’s great.

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