Big Think Interview With Paul Rieckhoff
Paul Rieckhoff is the Executive Director and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a non-partisan non-profit group with over 100,000 members around the world. Since founding IAVA in 2004, it has become America’s first and largest Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans organization. Rieckhoff is now a nationally recognized authority on the war in Iraq and issues affecting troops, military families and veterans.
After graduating from Amherst College in 1998 with a degree in Political Science, Rieckhoff coached high school football, worked on Wall Street, participated in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero on 9/11, and served as an infantry platoon leader in Iraq from 2003-2004. In the spring of 2004, Rieckhoff became one of the first Iraq veterans to publicly criticize the war, call for better care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and demand accountability from elected officials. In 2006 Rieckhoff also published Chasing Ghosts, a critically acclaimed account of his experiences in Iraq and activism on behalf of veterans.
Paul Reickhoff: My name is Paul Reickhoff. I'm the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I'm an activist, an advocate, an author, and a proud American.
Question: Can you describe the typical veteran coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan?
Paul Rieckhoff: I think that there's no typical veteran coming home. They're not a totally homogenous group. But to frame it up broadly, they are about 2.2 million men and women who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. There are some new elements of this population that are sometimes surprising to the average American. 15 percent are women. At times almost 50 percent of the folks deployed have been National Guardsmen and Reservists. They're from all over the country. Many of them have served multiple tours; more than 500,000 have gone overseas more than once.
I had dinner with a Navy Seal recently who just got back from his seventh tour. They come from all different political backgrounds. They're much more economically diverse than I think most people imagine; they're not all broke and uneducated and from a housing project or trailer park. There is some pretty decent diversity.
And they joined for a lot of different reasons. Some join because they want to serve their country. Some join because they want to fight the Taliban. Some join because they want health insurance. There's really a lot of different reasons why they join, but the common theme is a sense of service. And they all volunteered, which really makes it different from any other generation of warriors that we've had in this country.
And when they come home, they face a really unprecedented disconnect. Less than one-half of one percent of the American population has served. In World War II it was as high as 12 percent. So what's really unique about this generation of warriors coming home is that they feel alone. They feel isolated, and most of the American public doesn't have someone in this fight. They don't have skin in the game. They don't have a brother, sister, daughter, or son fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So for the folks coming home, that can be a big part of their challenge coming home.
Once they do come home, they're facing the toughest economy in decades. The unemployment rate for veterans is consistently higher than the national average; it continues to increase. Many of them are still in the National Guard and Reserve, so they're kind of on stand-by. They may go back to being a teacher, or a student, or a bus driver, but if they're still in the National Guard or Reserve there's a good chance they'll redeploy.
I think they're a proud group of men and women, but they're facing some tough challenges, and I argue that it's really a moral obligation for our country to insure their support. We can learn the lesson from Vietnam. They don't have to come home to mistreatment and disrespect. We really have to invest in them, we have to support them, and we have to listen to them.
Question: What skills does a soldier learn from serving that translate to success in the civilian world?
Paul Rieckhoff: We always use the World War II generation as kind of the standard. Tom Brokaw famously called them "The Greatest Generation.'" They came home from World War II, lived through the Depression, helped build the middle class, and went on to be a generation of Nobel Prize winners, Presidents, business leaders. We believe that the men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan can be the next "greatest generation."
And to frame it up, if you've been in Falujah as a platoon leader leading 30 or 40 people in combat for a year where you had limited resources, limited guidance, a constantly dynamic-changing environment—that makes you entrepreneurial. That makes you think on the fly. It makes you really ingrain in yourself and your team elements that are going to be critical to a dynamic, evolving, changing environment.
So when they come home, they can apply those skills to the business community. As an example, there's a group of veterans affiliated with IAVA that recently created a group called Team Rubicon. It's because of a healthcare trauma target team that's gone into places like Haiti and Chile. They have a medical background, they have a military background, and they said, "You know what? We want to help." So they put together a team, went into a devastated area, and tried to make a difference.
We see the same sort of entrepreneurial spirit in the Gulf in response to the BP disaster. We saw the same thing in the green space. Many of them are starting businesses, and they have good communication skills, they understand logistics, they're usually able to command authority, and they can do really well. And we looked at people like Fred Smith, for example, the CEO of FedEx. He's a decorated Vietnam veteran in the Marine Corp. He took a lot of his skills that served him well—helped him survive, literally, in battle—and applied those to a civilian career that's been one of our country's most successful companies. So we looked at people like him as an example. Not every veteran coming home is gonna be homeless. Not every veteran coming home is gonna be damaged. There is a huge percentage of our population that has been very successful and can be very successful going forward.
Question: Are veterans receiving enough training to re-enter the 21st century workplace?
Paul Rieckhoff: I don't think they're getting enough. They are well suited to transition into the modern civilian workplace. They are incredibly web-savvy, they know how to use technology, they're early adopters, they can operate independently or in groups very well, so I would argue they make a really good asset to any kind of company. But they do need help transitioning home.
As an example, if you are a certain type of aircraft mechanic and you're coming out of the Air Force, your military skills are not necessarily validated by the civilian certification process, so you kind of go through that process over again. If you are a certain type of healthcare worker, sometimes if you're a medic in the military you're not automatically recognized for that training in the civilian sector.
So we need to do a better job of communicating military skills into the civilian workplace, and we need to help military veterans coming home communicate their experience and communicate their skills. Sometimes a young squad leader doesn't understand what new employers are looking for in the civilian workplace. He doesn't understand necessarily how to translate being a squad leader in an infantry unit into a sales job. But the skills are very similar. But they need resume workshops, they need transitional training, they need mentorship, and they need a little bit of guidance coming through a pretty tough period. But if you can help them through that sweet spot, I would argue that they're gonna be incredibly successful.
And we see it in our work every day. We've got just over 30 employees; more than half of them are veterans, and they are working on Capitol Hill, they're building web sites, they're organizing local events, they're incredibly entrepreneurial, they have a great skill set. But like any other person entering the work force, they need a little bit of support and stability to get through that tough period.
Question: Are private businesses hesitant to hire veterans, thinking they may have been traumatized by their experiences?
Paul Rieckhoff: Yeah, I think that that's a fight we're fighting every day: explaining to the average civilian employer that this person is not a ticking time bomb. Yes, a percentage of people coming home have mental health injuries. Yes, a percentage of them have been physically wounded. Yes, a percentage of them may redeploy. But they're an incredibly valuable asset. And I think we have to break the stereotype. We have to break the crazy, volatile, Rambo veteran stereotype that was really perpetuated after Vietnam.
And that's really a public education program that's gotta happen. The President needs to help, veterans groups like ours need to help. But the private business community also needs to step up. And there are people like Fred Smith, as an example, who we can trumpet as a leader for our community and someone who can set the bar. But businesses also need to step up and put jobs out.
here was a very important and really historic cover story in Fortune magazine a couple of months ago where there was a young Marine captain, female, named Maura Sullivan who's now an executive at Pepsi, and it was something along the lines of “The New Face of Business.” You know, in tough times, you want people who have been through tough times, and this is the type of tough person you need.
So I think that stereotype is changing. We need a massive call to action on behalf of the President. If he doesn't do that, I think the business community can step up, and the top Fortune 500 companies can say, “We are investing in these young people.” And it's not just charity—it's actually a long-term investment. Just like the World War II generation, they can go on to be our CEO's and our leaders of tomorrow.
But there is a knowledge gap that exists, and that's really at it's core because so few people know us. We're almost like a reality TV show. It's something that seems distant; it seems like somebody else's kids, but if you sit down with some of these young men and women, you're gonna find them to be incredibly dynamic, and incredibly impressive, and trainable.
These folks know how to be trained, they're open to being trained. Beyond the fact that they're punctual, they're gonna have a good haircut and probably shine their shoes. They are gonna have some of those fundamental business skills that may be lacking in other parts of the population.
Question: How do you feel about the portrayal of veterans in film and the media?
Paul Rieckhoff: I think the media has in large part perpetuated a series of stereotypes that exist. For the most part the average veteran is depicted as either a villain or a victim—one or the other. And our job every day is to kind of break that construct. Films like “The Hurt Locker,” and “Brothers,” and “Valley of Elah”—a lot of the big Hollywood films that have come out so far, or the popular Hollywood films that have come out so far—have really perpetuated these stereotypes.
If you watch something like “The Messenger” with Woody Harrelson, the big message is: don't invite vets to your wedding because they're gonna get drunk and punch somebody in the parking lot. You know, “Hurt Locker” did convey a very powerful, emotional connection, and that's a good outcome. It did connect people with the feeling of anxiety and the tension that exists in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it also perpetuated this kind of cowboy... lack of teamwork that really wasn't representative.
And the biggest issue I have with “The Hurt Locker” is how folks portrayed it as: this is the real thing. It's not the real thing. If you want to see the real thing, go see documentaries like “Restrepo” put out by Sebastian Junger. Go so “The War Tapes.” Go see “Gunner Palace.” They are these fantastic documentaries that can show you the real thing, but understand that “Hurt Locker” is a Hollywood interpretation of what happened in Iraq... and a person's story.
At the end of the day, I think the media has a long way to go. And that comes down to really digging in and understanding the community, and understanding the complexity of the issues, and understanding the depth of the characters involved. And there is a responsibility on the part of the media to represent accurately the wide range of experiences in our community. Yes, there are people who are coming home with problems. Yes, there have been violent incidents, but there have also been folks who are at Ivy league schools, who are Rhodes scholars, who are running for Congress, who are doing some incredible things, and we just want to make sure they're represented and their stories are told, as well. And ultimately it may come down to us.
We know that the Vietnam veterans were a huge part of explaining the experience to the American public. Whether it was somebody like Joey Galloway, who was a reporter at the time with Colonel Hal Moore, or if it was someone like Oliver Stone making pictures in Hollywood. We understand that the writers of Iraq and Afghanistan, the producers, the anchor people, the reporters that are gonna come out of that experience are gonna have to help keep it in check. We're gonna have to serve as watchdogs and representatives on behalf of our community, saying “Yes, that's accurate. No, that's not,” because for the most part the American public doesn't know, and that's gonna be a key role of veterans leaders in the next couple of months and years is to spot check those things and provide that sounding board.
Question: What is TBI, and is it really the “signature wound of this war”?
Paul Reickhoff: Traumatic brain injury, TBI, is a signature wound of the war. It may have impacted hundreds of thousands of people who have cycled through Iraq and Afghanistan. And for the most part, it's experienced when a roadside bomb, sometimes called an IED (improvised explosive device), blows up near or in the vicinity of a service member. So, that concussive blast literally rattles your head and causes your brain to smack against the inside of your skull kind of like a super-concussion. Sometimes it's an open head wound, often it's not.
And over time, there have been a number of veterans, thousands of veterans literally, who haven't been diagnosed. They think, “Well, maybe I'm just a little slow today, or I'm having some minor vision problems,” and they don't necessarily make the connection to the fact that they were around five, six, 50 blasts over the course of a deployment. So the screening at the outset has been woefully inadequate. The VA only started doing mandatory screenings for traumatic brain injury—I think it was in 2006.
But keep in mind, only half of Iraq and Afghanistan vets are going to the VA, so that means half of our population isn't being screened; half of our population may not be aware of the long-term symptoms of traumatic brain injury, so we have a lot of work to do around public education. We have a lot of work to improve the screening and treatment.
This is still very much a groundbreaking area. For the most part, the research around traumatic brain injury has come from car accidents and professional football. So we need more research, we need more treatment development. And there are folks like Bob Woodruff from ABC who has also started a traumatic brain injury foundation called ReMIND who have been incredibly powerful public advocates for us while at the same time are supporting the research we need.
But this could be like our generation's Agent Orange. Over the next decades, these symptoms and problems associated with traumatic brain injury will start to reveal themselves and start to emerge, and we need to understand that traumatic brain injury is just one example of how our commitment to veterans needs to be a life-long one. This may be 20 years before people start to really show signs or problems associated with their service, and as a public... as a group of leaders in Washington, our country has a commitment to honor that service all the way through their entire life.
Question: Does the VA do a good enough job of serving our veterans?
Paul Rieckhoff: Yeah, I would start by re-framing it. So this is Big Think, right? So, here's the big idea, is that the government can't handle Veterans Affairs alone. And that's a message that I have been trying to communicate and others who are really inside this have been trying to communicate for years now. The VA is gonna be a key component in supporting veterans over the next generation—but it's a component.
Less than half the folks are going to the VA, so what about that other half of the folks? They're gonna go to church groups, they're gonna go into the YMCA, they're gonna go into private community-based nonprofits, they're gonna come to veterans groups like ours. But it needs to be a coordinated effort that involves the federal government, the VA, and all these other groups working in concert together to tackle the problem.
We didn't just send the Federal government down to deal with Katrina. Yeah, they were a huge part of it, but there were local community groups. There were a lot of other spokes in the wheel that were critical to a response, whether it was effective or not. That's how we need to think about Veterans Affairs. When the President stands up and says, “I am doing this for veterans, and our VA is doing this,” that's great. But that's only impacting half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans coming home. Why?
The quality of care at the VA is generally good. Most of our members and most folks say the quality of care at the VA is very good. Outreach stinks. They are not getting out into rural areas, they're not using the Internet, they're not using earned and paid media in any way to reach new veterans. They are just not present where my generation of veterans lives. If you're on Facebook, you're not gonna see the VA very often. If you go to VA.gov right now—if you're watching this on the internet, pop up the VA's Web site and compare and contrast that to a lot of other websites. You see, for the most part, it looks like a Web site that was built in the Gulf War, not Iraq and Afghanistan.
So there's a long way to go in empowering the VA to be more effective in their outreach, but at the same time there has to be a reality here—a ground truthing—that the VA is not gonna reach everybody. It might be a local church group, it might be a veterans group like ours, and those groups need to be empowered, they need to be supported, and there also needs to be a marketplace for them.
There hasn't been a history of philanthropy supporting Veterans Affairs. Almost every corporation and philanthropic organization in the nation has a list of things they work with every year: poverty, AIDS, homelessness... We need to put veterans on the national consciousness forever so they understand when you send folks to war there's a moral obligation to care for them coming home, and the federal government and the President do not have it under control. They cannot do it alone, and they need to ask the American people, and all of our resources as a nation, to get involved to help.
Question: What is behind the recent spike in army suicides?
Paul Rieckhoff: There are a number of factors, but here's the bottom line: we lost 32 active duty soldiers to suicide in the month of June. That's just the Army, that's just active duty, that's just in June. If we lost 32 troops in Fallujah today, the national media would be focused on it, the President would be moving hell and high water, Secretary Gates would be saying, “Get to the bottom of this.”
But over the last few years, suicide rates have continued to climb. Earlier this year, for a month in the winter, we lost more soldiers to suicide than we did to Al Qaeda. So I think that's an important framework to understand going in. The military does not have the suicide issue under control, and it's getting worse. And there are a number of factors that go into this kind of cauldron that leads to suicides, but a big driving factor is that our people are tired; they are worn out. They are not robots.
You can't send people back to Iraq and Afghanistan for 20th tours. The President spoke at the Disabled American Veterans this week and brought up a soldier as someone who is inspiring, a soldier who was wounded. The soldier was on his 10th tour... ten times to a combat zone, and he was 27 years old. So at some point, the American public has to stand up and go, “Enough.”
We need to re-evaluate the situation. Now, it doesn't have to be a draw-down in Iraq, it doesn't have to be a draw-down in Afghanistan. It may be. But it may be increasing the pool and addressing the fairness issue that is really hitting our community hard. So when you take into account the fact that they're going back for repeated tours, there's a lack of family support, which is always going to be critical. Divorce rates are very high, they're coming home to tough economy, there is a lack of public support for the war, which we know contributes to the stress, the combat tours are long. Some folks in the Army have done 16-month tours, come home for a year, go back for another 16-month tour—that's a long time to be in a combat zone worried about whether or not you're gonna die.
So I think a lot of that has just started to stack up, and over time we've seen these suicide rates increase dramatically. We need a national call to urgency. I think the President has really been negligent in addressing this issue. He needs to stand up and say, “This is a top issue for my administration. This is a top issue for me,” and be specific in what he's gonna do about it. It's great for him to talk about stigma, it's great for him to say, “If you need help, come and get some.” But we also have to provide that help for when people do step forward, and right now that help is really lacking.
Question: Does one party care more about veterans’ issues?
Paul Rieckhoff: No. I mean, right now, neither party is doing enough for veterans. We, as an organization at IAVA, were extremely aggressive in criticizing the Bush administration and holding them accountable, and we're doing the same thing with the Obama administration. I don't think any party has a monopoly on veterans. I don't think any party loves veterans more than the other. I think everybody has a moral obligation to support veterans. However, we need more action from both of them.
Just as an example, under President Obama's watch unemployment has risen. Suicide has risen. The disability backlog at the VA, which is close to a million, has stayed solid. We're not making the progress we need, and the thing I'm most disturbed by is the continuing rhetoric out of the White House where they give the impression they've got everything under control. It reminds me of the way people talked about Katrina. It reminds me of the way the Bush administration talked about the insurgency in 2004 in Iraq when my guys were getting shot at.
There's a disconnect with reality that is really troubling, and that's where military families, veteran groups have to be more involved, have to be more vocal, and the American people need to pay attention to what we're saying. We're kind of a canary in the coal mine here. We're trying to call out and say, “Look at what's happening to our families. Look at what's happening to our equipment, on a more basic level.” And I think some of those calls for help and some of those flares that we're sending up haven't really been addressed with the kind of urgency that we think is necessary.
Question: Is our job really over in Iraq?
Paul Rieckhoff: I don't even know what the job is, so to ask whether or not the job is done, I think if you ask a hundred Americans, “What are we doing in Iraq?” you're gonna get a hundred different answers. The same is true in Afghanistan, so the President says combat operations are over in Iraq, but we're still gonna have tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. So what are those troops gonna be doing? Washing windows? I mean, they're gonna be in a combat zone getting shot at, in harm's way.
So I think that this is an example of how politicians have driven the rhetoric in a very disingenuous way. If your son or daughter is in Iraq after this summer, you're still gonna be worried about them. You're still gonna be sending them care packages. You're still gonna be counting the days until that person comes home. And because so few people have somebody serving over there, they can get away with this kind of loose and fast rhetoric, and I think an artificial focus on troop numbers.
Troop numbers are not some kind of silver bullet to the world's problems of violence. We've seen that in Iraq. We've seen that in Afghanistan. We've seen that in counter-insurgencies around the globe for decades. So I think there's a real lack of understanding of what's happening on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there's a lack of understanding consistently that goes all the way back to the Bush administration.
So when President Obama spoke at the DAV, this was supposed to be an opportunity for him to talk about veterans' issues. It was supposed to be, for us, the biggest speech of the year. Instead every news story this week has been about the Iraq draw-down. I think that's a missed opportunity. He made a campaign pledge, he said he was gonna end the war in Iraq, and now he's trying to deliver on that promise. That is important to him, and that may be what people want to hear, but that is independent of his ability and his willingness to tackle veterans' issues. And that's part of what me and other people have been trying to decouple.
The warriors and taking care of them coming home is not necessarily linked to the war plan. It should be. There should be a continuation of care, but that doesn't exist right now, so when the President spoke about Afghanistan at West Point a couple months back and laid out his huge plan for Afghanistan, he neglected one word: veterans. He never mentioned the word "veterans," so if you were sitting home on your couch you were left with the idea of, “The President's got it under control. Our military has got it under control, and me? I can go back to watching 'American Idol' and shopping.”
So at some point, we've got to involve the American public in the dialogue, and I would argue at some point we've got to involve the American public in the sacrifice. And that could come in the form of taxes, it could come in the form of time, it could come in the form of volunteering at a local veterans facility, but for the most part most Americans have lived life uninterrupted, and every politician—Bush and Obama—have allowed that to continue. And I think that's to the detriment of not only the troops, but to the American public in general.
Question: Should there be a mandatory service requirement in our country?
Paul Rieckhoff: I think there needs to be a social backstop when you send folks to war. The level of involvement right now in Iraq and Afghanistan is totally unprecedented in American history. We've never had a protracted war with an all-volunteer military and a President who hasn't served. You put those three things together, and it's really created a profound, troubling disconnect where we have essentially created a warrior class. You've got folks who are gone for 10 tours, and you've got everyone else who really could, if they wanted to, block this war out entirely. That is damaging to our social fabric. That is damaging to our nation. When you can send folks to war without the American public feeling it. That's a problem. And I think it's a really unprecedented problem and one we have to address.
So I think there has to be some way to involve the American people. It doesn't have to be conscription; it doesn't have to be a draft. It could be a national call to action, and let me give you an example. Right now we know the suicide rate is climbing. General Correlli, who leads the suicide prevention task force at the Pentagon, has repeatedly said part of his problem that he's facing right now is a critical shortage of qualified mental healthcare workers. The Pentagon is saying they don't have enough psychiatrists, psychologists, and no one seems to notice. The President has never issued a call. The President could stand up tomorrow and say, “You wanna serve your country? You wanna help our men and women in uniform, and you're a psychiatrist or a psychologist? Go work at the Army, go work at the VA, go work at the Pentagon.”
We have not really tapped in to the resources that exist in this country, even folks who want to help. I mean, you don't even have to make it mandatory. If you stood up right now, and you were the President, and you said, “I'd like you to do X,” millions of people are gonna get involved. He can use the bully pulpit to drive action and to drive involvement without making something mandatory. But over time, I think we do have to re-examine the lack of equality that exists.
You can't have folks continue to die, and continue to fight, and have so many folks that are totally disconnected. I don't think it's good for our country. Many people have said the all-volunteer military works, the all-volunteer military is great for the military, we have the best fighting force on earth. And that's true, and it's good for the military. But I'm not sure it's good for America, and that's the question I think we've got to ask in the next couple of years.
Question: What should happen to Bradley Manning, the WikiLeaker?
Paul Rieckhoff: Bradley Manning should go to jail, and Bradley Manning will go to jail because Bradley Manning, and this is... granted, we have to see how the trial pans out – it appears as though Bradley Manning broke the law. If you have a security clearance within the military, and you take it upon yourself to download classified information onto a datastick and send it to Julian Assange, you have broken the law, and you will go to jail. Everybody in the military understands that, down to the most basic private.
So this entire situation with Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks has undoubtedly put people's lives in danger—both American and Afghan, and Iraqi. As an example, Julian Assange has said that he has not personally read the 91,000 documents that were included in this latest leak. So then, how can he possibly know what's in those documents and what's not? How can he possibly responsibly assure us that there aren't the names of informants, that there aren't vulnerabilities to vehicle systems, as an example. He can't. And now, over time, we've found that there are, for example, the names of Afghan informants in some of these documents. And Al Qaeda has said, “We are reading these documents. We are studying these documents, and we will kill the people we can figure out.”
Julian Assange is not doing a public service by disclosing confidential information. And for the folks who are calling for transparency and openness in government, I understand that, and I agree: we do need transparency and openness. But do we need to have, for example, the President's travel schedule down the to the minute detail published on the Internet? Do we need to have the locations of nuke sites published on the Internet? Should we tell everybody exactly when a humvee is moving from a gate to an objective? No. It doesn't pass the common sense test.
When you talk about WikiLeaks and you think about Julian Assange, you see a real division between people who have dealt with classified information and who have come from the military community, and folks who haven't. There's a huge divide there, but I think over time we're gonna see that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have been incredibly irresponsible, they are not journalists, and they are not upholding the level of integrity that I think they claim to do. That's why you've seen such a pushback from the White House, and Department of Defense, and pretty much everybody who knows anything about military affairs. And I think over time the general public will understand why we've been so concerned about this, but at the end of the day I think Admiral Mullen is right. I think Julian Assange and WikiLeaks already probably have blood on their hands.
The one last thing I'll say about WikiLeaks that I think is really important was that it kind of felt like a flashback for me to 2004 where I was watching tons of people on TV and in the news who had no idea what the hell they were talking about. There were very few people who understood even what classified information was, much less the details of what was disclosed in some of these documents. So I would argue that for folks watching right now, demand knowledgeable sources. Demand people who understand what the hell they're talking about when you're trying to dig into these issues. You wouldn't have some random guy in the street talk about performing an appendectomy. So why would you have some random guy in the street talking about Special Forces operations in Iraq? You need to get credible people who understand the subject matter in order to drive an educated debate, and that's what I think has really been lacking in much of the mainstream media.
Question: Will repealing "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" be disruptive to straight soldiers?
Paul Rieckhoff: It’s not a valid fear. Military personal will execute the orders put down by the commanders. If they are told to serve with gay people, they will serve with gay people. There will be very little debate. They will execute the orders that are put down by their Commander in Chief. That is part of a professional military. That is our obligation as professional soldiers: to execute the orders put down to us. So I think that any kind of idea there there will be a mutiny or some kind of resistance in the military if we overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is ridiculous, and it’s not really founded in any kind of historical fact.
When women were integrated into the military, the military made it work. When African-Americans were integrated into the military, they made it work. Now, of course there were problems and there were issues, and there is kind of a learning curve that needs to happen, but our military is highly professional and will execute on the orders put down to them. So on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I think that there’s a real generational divide here. People of our generation are not afraid of gay people. These ideas that you need to worry about what’s gonna happen in the shower, or if you’re in a foxhole I think are really ridiculous.
If you come from a younger generation, if you’ve operated in the modern military, you’ve been around gay people, you’ve grown up around gay people, gay people have been a part of our media and a part of our consciousness really from our childhood, so it’s not this boogieman like it is to some of the older generations. And I think from a legislative standpoint, it’s important to recognize that this is happening. This is gonna happen.
I will put all the money in my pocket right now on the fact that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be repealed. On what timeline, we don’t know. Right now, it’s contained in the National Defense Authorization Act, the NDAA, which is kind of the big defense budget component that congress hasn’t passed yet. They probably won’t pass it before the summer recess. They may pass it before the election campaigns start. But that’s where “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is gonna be coming out of, and it will be interesting to see what the polling says coming out of the military. But at the end of the day, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is going to be overturned, and the people in the military are going to execute and are going to continue to uphold the level of professionalism that has really set us apart from most other folks in the world.
Question: Did you serve with any men that you knew were gay?
Paul Rieckhoff: I did. Not in my unit, but I did know people who served that were gay. There's kind of a... people who are in the know know that the Pentagon is a place where there are a lot of gay service members, probably one of the highest concentrations of anywhere in the military. So that's been an interesting part of the behind-the-scenes dialogue that goes on. There are folks like Admiral Mullen who have been very outspoken in saying that gay people have been critical in their survivability.
And I think it was a very important moment when Admiral Mullen stepped out front and said his personal feelings on “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” and he felt it should be overturned, and Secretary Gates backed that up. People like Colin Powell have evolved in their position, and it's important to note that Congressman Patrick Murphy is the first Iraq vet elected to Congress, and he is leading the charge to overturn “Don't Ask, Don't Tell.”
So I think it's gonna be an interesting fight, but for those of us who are tracking on this inside the Pentagon, who follow defense policy, there's not much of a fight. This is gonna happen, and now it's a question of, “How do we properly implement it? How do we educate and prepare the community?" And that's what we're doing at IAVA right now is educating our members about the debate, assessing where they are, and giving them a voice in the dialogue because that's an important point to note.
Our organization has not been invited by the White House or anyone else in Washington, with the exception of the Pentagon, to come in and talk about this. Unfortunately, there has been a component of the debate that's been left only to the activists in gay rights groups, and they have an important role to play, no doubt. But the military and veterans community has really not been included in this dialogue to the extent that they should be, so I hope that changes throughout this summer. I want to go to the White House and talk to the President about this. Other groups want to do that as well, and it's important to know that it's not just about whether or not we pass it, but it's once we make that change, how do we ensure that people who are serving in the military who are gay are protected? How do we ensure that their rights are protected? How do work through the nuances of property issues, and life insurance, and all that other stuff that's gonna be a part of figuring out how to actually implement a change. We want to be a part of that discussion, and we can be a valuable asset to whoever is driving that discussion, but so far, unfortunately, it hasn't happened.
Recorded August 2, 2010
Interviewed By Max Miller
A conversation with the Iraq war veteran and IAVA founder.
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