Bernie Sanders on Military & Veterans

Bernie Sanders voted against the Iraq War, and believes that while military force is sometimes needed, it should always be the absolute last resort. Bernie’s commitment to stopping unnecessary bloodshed is matched by his commitment to taking care of our over 20 million military veterans and their families. He served as Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and received the 2015 Congressional Award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), who said: “It is no understatement to say that Bernie has truly taken care of wounded, ill, and injured veterans and their surviving family members.”

The Role of the United States Military

Bernie believes that while we do need a strong national defense infrastructure, we need to focus more heavily on diplomatic alternatives to war. For most of the past decade, the United States has been engaged in two separate military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bernie is concerned about the human and monetary costs of these wars, especially as the country faces grave challenges on the home front.

The U.S. military has been increasingly called upon in recent years to engage in prolonged military engagements around the world.

What are Bernie’s general views about the role of the United States military?

Bernie has stated clearly that he believes in “a strong defense system for our country and a robust National Guard and Reserve that can meet our domestic and foreign challenges.” Nonetheless, Bernie believes that military intervention should be a last resort, not a first resort, and that a bloated defense budget represents an improper prioritization of defense issues at a time when the country is plagued by pressing domestic challenges.

What does Bernie’s history as a politician look like with regard to military engagements?

Through his 24 years of service in the United States Congress, Bernie has developed a lengthy track record of voting on issues concerning the role of the United States military and armed conflicts around the world. Bernie voted against the first Gulf War and vocally opposed and voted against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Bernie voted in favor, however, of resolutions authorizing the use of military force to prevent human rights violations by Yugoslavia in the Kosovo War and authorizing the use of military force against al-Qaeda following 9/11.

What would the role of the U.S. military be with Bernie as Commander-in-Chief?

According to an analysis by Quartz: “His past votes as a congressman, and later as a senator, on issues concerning war and peace strongly suggest that a President Sanders would be highly reluctant to deploy any form of US military force, unless it truly is the last resort to a national security crisis.” Indeed, in his opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bernie advocated for diplomatic solutions over the immediate use of military force, stating “[w]ar must be the last recourse in international relations, not the first.”

In 2015, United States defense spending will be greater than the spending of the next seven largest defense budgets combined.

What does Bernie believe about current levels of defense spending?

While Bernie appreciates a strong defense system, he has also views the cost of endless wars and tremendous peacetime defense spending as detracting from facing “some of the most pressing economic issues affecting the well-being of ordinary Americans.” Bernie firmly rejects any increase to defense spending at the cost of cuts to domestic social spending.

In his role as member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Bernie has been highly concerned with not only the immediate, overt costs of waging war, but also the less obvious and longer-term costs of engaging in military conflicts. In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, Bernie wrote:

“The cost of war is great, and it is far more than the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend on planes, tanks, missiles and guns.

The cost of war is more than 6,800 service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of war is caring for the spouses and children who have to rebuild their lives after the loss of their loved ones. It’s about hundreds of thousands of men and women coming home from war with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, many of them having difficulty keeping jobs in order to pay their bills. It’s about high divorce rates. It’s about the terrible tragedy of veterans committing suicide.”

Why is Bernie so concerned with the defense budget?

Part of Bernie’s concern over the ballooning defense budget stems from what he sees as a lack of accountability on defense spending. In a statement explaining his “no” vote on the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which set the military’s budget at $560 billion, Bernie expressed concern that “the military is unable to even account for how it spends all of its money.” Bernie also voted against the 2012 and 2013 defense authorization bills, voicing alarm at the size of the defense budget despite the United States having withdrawn all military members from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Well, I’ve heard Bernie supports the F-35. What is the F-35 and why is it so controversial?

The F-35 Lightning II is a single-engine, single-seat, stealth fighter plane produced by Lockheed Martin, which advertises the aircraft as advanced and affordable, and crucial to maintaining air superiority as U.S. fleets get smaller and older. It has been called the most expensive weapons system in the world.

The major point of controversy is that the project has not been as efficient as Lockheed Martin promised. The cost of the planned 2,457 planes totals $391.1 billion dollars, which is almost twice the initial estimate. In addition, there have been numerous delays and malfunctions during testing.

As such, the F-35 has been the subject of criticism from politicians and government reports. An April 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report notes that “the [F-35] program has experienced significant cost, schedule, and performance problems.”

So is it true that Bernie supports the F-35?

Yes and no. The idea that Bernie supports the F-35 program stems from his positive reception to part of the F-35 fleet being stationed in Vermont.

Nonetheless, Bernie is highly concerned “about cost overruns on the plane.” In June 2014, Bernie called the F-35 program “incredibly wasteful.” Ultimately, however, Bernie realizes that the plane is going to be a reality, and concluded that “as long as the F-35 is deployed anywhere, I believe we should strive to protect the Vermont Air National Guard’s mission and maintain hundreds of jobs here in Vermont.”

While members of Congress have received over $8 million collectively from the F-35’s manufacturer since 2001, Bernie has not accepted any Lockheed Martin contributions.

Okay. What about drones, though? Does Bernie support or oppose the use of drones?

Bernie has called drones a “tool in [the] arsenal,” but has at the same time expressed grave concerns about the lack of oversight on the target vetting process, the morality of drone strikes that strike civilians as collateral damage, and the counterproductive impact of drone strikes as presently conducted. Watch Bernie speak about what his drone policy might look like on this brief interview on The Ed Show:

 

Bernie is not just paying lip service to the issue of drones either. In fact, he voted against the confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan in part due to concerns over the CIA’s drone program. In his opposition to Director Brennan’s confirmation, Bernie said the following:

“While we must aggressively pursue international terrorists and all of those who would do us harm, we must do it in a way that protects the Constitution and the civil liberties which make us proud to be Americans. With regard to the use of drones and other methods employed by the Central Intelligence Agency, I am not convinced that Mr. Brennan is adequately sensitive to the important balancing act required to make protecting our civil liberties an integral part of ensuring our national security.”

 

In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, costing more than $1.7 trillion and thousands of American lives. The Iraq War lasted until President Obama ended it in December 2011.

Did Bernie support or oppose the Iraq War?

Bernie was a vocal opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he voted against H.J. Res. 114, which authorized the use of military force against Iraq. As a congressman, Bernie loudly denounced the Iraq War resolution in 2002 and decried it as a mistake.

Why was Bernie so against invading Iraq?

Bernie outlined a number of concerns about invading Iraq on the House floor in October 2002.

First and foremost, Bernie questioned whether “a unilateral invasion of Iraq will do more harm than good.” Bernie then laid out five specific concerns about the imminent invasion that led him to vote against the resolution. First, Bernie argued that given the human cost of military engagements, “War must be the last recourse in international relations, not the first.”

Second, Bernie expressed concern that a unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation without a broad coalition involving the United Nations would set a dangerous precedent in terms of international law. Third, Bernie argued that invading Iraq may undermine global counterterrorism efforts. Fourth, Bernie conveyed dismay about the potential cost of such an invasion.

Finally, Bernie questioned what he called the “unintended consequences” of war in Iraq:

“Fifth, I am concerned about the problems of so-called unintended consequences. Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed and what role will the U.S. play in [an] ensuing a civil war that could develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists?”

Not surprisingly, many of Bernie’s concerns were valid, and Bernie was one of the first and most vocal opponents of George W. Bush’s boondoggle in Iraq.

What would Bernie have proposed instead of invading Iraq?

Instead of a unilateral invasion of Iraq, Bernie argued that the United States must work with the United Nations to establish clear timelines to allow inspection of Iraqi facilities, “pursuant to past U.N. resolutions.” Bernie would have let diplomacy run its course before resorting to military force.

What did Bernie propose once the war was already underway?

Bernie continued his opposition to the war in Iraq after moving from the House to the Senate in 2006. In 2007, he cosponsored a bill that would “effectively end U.S. military involvement in Iraq.” He similarly argued for such legislation in 2008, remarking that as the national debt grew, “[w]e should stop the war, stop the bloodshed, rebuild our credibility around the world, and reorder our priorities at home.”

Following the end of the Iraq War in 2011, Bernie began working on legislation to improve quality of life for military veterans in the United States. Please refer to the veterans section for more.

Visit the Iraq page to learn more about Bernie’s stance on the Iraq War.

With the rise of ISIS, and Iran’s growing influence in the region, the Middle East is still a hotbed of security issues.

What role does Bernie see for the U.S. military in the Middle East in coming years?

Bernie has continuously supported and advocated diplomatic solutions to problems in the Middle East. Following the 2015 nuclear arms agreement between the U.S. and Iran, Bernie hailed the deal as “a victory for diplomacy over saber-rattling [that] could keep the United States from being drawn into another never-ending war in the Middle East”. Visit the Iran issue page to learn more.

What about ISIS, a group that may completely reject diplomatic solutions?

Bernie has not ruled out U.S. military action against ISIS or the so-called “Islamic State,” but only in a role supporting — not replacing — regional armies and militias already combating ISIS. In an interview, Bernie said of the fight against ISIS, “I believe from the bottom of my heart that there is no way that the United States can or should lead this effort.”

Further, Bernie argued that the Arab countries in the region with sizable militaries must lead the fight against ISIS:

“If this becomes a war between the United States and ISIS, the West and the East Christianity and Islam, it’s a losing proposition. It is what ISIS wants.

This is, as I understand it, a war for the soul of Islam and if that is the case, the Muslim countries in that area have got to stand up and they have got to fight. They have got to provide the ground troops.”

Bernie has stated that should the United States take the lead by putting boots on the ground in Syria or Iraq, it could lead to “perpetual warfare in the Middle East.” Lots more on this topic at the ISIS issue page.

Supporting Military Members and Families

Bernie believes that we must “protect and defend those people who have protected and defended us.” As military members and families face unique challenges and circumstances, Bernie has worked on legislation supporting these American heroes by enhancing the quality and responsiveness of health care through the VA, expanding survivor and dependent benefits, and increasing access to education via the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

American service members and their families encounter unique challenges as they work to protect our nation.

Who are America’s service members? Who are America’s military families?

There were over 2.2 million military members between the active duty and guard and reserve components of each branch as of 2013. In the same year, there were just shy of 3 million family members (children, spouses, and adult dependents) of these military members.

What particular challenges do military members face?

For American service members, there are a number of unique demands associated with life in the military. These include: “the risk of injury or death, whether during training, while operating military equipment, or in wartime deployment; separations from family; frequent moves; living in foreign countries; long and unpredictable duty hours; pressure to conform to high standards of behavior; and a male-oriented culture.”

What about their families?

While the demands on military members are often discussed, less well-known are the strains that fall on military family members. These men, women, and children are often subject to prolonged separation from a parent or spouse and frequent relocations. Because of these hardships, nearly 40 percent of military spouses have jobs that are mismatched to their education level, compared with only 10 percent among their civilian counterparts.

Programs to address these challenges have, from time to time, received consideration or been passed into law by Congress.

American soldiers and their families make great sacrifices for our country and should have the full support of their government.

So what has Bernie done for American military members?

There are a number of actions that Bernie has taken to support America’s military members, including co-sponsoring and strongly advocating for a GI Bill for the 21st century to allow military members and veterans to receive free college educations.

In June 2008, the Senate passed legislation creating the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which Bernie co-sponsored. Always proud of American military service members’ contributions to our country, Bernie regularly advocated for this piece of legislation allowing millions of military members and veterans to attend public schools 100 percent tuition-free, aiming to allow millions to enter the middle class. In support of the new GI Bill, Bernie said the following:

“Today’s GI benefits do not come close to covering the cost of a college education. That is why it is so important that we update these benefits.

People must understand that caring for our service members is part of the cost of going to war. We are spending nearly $12 billion a month in Iraq. Surely we can spend a little more to provide a college education for the brave men and women we send to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Cool. Has Bernie done anything else for our men and women in uniform?

Yes! In addition to creating the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Bernie has introduced the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits Act, a broad piece of legislation aiming to strengthen mental health service, education benefits, and access to sexual assault counseling and treatment for American service members and veterans. This bill has received tremendous support from military and veterans’ service organizations, including the Military Officers Association of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the National Association for Uniformed Service, and 24 other military organizations.

How would Bernie’s foreign policy affect the lives of American service members?

Bernie’s foreign policy and beliefs about the role of the U.S. military also directly impact the lives and safety of American military members. In his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the first reason Bernie gave for voting against the resolution was the human cost of war:

“I have not heard any estimates of how many young American men and women might die in such a war or how many tens of thousands of women and children in Iraq might also be killed. As a caring Nation, we should do everything we can to prevent the horrible suffering that a war will cause. War must be the last recourse in international relations, not the first.”

This may seem somewhat removed from supporting American military members, but America’s foreign policy is, in reality, a matter of life and death for thousands of Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen.

What has Bernie done for military members after they transition to civilian life?

All military members eventually become military veterans. As chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Bernie fought tremendously to support veterans in this country. Read more about his support for veterans here.

There are more than 3 million military family members in the United States. Over the past decade, this group has seen their spouses and parents fight in foreign wars, some of whom never returned.

Has Bernie done anything for these military families?

Yes! Among the 27 military and veterans’ service organizations writing letters of support for Bernie’s comprehensive military members and veterans’ legislation, one was the National Military Family Association. This is because in addition to supporting military members, Bernie has worked just as hard to support military families.

The legislation Bernie introduced includes provisions to expand dependency and indemnity compensation to families of military members killed in the line of service, and to expand educational benefits to surviving spouses and dependents of military members. In addition, the GI Bill that Bernie co-sponsored can be transferred to a service member’s spouse or dependent, allowing them to attend college and get ahead. Bernie also worked to secure funding for childcare for military families.

Senator Sanders is also a founding member of the Senate Military Families Caucus, a “bipartisan group that will focus on issues facing the families of active and veteran service men and women.”

Supporting Veterans

Bernie strongly believes that when the government sends young American men and women off to war, the government absolutely must be prepared to take care of them when they come home. Bernie has fought for better health care and increased education benefits for veterans and their families. Bernie’s efforts on behalf of veterans have led to endorsements of his legislation by many veterans’ service organizations, and Congressional awards from the Military Officers Association of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

There are nearly 20 million veterans in the United States, many of whom grapple with the lingering effects of their military service.

Has Bernie done anything to help veterans?

Bernie has a long history of passionate advocacy for, and effective deal-making on behalf of, veterans across the country. He has chaired the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, brokered significant legislative compromises, and championed the causes of ending veteran homelessness, reducing the VA claims backlog, and expanding access to the VA system. Bernie has shown himself to be a close ally of veterans and someone who understands these Americans’ unique needs and challenges.

On February 27, 2014, Bernie introduced veteran-focused legislation into a contentious Congress deeply concerned about spending. As he introduced that legislation, Bernie stated something that should have been obvious to recalcitrant Senators reluctant to spend money on veterans: “It is about what our priorities are. And in my view, at the very top of our priority list has got to be to protect and defend those people who have protected and defended us, those people who have given much, much more than we can ever repay.”

Bernie served as the Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee from 2013 to 2015.

What was Bernie able to accomplish in this role?

Despite only being able to hold the chairmanship of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee for two years (2013-2015), Bernie was able to pass some of the most impactful and far-reaching legislation since the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Congressional Quarterly applauded his work as chairman and described him as an effective deal-maker in a difficult negotiating environment. CQ hailed Bernie’s ability to “bridge Washington’s toxic partisan divide and cut one of the most significant deals in years.” Bernie’s successful negotiation led to the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, known as the “Choice Act,” which helps veterans’ access to health care through the VA. Read more about the Choice Act here.

Why is Bernie no longer chair of the SVAC?

While Bernie still serves as a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, party control of the Senate shifted in early 2015 (as a result of the 2014 elections), giving the Republicans the chairmanship. Although Bernie is an independent, he caucuses with Democrats and thus could not maintain his seat as the chairman once Republicans gained control of the Senate. Bernie was the first Independent to hold the chairmanship of the Committee since its creation in 1971.

So what is this “Choice Act” all about? And how is Bernie involved?

Bernie has said that “promises to people in the military should be kept.”

Following the VA scandal in Phoenix in 2014, Congress finally began serious attempts to reform the VA system, including fixing problems with access to care, wait times, and executive malfeasance. Bernie introduced a bill in the Senate, and then worked with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to combine their respective bills into a compromise solution. Bernie then conducted negotiations with his House counterpart Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) to craft another compromise solution between the two chambers to reach a final bill — the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act.

This bill expanded the number of options veterans have to receive VA-funded health care. It allows them to access private care and have it covered by the VA in certain situations, considering their distance from VA health care providers and the amount of time they would have to wait for VA services. Additionally, the law provides for a way to remove senior VA executives who commit serious infractions or demonstrate incompetence. The law provides half a billion dollars to hire more doctors and nurses for the VA system, and directs the VA to build an additional 26 facilities. The total cost of the bill (including the care accessed through the private sector) was projected at $16.3 billion dollars, the largest piece of veterans legislation to be passed since the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Bernie is widely recognized and applauded as the deal-maker that made this bill possible, and as a committed advocate for veterans issues.

What else has Bernie been doing for our vets?

Bernie proposed a massive piece of legislation in the 113th Congress, known by its bill number S.B. 1982. This bill was even more far reaching than the Choice Act in many respects and covered an incredibly wide swath of important issues that affect veterans, their spouses, and their survivors.

This bill proposed to expand: health care, employment services, the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP), Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) protections, mental health screening and health care, as well as suicide prevention efforts, reproductive health treatments for wounded vets, military sexual trauma awareness efforts and disability ratings, dental care, VA administration and building reform, survivors’ benefits, veteran hiring initiatives, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), small businesses, VA accountability and reform, outreach for services, Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs), and many, many more provisions.

The bill was so far-reaching that there simply is no better way to demonstrate its comprehensiveness than to list some highlights, as we have done above. Unfortunately, the contentious nature of Congress at that time prevented most of this bill from becoming law. Many parts of it did, however, end up being passed as part of the Choice Act several months later.

That sounds like a lot. Has Bernie done anything else for veterans?

Absolutely. While Bernie led the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the committee played a crucial role in the nationwide campaign to end veteran homelessness. The committee authorized spending increases, protected services, and enlarged effective programs. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the House’s companion committee, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee contributed to a 33 percent decrease in homeless veterans from 2010-2014.

In addition, Bernie co-sponsored the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a massive piece of legislation that makes college education accessible for millions of military members, veterans, and their families.

What do veterans think of him?

While we can’t speak for all veterans, we can provide you with a list of veteran service organizations that stood with Bernie when he introduced S.B. 1982. Bernie and his committee involved these groups in the planning of this bill from the very beginning and supported it wholeheartedly. These veteran-support organizations are listed below the image below. As Bernie said of the bill:

“This legislation in fact was written by these people [who stand behind me]… Because we have hearings … where all of the veterans organizations … say these are the issues that we are struggling with, this is what we are hearing about from our membership. Please do something about this.”

Supporters of Bernie’s work for veterans in the 113th Congress:

Bernie is also the recipient of several veteran service awards, given in recognition of his achievements and efforts, including the 2015 Congressional Award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) for his significant legislative contributions on behalf of veterans, the citation for which stated: “It is no understatement to say that Bernie has truly taken care of wounded, ill, and injured veterans and their surviving family members.”

The Military Officers Association of America also recognized Bernie’s work and achievements by awarding him their prestigious 2014 Col. Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award.