Bernie Sanders on Military & Veterans

“It is no understatement to say that Bernie has truly taken care of wounded, ill, and injured veterans and their surviving family members.” – Veterans of Foreign Wars on Bernie Sanders

Bernie believes that while military force is sometimes needed, it should always be a last resort. The military is too large and we spend too much on the defense budget. The U.S. military has been increasingly called upon in recent years to engage in prolonged military engagements around the world that do not threaten U.S security.

We need a strong national defense infrastructure, but we need to focus more heavily on diplomatic alternatives to war, not maintaining unnecessary overseas military bases and not meddling in the affairs of other sovereign nations. We must focus on reorienting our foreign policy so that it keeps us strong yet does not deploy our service men and women to unwinnable wars and conflicts that do not pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. We must face the challenges of taking care of our over 20 million military veterans and their families.

The Role of the Military: Maintaining a strong defense is a priority, but not the only priority. The exorbitant defense budget must be cut so we can spend that money on pressing domestic challenges. Our foreign policy must be reoriented to keep us strong yet not commit our military to unwinnable wars and conflicts that pose no direct threat to the U.S.

Supporting Military Members and Families: American military personnel and families face unique challenges. We must provide and expand programs that support service members and their families.

Supporting Veterans: If you’re going to send American troops to war, you absolutely must take care of them when they return. Bernie believes that we must protect and defend those people who have protected and defended us. 

The Role of the Military

Bernie has stated 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. The bloated defense budget must be cut.

What does Bernie think about current levels of defense spending?

Bernie believes that we spend far too much money on defense and regularly votes against authorization of the bloated Defense budget. There is waste and overspending and a lack of accountability in defense spending.  There are military contracts with companies engaged in fraud and mismanagement, have high cost overruns, and betray their workers by moving companies overseas. The Defense Department failed its first ever audit so 26 senators, including Bernie are calling for a full audit. 

The military is too large. There are 2.4 million active duty, reserve and guard members, and 746,000 civilian Department of Defense personnel. So 3.5 million people are employed directly by the Department of Defense. It should be noted that this number does not include the additional 560,000 military contractors working for the Department of Defense. In 2019, United States defense base spending will be greater than the spending of the next seven largest defense budgets combined.

Source

Defense spending is much bigger than we are lead to believe because these numbers do not include the billions of other dollars that are spent each year that are defense related. The actual defense spending will be at least $1.1 trillion, of the $4.7 trillion U.S. budget in 2019:

  • Base Defense Budget: $554.1 Billion
  • War Budget: $173.8 Billion
  • Nuclear Budget: $24.8 Billion 
  • Defense Related to Other Agencies: $9 Billion
  • Veterans Affairs: $216 Billion
  • Foreign Military Aid (2017): $16.9 Billion
  • Intelligence Agency Budget: $81.1 Billion
  • Interest on debt from Iraq and Afghanistan wars: ? of $479 Billion

While Bernie appreciates a strong defense system, he thinks the cost of endless wars and defense spending distract us 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. He’s the only 2020 Presidential candidate who has voted against all three of President Trump’s military budgets.

Bernie is also concerned about the less obvious and longer-term costs of engaging in military conflicts. 

Bernie wrote in an op-ed, “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.”

In this interview Bernie explains how he would take on the Military Industrial Complex to cut defense spending.

Does Bernie support the F-35?

Yes and no. Bernie is proud that the Air Force selected the Vermont National Guard to base the first F-35 operations. He 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.”

Nonetheless, Bernie has been highly critical “about cost overruns on the plane.” It has been called the most expensive weapons system in the world. The cost of the planned 2,457 planes is expected to cost $1.5 trillion over its 55-year lifespan which is almost four times the initial estimate. In addition, there were numerous delays and malfunctions during testing. After an F-35 exploded on a runway, Bernie called the program “incredibly wasteful.” Since 2001, members of Congress have accepted nearly $32 million in political contributions from the F-35’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin. Bernie has not accepted any Lockheed Martin contributions.

Does Bernie support or oppose drone strikes?

Bernie has called drones a “tool in [the] arsenal,” but has expressed grave concern at the lack of oversight on the target vetting process, the death of civilians as collateral damage, and the sometimes counterproductive impact of drone strikes that may do more harm than good. He has said he would continue drone strikes in a limited and selective way. Here Bernie discusses what his drone policy might look like:

Bernie voted against the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA Director in part over concerns about how he would oversee the CIA’s drone program

Bernie said:

“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.”

What is Bernie’s view on Space Force, the newest branch of the military?

On June 18, 2018, President Trump signed an executive order which directed the Pentagon to begin planning for Space Force, a 6th independent military service branch to undertake space warfare missions and operations. The U.S. Space Force is the first new military service to be created in more than 70 years. A U.S. Space Command existed from 1985 to 2002, but was disbanded. So far, Space Force has no funding from Congress.

Bernie is against militarizing space. Specifically referencing Space Force, Bernie stated: “Maybe, just maybe, we should make sure our people are not dying because they lack health insurance before we start spending billions to militarize outer space.”

Supporting Military Members and Families

There are over 2.4 million members of the military on active duty, or serving in the guard or reserves  and there are 3 million family members (children, spouses, and adult dependents) of these military members.

Bernie believes that we must protect and defend those people who protect and defend us. Bernie has worked on legislation that improves the quality and responsiveness of health care through the Veterans’ Administration, expands survivor and dependent benefits, and increases access to education via the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

What has Bernie done for members of the military?

In 2008, Bernie cosponsored the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which allows millions of military members and veterans to attend public colleges and universities 100 percent tuition-free, aiming to allow millions to enter the middle class

In support of the new GI Bill, Bernie said:

“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.”

Has Bernie done anything for military families?

While the demands on military members are often discussed, less well-known are the immense demands and strains on military family members. There are prolonged separations and frequent relocations that cause hardships for children as they change schools and spouses as they change jobs. Long and unpredictable duty hours and deployments cause additional anxiety and financial stress

One letter of support for Bernie’s Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014 was from the National Military Family Association. They were especially thankful for the provisions to restore the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) for working age military retirees and to retain the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation payment for eligible widows. The legislation also 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.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill that Bernie cosponsored permits the college tuition benefits to be transferred to a service member’s spouse or dependent, so the entire family has an opportunity to attend college at a lower cost. Bernie also worked to secure funding for childcare support for military families.

Bernie 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.”

Bernie supported the Military Family Nutrition Protection Act to amend the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 so that combat pay won’t count as income when determining eligibility for child nutrition programs and WIC.

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.

What has Bernie done 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. 

He says, “If you can’t afford to take care of your veterans, then don’t go to war. These people are bearing the brunt of what war is about. We have a moral obligation to support them.”

Bernie is calling for us to Meet Our Commitment to Our Veterans. He believes we must:

  • Fully fund and expand the VA so that every veteran gets the care that they have earned and deserve.
  • Get veterans compensated faster by improving how compensation claims are processed.
  • Expand the VA’s Caregivers Program.
  • Expand mental health services for veterans.
  • Make comprehensive dental care available to all veterans at the VA.

In 2014, Bernie introduced the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, known as the “Choice Act,”

Bernie stated:

“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.”

What was Bernie able to accomplish as Chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee?

Bernie was chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee for two years (2013-2015). Bernie is still a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.  In 2014 the Republican party won a majority in the Senate giving the Republicans control over selecting the committee chair. Although Bernie is an independent, he caucuses with Democrats, and was not selected by the Republicans to continue serving as chairman of the committee. Bernie was the first Independent to be chair of the Committee since its creation in 1971.

During his time as chair, the VA scandal was exposed by whistleblowers.  At least 23 veterans died while waiting for care at the Phoenix, Arizona, Veterans Health Administration facilities. Veterans waited an average of 115 days for their first primary care appointment. VA employees cheated the system so they could receive pay bonuses. 

Bernie quickly acted as Chair to address the problems with the VA by drafting legislation to reform the VA system, including fixing problems with access to care, wait times, and addressing executive malfeasance. The negotiations were difficult. Bernie proved himself an effective deal-maker and tenacious in his fight for veterans.

Bernie introduced a bill in the Senate, and then worked with Sen. John McCain 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, the “Choice Act”, which passed with bipartisan support. The total projected cost of the bill (including the care accessed through the private sector) was $16.3 billion dollars, the largest piece of veterans legislation to be passed since the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

The Choice Act gives veterans more options to access VA-funded health care.

Veterans can access private care if the provider is far away or there is a long wait time for VA services. There is a procedure 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. 

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 to help veterans, known by its bill number S.B. 1982, The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. This bill covered a wide range of important issues that affect veterans, their spouses, and their survivors.

This bill 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. The bill did not pass but many parts of it were included as part of the Choice Act legislation 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. He introduced the Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2013. During Bernie’s tenure as Chair, the committee authorized spending increases, protected services, and enlarged effective programs. This effort contributed to decreasing the number of homeless veterans by nearly 50 percent from 2010-2016. Despite this progress, the 2017 government estimate is that there are still around 38,000 homeless veterans. 

In addition, Bernie cosponsored 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. In this statement Bernie explains the GI Bill education benefits expansion. Find out if you qualify.

Bernie voted against the Mission Act of 2018 because he fears it is the first step to privatizing the Veterans’ Administration. The Veterans Community Care Program (VCCP), created under the $52 billion VA MISSION Act of 2018 will send many veterans to private-sector doctors and hospitals for healthcare instead of to the VA. The VCCP was scheduled to launch on June 6 and many veterans and veterans support groups are concerned that private providers lack accountability to veterans and will overlook the complex needs of veterans in a non-integrated system of care. 

More recently, Bernie has signed the pledge to End the Forever War, which calls for signatories to work to end the perpetual wars that the United States is involved in.

What do veterans think of Bernie?

While we can’t speak for all veterans, we can provide you with a long list of letters from veteran support organizations that stood with Bernie when he introduced S.B. 1982 The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014.  In writing this bill, Bernie and his committee included veterans groups from the very beginning and relied on their input in crafting the legislation

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.”

Military and Veteran Groups that supported Bernie’s work for veterans in the 113th Congress:

Bernie has received several veteran service awards to recognize his legislative achievements and contributions on behalf of veterans, including the prestigious 2014 Col. Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award from the Military Officers Association of America and the 2015 Congressional Award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) The citation on the VFW award reads: “It is no understatement to say that Bernie has truly taken care of wounded, ill, and injured veterans and their surviving family members.”