WASHINGTON — When U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard walks back onto the national debate stage next week in Westerville, Ohio, there’s one thing she’s almost certain to tell the audience.
She’s a soldier.
Gabbard, who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, is a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard and twice has been deployed to the Middle East, once in 2005 to Iraq and again in 2009 to Kuwait.
She says those experiences, combined with her more than 16 years of guard duty and appointments to various House committees, such as Foreign Relations and Armed Services, qualify her to run the country more than any other candidate.
“I know the importance of our national security as well as the terribly high cost of war,” Gabbard said in June during the first round of presidential debates.
It makes sense for Gabbard to make her military experience central to her presidential campaign. Americans have often looked to veterans as possible political leaders, from Revolutionary War Gen. George Washington to World War II Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
John F. Kennedy’s heroism in the Navy during World War II helped define him as a candidate. The same goes for George H. W. Bush.
The Vietnam War experience of John McCain and John Kerry is widely known, as is the draft avoidance of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
That is why it is somewhat puzzling that Gabbard has little to say about her time in the guard.
With the possible exception of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, no other Democratic presidential candidate still in the race has relied as heavily on their military credentials as much as Gabbard.
She’s been doing it for a long time, both in Washington and Hawaii.
“For too long, our leaders have failed us, taking us from one regime change war to the next, leading us into a new cold war and arms race, costing us trillions of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars and countless lives. This insanity must end.”
Gabbard’s foreign policy platform calls for an emphasis on diplomacy and peace, and the control of nuclear weapons. She has twice called Trump Saudi Arabia’s “bitch” for deferring too often to that country’s leaders when it comes to the Middle East.
But Gabbard’s willingness to meet with other controversial leaders like Narendra Modi of India and Bashar Assad of Syria has drawn criticism from some that the congresswoman ignores uncomfortable facts — in Modi’s case, his ties to Hindu nationalism, and in Assad’s his brutal treatment of his own people.
Gabbard is not shy about boasting of her military record and going on cable television to share her views on international affairs, but when Civil Beat has tried to speak with the congresswoman about her service she’s remained quiet.
In March, Civil Beat asked Gabbard’s longtime aide and campaign spokeswoman, Erika Tsuji, for details about Gabbard’s military record, including ranks held, places of deployment and lists of commendations. Civil Beat also asked for an interview with Gabbard to discuss her military career and how it informed her views on foreign policy, which is the main plank of her presidential platform.
There was no response.
Civil Beat then turned to the Hawaii National Guard to see what public information it could provide to illuminate Gabbard’s military service.
Jeff Hickman, the director of public affairs, initially said it would be up to Gabbard’s campaign to release the materials. Months later, after additional inquiry from Civil Beat, Hickman provided basic details about Gabbard’s service record, including her job title as a military police officer, the locations of her two deployments and the list of medals, badges and commendations she’s received, for everything from good conduct to being enlisted during the global war on terror.
Hickman highlighted Gabbard’s “Combat Medical Badge,” which Gabbard earned when she was part of a medical unit within the Hawaii Army National Guard’s 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team that was called up for deployment to Iraq in 2004. The badge was awarded to a large group after “an indirect fire event that occurred on base.”
Hickman said he did not have any more information about the incident, such as the award citation, because Gabbard’s records were sent to the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia, after she announced her campaign for president.
He added that the eligibility requirements to earn a Combat Medical Badge had evolved since Gabbard’s time in Iraq and that it is now “tougher to get.”
Gabbard’s military service is the cornerstone of her presidential campaign, but she’s also made it the foundation of her political identity. It’s nearly impossible to separate the two.
The fact that she’s a citizen soldier is one of the first things visitors are greeted with when they click on the “About” page of her website. “Tulsi is the first female combat veteran ever to run for the presidency and is the first female combat veteran ever elected to Congress, along with Tammy Duckworth,” it says.
Gabbard, who hasn’t had much of a career outside of politics, often describes herself as a “warrior” and someone who knows the “true cost of war.” As such, she’s argued that she has a better understanding of complex foreign policy issues, and is more capable of running the country than other 2020 Democrats.
For example, she’s specifically called out U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris for being unprepared and unqualified for the White House while at the same time highlighting her own experience as a soldier.
Gabbard often talks about her time in Iraq in 2005, the height of the war, when each day she was asked to read through the list of injured and dead looking for soldiers in her unit.
The sign on the main entry to the base read, “Is today the day?” which served as a grim reminder of the stakes for soldiers fighting in a war zone. It’s also the title of her forthcoming book, one that carries the tagline of “Not Another Political Memoir.”
On at least one occasion, Gabbard violated military ethics rules for not including proper disclosures in campaign advertisements in which she wore her uniform.
Gabbard is not alone in touting her military credentials, especially among politicians, particularly those from Hawaii.
The late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye was a Medal of Honor recipient for his heroics during World War II and remains one of the state’s most revered public figures. Mark Takai, who died in 2016, served with Gabbard in the Hawaii Army National Guard and was her colleague in the U.S. House of Representatives where they both served on the Armed Services Committee.
Gabbard says she made the decision to enlist after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks so that she could “go after” those responsible. She was sworn in to the National Guard in April 2003, one month after the U.S. invaded Iraq.
At the time, she was a state representative and had the distinction of being the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaii Legislature.
In 2004, when the Hawaii National Guard 29th Infantry Brigade was called upon to deploy to Iraq, Gabbard wasn’t on the active duty list, but she volunteered anyway.
Gabbard tried to hold on to her House seat even though she faced a primary challenge. She told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that even though she would be deployed to Iraq for a year she felt she could still take care of the constituents in her district.
“Fortunately, in this age of modern warfare, the communications capability in Iraq are very good,” Gabbard said at the time. “As far as the quality of service to my constituents, it will not drop in any way. I am confident they will be well served.”
Gabbard ultimately did not run and her seat was filled by Rida Cabanilla, who at the time was a major in the Army Reserve. Gabbard’s campaign website now says the congresswoman left behind “an easy win.”
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