Jon Soltz: Giving Veterans a Voice
Jon Soltz, founder of VoteVets, talks about the organization's origins and priorities and what it means to give a voice to veterans.
Jon served two tours in Iraq. VoteVets’ PAC helps elect veterans to public office at the federal, state, and local level.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Jon Soltz: It's no surprise there were veterans that acted like a bunch of traitors during that insurrection on Capitol Hill. There's no question they were there. That doesn't mean that's a huge percent of the military, but we would be fooling ourselves if we didn't think there were some percent of people that feel that way.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today is Jon Soltz, the founder of VoteVets who served two tours in Iraq. VoteVets, as listeners of this show have heard, is at the top of every episode of Burn the Boats, it's a progressive organization committed to giving veterans a voice. Their PAC helps elect veterans to public office at the federal, state and local level. Jon, I have so been looking forward to this interview because we've had our share of one-on-one conversations, but this is the first time I get to talk to you on the record. So it should be fun. Welcome to Burn the Boats.
JS: I'm glad you told me everything I say from this point forward is on the record.
KH: Yeah. The red light is flashing. We're going to hold you accountable. Starting with, what drove you to found VoteVets back in 2006? You were in the army at the time, active duty, right?
JS: I was not in the army at the time. I was on active duty from 1999 when I got commissioned, I was an army officer. I went to Germany and Kosovo, and then I was branch detailed at the time. The army has a program where when you're a lieutenant, you're going to go to the combat arms, but when you start to advance in rank, you go to other branches. So I went over to logistics, transportation, which ironically, in the military at the time, everyone's like, "Oh, Jon, you're going to revert the gear,” but that's not really how it worked in Baghdad. So I ended up going into Iraq with the 1st Armored Division. I was very excited to go to Iraq, and because I'd had a positive experience in Kosovo, but to say the least, the war was a little more complicated.
KH: So Jon, VoteVets was founded back in 2006, can you remind us what was going on at the time? And why you felt so compelled?
JS: It was the height of the Iraq War. So we started VoteVets to help give a voice to veterans who could challenge the administration on the war. And part of that, obviously, was helping veterans run for office. And in that cycle, a lot of support for Patrick Murphy, who won, Joe Sestak, who won, and Tammy Duckworth that lost. But also defending Democrats. We ran a lot of ads against Jon Porter, in I think it was Kirsten Gillibrand, ran against in 2006. So also, we were involved in races where Republicans were voting against the military, voting against veterans benefits. So we really were involved those two ways. And then right as the election ended, we picked up the debate about Iraq in Congress and we started organizing veterans to influence that debate. And that's still a huge part today of what VoteVets does, which is, it's become the largest progressive veterans group in the country, but also, we tend to take on the hard issues that all of the other veterans groups don't want to talk about. There's a lot of great veterans groups out there, but they may just talk about veteran service issues and not the conduct of war and peace or all of these other issues that affect veterans that we tend to take on.
KH: I'm curious about your own personal political journey, because in interviews at the time, you occasionally referred to yourself as a conservative. What about the zeitgeist, not only pushed you to found VoteVets, but turned you into a progressive?
JS: So I've always wondered who's going to ask me that question about - that's referring to a Washington Post story in 2007 at the height of the surge, we're coming out of the election, VoteVets made these hard-hitting ads and everyone's like, "Who's this VoteVets group?" And then I started to do a lot of the talk shows, debating the surge, and now people are like, "Jon, we want to see you do more TV again, but the truth is, we're not arguing about the war anymore, we're just not. We had an opportunity last week to talk about the war. We're not talking about it, because we bombed some Iranian groups in Syria.” So at the time, we're in this conversation about application of force and power and interventionism, and the truth was in Iraq that we could surge forces into Iraq, but without the Iranians and the Saudis and the Americans and everybody being at the same table about what's the future of the country going to look like, these troops were just going to pay a price and the end state in the end was still going to be murky. And I am very conservative still when it comes to application of force. And I don't see US force being used all over the world, just everywhere all the time, because that's what politicians feel like they need to be doing. And that comment was in context of a foreign policy debate in regards to how Democrats and how Republicans at times want to use force. So I'll give you an example: right now in Congress, we're working with concerned veterans on the AUMF, the Authorized Use of Military Force. And the interesting thing is there's a lot of right, left alignment. And democracy promotion in and of itself is something, obviously, I personally agree with, and I think is the value of the United States of America, but democracy promotion through force is a more complicated scenario that at times looks better in the Ivy League, when people write books, then it can on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. So it's hard to have democracy before you have political agreements. And the point of democracy is that you have a venue for disagreements to be settled. And I think that the idea that we can just invade countries and force democracy upon people is, it can be very bloody. And that's what that comment was more in reference to is how and when do we use force. So, for instance, President Obama used force very successfully to protect the Yazidis in Mount Sinjar in 2015 or '14, but less successfully, for instance, in Libya, that's still rather chaotic. And so I think there's a certain conversation about how we use force and what are the objectives there and just using force to use force for political goals, domestic political agenda is a little bit more challenging for me personally. And that was the reference of that conservative word that I used. And I've often, like I said, waited for someone to ask me that question. So you've won that. It's taken about 13 or 14 years. But even today, it's like when you ask US forces to go kill other people, there needs to be a very specific objective tied to it.
KH: So VoteVets grew out of concern around and opposition to the war in Iraq, but it has never been wanting when it comes to causes to champion. And you're in a bit of a transition now, you focused a lot of your energy in the last election cycle on defeating President Trump. What do you see as the path forward? What is the next battle space, if you will?
JS: So, like I said, one of the things that we try to do here is work on all the issues that we don't think the veteran service groups work on. So, when Patrick Murphy led the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal fight in Congress in 2010, that was a big issue for us as well and a lot of the veterans groups were very slow to that. Supporting the right for transgenders to serve in the military is another thing we backed. So there's a variety of issues, public lands protection, and so forth that we take on because the 90% of the groups in this one bucket don't touch these things. So I think when we look at this Congress, I think the first two issues off the top is going to be the authorization of use of military force, both the 2001 and 2002 authorizations. We're hitting like almost a 20 year anniversary. And those are priorities. The idea that the authorization of force is used to fight organizations in Africa that didn't exist on 9/11 is interesting and important. And I also think it's interesting to watch what maybe Democrats do because Democrats were very supportive of AUMF when Trump was abusing it, but Tim Kaine's argument about this started during President Obama. And you can't just be for or against Congress not doing their job when it's one administration or the next, and we're going to stay on that track as an issue. I think the other thing is supporting reentry of the JCPOA, which is known as the Iran nuclear agreement, because without the Iran nuclear agreement, we will have war. And when you look at emerging Russian threats at Western European democracies and at our own democracy, and you look at the Chinese takeover of islands in the South Pacific or the South China Sea, you begin to see real global threats and getting the Iranians into an agreement that ensures they're not a nuclear country is something that not only would prevent a war now, but allow the United States to focus as well on other large issues and security concerns we face. So I think those two in a foreign policy space are super important, but there's a variety of other legislative issues that are going to pop up here like COVID relief and 15 an hour minimum wage that I'm sure we'll back.
KH: Are there Republicans you have managed to find common cause with on these issues?
JS: On the AUMF, there's a lot of alignment, and the challenge is more in the center, okay? Both the neo-conservative Republican center, but also the centrist Democrat center that says, “well, I'm a Democrat, but I'm in, maybe a more Republican area so I don't want to take a vote.” But there's a lot of right, left alignment on the Authorization for Use of Military Force with the pro business. I think part of the Republican Party that is like, what have we gotten for the $10 trillion or whatever the numbers up to these days we've spent? And the Barbara Lees of the world, who've always been on the AUMF issue. And so it's an out-to-n debate, which is really interesting, because almost every other debate doesn't work that way.
KH: It's easy to understand for the casual observer why VoteVets is engaged on issues like the AUMF or Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, but you mentioned COVID relief and the minimum wage and issues that seem tangential at best. Can you explain why those fall squarely in the VoteVets wheelhouse and what they have to do with veteran advocacy?
JS: Well, I mean, look, all issues affect veterans. If you're an immigrant and you're serving this country, immigration policy affects you. If you're a veteran who served this country and you're only making $12 an hour, you're still a veteran who fought for this country. And all issues are veterans issues, because everything affects things across the way. And I think one of those, for instance, is something like the Meals on Wheels stuff or the postal service, that's probably the biggest one. I mean, we've been involved in the postal service fight for 10 years, right? Why do we want to privatize the postal service? What's the real intent there? Well, all of a sudden over the summer, the veterans’ voice in that was probably the most decisive voice, which was veterans aren't going to get their medicine from the VA, because it's not going to be able to get to rural America very quickly, where the postal service essentially provides a service to all of us, or the backlog has prevented medicine from getting there directly.
So we look at these issues as all of these issues affect veterans and how should we chime in. Again, all of the other veteran service organizations won't touch them. So our objective here is not to remake the American Legion or the VFW, but is to represent veterans voices on issues that no one else is talking about. And so when you start any organization from scratch, and I don't care if it's a business or a nonprofit or anything, you have to be filling a void in the marketplace and you have to be providing something that's needed that isn't there. And to a lot of veterans who didn't feel like they agreed with where everybody was or they wanted to speak out on certain issues, obviously, we were filling a void for veterans to give a voice and also for a group that needed our voice to help support them.
KH: Do you ever get pushback? And I don't mean from conservative vets or those who disagree with the politics, but those who worry about mission creep or diluting the impact of your advocacy.
JS: I mean, I don't care. I mean, let them say it. Again, the reason VoteVets worked and we can redo it 99 times out of a 100 and it wouldn't work. And when over a million people have signed up at your website, it's working because you're providing a service that other folks aren't. So if we look like all the other veterans groups out there, then we're going to look like all the other veterans groups out there, and that's not the objective, right? So when people say we shouldn't talk about Meals on Wheels or we shouldn't talk about why we think Colin Kaepernick has a right to kneel for the flag, because we fought for people's constitutional rights to do that - that just makes our organization stronger. And they're talking about us. And the more people are talking about you, the more they know about you and the more people sign up and the stronger we get.
KH: VoteVets has been extraordinarily successful, not just in drawing in veterans to the causes that you want to elevate, but non-veterans as well. I'm wondering what you attribute that to. Is it something strategic? Is it luck? How have you pulled that off in a way that other veteran advocacy organizations haven't?
JS: So that's a complicated question. So let me first start with the fact that there's no draft in this country anymore. And because of that, Congress is not going to be 90% white men going forward, and it's not going to be 80% veteran, because there's no draft. And so the idea that we can stop the trajectory or return the amount of veterans to Congress through our program that was there 50 years ago would be disingenuous, right? It would be disingenuous to somehow say that should be the case or that will be the case. So a bedrock part of VoteVets has always been, how do we get people to care about veterans issues when there's less and less veterans in society as a whole, right? And that was a core strategy, which was, to participate with us, all you have to do is care about veterans.
Sure, we sign up a lot of veterans, hundreds of thousands of them, but going forward, just like there's not going to be as many veterans in Congress as there was in the past - and that doesn't mean we don't go pick our winners and get involved - but we're going to have to rely on non-veterans who care about veterans issues. And some of that is people whose grandparents have served. When you start to appeal to people and let them feel like they can be a part of your organization because their grandfather served in World War II, you're going to make more people feel welcome than if you go the route that other veterans groups have had. So we opened it up to people who feel any connection to the community and veterans, of course, and giving them a voice.
I think the other thing that we have found, and part of the reason the amount of money that we move is so big is the role that veterans can have advocating to certain constituency groups or to the country as a whole. And when you see those really great Jeep commercials during the Super Bowl, and there's a veteran in it, those aren't targeted at veterans, right? And so there's a lot of parts of America that feel a lot of kinship with the military and veterans and have the ability to speak to a group of people as well. And that's certainly something that we've utilized. There are times when we do speak to only veterans and military families, but a lot of the times when we're doing large paid media, we're speaking to the country as a whole or to non-veterans as well.
KH: Do you ever worry about the downside of the valorization of the American vet?
JS: That's a good question. I would hope... I feel, as an organization, we're not glorifying war over here. And I will tell you that I get very upset when people call over here - it's probably the biggest dime I could ever drop on people that I won't drop, not even on your podcast - but the amount of people that call us looking for a woman veteran or an African-American veteran or a Latino veteran who lost their leg above their knee in an IED attack, but only between 2005 and 2007. It's offensive and it's come from the highest levels. And that certainly bothers me. And a lot of the times it's done by a lot of people on the left too. And I get very offended. These are real people with real stories and real families, and “pet a vet” is not something we believe in. I think we're in the business of giving veterans a voice, but in their own terms. And I worry about people using veterans for their own agenda and then discarding them. That bothers me a lot. And it happens on both sides of the aisle. No names because I work in this business, but as a friendly warning, I don't like it. And I see it and it makes my stomach hurt.
KH: I'm glad to hear you say that, because it's something I've been thinking a lot about. And it's probably better than the demonization of the American vet that my dad's generation experienced coming back from Vietnam, but not a whole lot better, in that it still casts the veteran as a citizen apart. Even if that veteran is on a pedestal, it's still not a healthy way to welcome them back into the community. And it can be every bit as damaging psychically to keep them isolated on that pedestal.
I'm wondering if you think that the 2020 election cycle will be looked back upon as an inflection point when you look at the behavior of veterans and the fact that a wartime president, which Donald Trump was - though many Americans have forgotten that we're a nation of war - had a majority of at least active duty members vote against him, a Republican president in wartime lost the military vote. Is that a fluke or is VoteVets on to something with its message of progressivism to those in the military, their family members and veterans and those who care about them?
JS: So I think, because I get asked this question a lot about veterans and how they feel. Especially when we started VoteVets, because there was like, “oh, there's no veterans that are on our side.” Well, that was the secret sauce that there was. And so you ask, “well, how do we know what the market was?” Well, veterans represent and come from all parts of this country, right? So you want to have everybody in your military. You want the military to look like our country. So the idea that the military is only conservative was ridiculous. And the idea now that the military is only liberal is ridiculous. It's no surprise there were veterans that acted like a bunch of traitors during that insurrection on Capitol Hill. There's no question they were there. That doesn't mean that's a huge percent of the military, but we would be fooling ourselves if we didn't think there were some percent of people that feel that way. So I think the first thing is that the military is diverse and it has all these different people in it that come from all these different backgrounds from all 50 States and all of our territories and immigrants who come from other countries that you're going to get a lot of diverse thought. And that was our opportunity to start VoteVets. In regards to Trump, we obviously ran a program where we've built this massive voter file of veterans and military families, and we've modeled it after persuadable voters. And we've gone to those people directly as veterans. And the argument that we made was Trump's popularity with this constituency is going down. Now, you guys can do your own homework and look at some of the other programs that people have sold and see that, maybe we didn't do as well in some other areas that we thought we were going to do better in.
But I think the question is, does Democrats need to win veterans forever? I'm not sure that that's the case. You got to make up points and you've got to create a coalition. And I don't think there's any doubt that Democrats made up a couple points with veterans. And I think the data says that. I think we can see the polling coming in, and that was certainly something we were selling was how do we find two or three points here? And yeah, I think the veterans played a role in beating Trump. Does that mean that that will continue? Depends. I think it depends on the trajectory of the GOP to, are they going to be a Trump party? They certainly still seem like they are. But I definitely think we're going to wage a battle to continue to organize veterans.
KH: Jon, I want to ask you about that incredibly upsetting stat about the number of veterans who participated in the Capitol riots at last count, something like 20% of those arrested and who are now being prosecuted are military vets, do you think that's something we ought to pay special attention to? Is it just another fluke or are some veterans somehow especially susceptible to those messages?
JS: Disinformation is a big deal for us right now. And we're putting together huge amounts of program money to target military families and veterans and military members. And I don't want to get too much into the specifics of what we're thinking tactically on it, but I will tell you that that doesn't mean people that are registered to vote. Because people that are susceptible to misinformation often are looking at things differently or in different parts of society than we normally look for them. So it's not a voter file thing as much as it is a data piece, where we begin to create models of people that we think are being targeted for disinformation.
In regards to the military component, I think when people leave the military, they want to belong to something. And you can agree or disagree with Donald Trump. I obviously vehemently disagree with almost everything the man says, but the people that are following him feel like they're a part of his movement. And I think that this is something organizationally that we'll try to combat, but I think the larger question is, do you combat the people that are already indoctrinated or is there a sample size of people that we want to prevent from getting there? So I'm concerned about it like everybody is. And it doesn't surprise me that there was military folks there. Some of them were kicked out, some were not, because the military has people from, like I said, all parts of society. And I think everybody has a role to play in fighting disinformation that's penetrated this country and lies that people are told that cause them to commit crimes. And I think we have a long fight ahead of us. He might've lost, but Trumpism isn't dead. And so there's a lot more work to do here.
KH: Do you feel like the attraction of veterans to the cause of the insurgents represents a special kind of danger? Or do you just mix them in with the rest of the deluded conspiracy theorists?
JS: I expect veterans to participate. I wouldn't have expected it to be less veterans. I would just have expected veterans participated in that, it doesn't make me more concerned, because they were a clerk in the military, that they're somehow more able to conduct some type of military operation. I think there's a misperception of the training that people get if they've been in the army for one year or two years. So it doesn't provide me some security concern necessarily. But I think the issue overall is concerning, but I don't think these people for the most part are like, there isn't some super training that they've received that would've made them more capable. I think there's some that have special training, but I'm concerned about the issue overall, I'm concerned about members of the military right now and their families believing or having some sympathy in the fact that not everybody, if you walk down my street in Florida, thinks that that was an insurrection. And I think there's a larger disinformation concern that's affecting the military. But no, I didn't feel - I don't know how you felt because you served also - that somehow, because these folks served, that made the situation more lethal. I think that's the case maybe with a handful of folks that have special training, but not everybody who served in the military was a Navy SEAL or an Army Ranger.
KH: I'll tell you what gave me pause. And I do think you are, broadly speaking, right about the training that most of these vets bring to bear, the majority weren't combat vets. But it goes back to something you said at the top of our interview. You said democracy serves as a venue for disagreements to be settled - peacefully. I'm adding that last word, but it's implied. The involvement of veterans, I think, speaks to a mindset shift in that veterans have been indoctrinated with the idea because it's how we practice our foreign policy abroad, that violence solves problems. And we're seeing that in our political discourse now in a way we haven't seen for a generation. Am I overstating it?
JS: No, I think that's right. But I think that veterans have been indoctrinated by this as well as regular society too. If you look at the extremism stand down from the Secretary of Defense that we're seeing right now, the number one thing is the oath of office, and the loyalty to the constitution. What's hard for me to understand is that these folks thought they were protecting the constitution. So I think it's - there was only one darker day in American history that I've been alive than January 6th, and that was 9/11. And the loss of life on 9/11 was just horrendous, but I look at January 6th in the same light as an attack on our country. And I think we're going to be studying for a long time some of these issues that aren't very clear to us right now.
But we are very concerned overall. I mean, like I said, we're putting together a multi, multimillion dollar program just to deal with disinformation with veterans in the military because of what happened at the Capitol. And not just that, 40% of the active military is turning down the COVID vaccine right now. So there's a tremendous amount of disinformation that's out there. Is Parler even allowed on a military network? I hope not, but those are some of the questions that we have right now.
KH: In addition to the anti-disinformation campaign, are you thinking about the other side of it, the desire among so many vets who come home to belong to something? Most of them find productive ways to channel that need for belonging, but a few, too many, find violent and extremist communities to take them in and give them that sense of belonging. Is VoteVets thinking about that?
JS: We have. And I think that's the part about Trumpism that most people didn't understand. This kid messaged us on Twitter the other day and was like, "Since I've gotten out of the military, I haven't felt like there's a place that speaks for me. And I feel like VoteVets represents my values. I'd love to work with you guys." And we had him up on Twitter in 24 hours with his own words. And so getting folks engaged that reach out to us is really important. Everybody right now that comments on Facebook, gets a message from us to sign up. And I think that's the part about Trumpism that most people misunderstand is that the attraction, in my opinion, of a lot of these military veterans was that he stood up there and said, “no one values your opinion, but I value it.” I think that's a challenge that we have to overcome. And I think groups like Team Rubicon and Mission Continues and Team Red, White and Blue - I mean, Team Red, White and Blue does a great job of making veterans feel like they can be a part of a community when they get back. And I think that's something probably VoteVets hasn't done, as well as you did a Team Rubicon, where you said, “we're going to give you a mission to go fix or help out in a disaster area.” And I think there's a battleground there for the hearts and minds of returning veterans. And I think it's something we all have to look at.
KH: Second to the last question, Jon, and it's a bit of a provocative one, because I promised our mutual friend, Emily Cherniack, I wouldn't go too easy. Your language can get pretty heated. But I'm wondering if you ever worry about going too far. You called President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney draft dodgers at the founding of VoteVets, you've accused Mitch McConnell of aiding the enemy. And that's just what I pulled from Wikipedia. I mean, you don't pull punches.
JS: You know, I haven't used that kind of language in a long time, but at the time, we were fighting over like troop levels places. And invading Iraq was just like a gift to Al-Qaeda. And the truth is Dick Cheney did dodge the draft and has five deferments. And I give his daughter a lot of credit for voting to impeach the president. I think we have more in common with that crowd now than we did 15 years ago in regards to - the debates with the Bush administration were not the debates with the Trump administration. The debates with the Bush administration were policy-based. We're not arguing over capital gains tax in this country, or 1 or 2% on either side of a number. We're arguing about the destruction of the American democratic experiment institutions. And I think some of the Republicans who've switched sides, who've come to work with VoteVets or have reached out to us, are from that era. And we've had good conversations with them. But I don't think it's factually inaccurate to say that Dick Cheney was a draft dodger. I think he would probably tell you the same thing. I think the term he used was, “I had other priorities at the time.” So I don't think that's historically incorrect to offer some type of retraction of it.
KH: I lied, I have to squeeze in one more question based on that answer. Do you think going forward, a stable two-party system really is necessary for the functioning of a healthy democracy given the depth that the Republican Party has now descended to?
JS: Yeah. I don't have an answer on the two-party system, but what I will tell you, and I think isn't being talked about out there is, Republicans control state legislatures. So if I was ever to write a book, which I'm not, because my time in politics would be over - but I'd probably call it the political industrial complex, because this is an industrial complex that we work in, and the Republicans control the legislatures. And because of that, they control the house districts. And it's going to be really hard for Democrats to hold the house. Our objective needs to be to hold the house, because a lot of these Democrats that are still left are in Republican districts. And Trump caused a little bit of a shift in these dynamics. So the reason there were surprises at the end of a 10 year cycle is because the gerrymander happened 10 years before. So now we're going to recut and we've got to see how gerrymander works out.
What I would tell you is that Trumpism is not going to be defeated by Democrats. It's going to be defeated by Republicans. And what looked like a lot of momentum that Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger had to wage a fight against Trumpism in their party like Mitt Romney, doesn't look as strong today as it did two months ago. And I wish them luck, because I would certainly feel better for America if we got back to the days where we were arguing about troop levels in Iraq and the role of the invasion on our overall fight against global extremism with Mitch McConnell, where I use that language than I am, where there's a Capitol Hill riot, that we are so divided. We're more divided today than we were then. That's concerning. And I feel like that battle to defeat Trumpism has to happen within the Republican Party, because over 50% of Republicans, I feel like still support the president. And as long as he enjoys that level of support, we're going to have this challenge. And in reality, you could argue there's four different groups within two parties, but it's going to be really interesting to watch what happens on their side of the aisle. If I felt like VoteVets could drop $5 million into a race and help people defeat Trumpism, okay. But Republicans who work with Democrats to win their own civil war isn't going to help that Republican. It's dangerous.
So I think that it's really going to be interesting to see what happens in the next three years on the Republican side of the aisle as they're in a fight for their own party, and to see which way it goes. And I just, I don't know if there's more that Democrats can do when you look at the demographics of each of these elections in the states that are up, Democrats got control of the house, but when you're getting 51, 52% in this country right now, that's a lot. And the battle has to be waged on the right side to defeat Trumpism, because almost all Democrats united against Trump, the problem is on the right. And I wish I had answers for them. I've certainly enjoyed my work with Tim Miller and his group, the Republican Veterans against Trump, and some of the folks who've come out from the other side. We were a group that, we were very clear, we would work with people that have switched sides, because that's how you get a majority. And I just, I wasn't intimidated by that based on the times in the war where people switch sides as well. So it'll be interesting to watch, and I wish some of those Republicans who are fighting against Trumpism, I wish them a lot of luck, and I'll be rooting for them, because I see Trumpism as a much larger threat than the policy debate that you called me out on, where I used more colorful language, because it's not personal. And it doesn't mean I don't think they're Americans or they care about this country, but I tactically disagree with what they wanted to do. I think Trumpism is an assault on American democracy, which is a threat, an unprecedented threat, in our process that we haven't maybe ever seen.
KH: I think we agree on that. We've had a number of those former Republicans on the show to provide that perspective. Jon, we end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question, what's the bravest decision you've ever been a part of?
JS: Well, since we're talking politics, I won’t do my personal life. I will tell you, politically speaking, there were some times when we pushed back on Obama and it was really hard to do that as an organization. And one of them was when he put all those extra troops in Afghanistan. And there are some times where we've taken some principles, stances in this organization against where our party was. And we're seen as a group that backs more of the party, but we haven't always agreed and we've taken some principles, stances, usually about military intervention, that just because Democrats support, it doesn't mean we are. And that's always hard because your donors call, right? And they're like, "Well, why aren't you backing the president?" Well, we don't agree. Well, it's hard when everybody else agrees with something and they control the bully pulpit. And you're just an organization that doesn't. And I think when you look back on history, always the most valuable opinions are the ones you took that weren't popular at the time. And there's people now that I served with in 2005 and 2006 that said, they didn't like what I was saying about the Iraq War, which is that the Bush administration wasn't honest, that the war was going to go on for a very long time, there was no strategy. And now they agree. And the truth was, Ken, in those times, where Obama was wanting to put 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2009, or when Bush wanted to add all those troops into Iraq, there's a lot of people that knew the right answer. There was very few people that had the courage to say it. And I think from a hard decision standpoint leading this organization, or being a part of the military and then getting out and then saying those things that I knew so many of my peers weren't going to agree with, I think those are decisions as leading the organization, I was most proud of, because I didn't feel like anyone should be able to intimidate us, knowing what we thought was right about those core policy positions that we supposedly are here to fight for.
KH: Well, Jon, thank you for your leadership of VoteVets for your advocacy. And thanks for coming on Burn the Boats. It's been great having you.
JS: I appreciate it.
Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Dr Kathleen Belew, professor of history at the U of Chicago, and the nation’s foremost expert on the involvement of military veterans in the white power movement. She wrote the 2018 book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.
If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.
Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.
Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
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