In Major Address Ahead of 16th Anniversary of Iraq Invasion, Duckworth Puts Forth New National Security Platform
Duckworth outlined how Trump budget proposal that slashes domestic priorities harms military readiness and national security
[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Combat Veteran and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) delivered a major foreign policy speech at the National Press Club today, detailing her vision for how we can keep our military the strongest in the world. On the eve of the 16th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Duckworth argued that we can no longer only focus on the size of our military’s budget at the expense of our domestic policies—but rather, if we want to remain atop the global order, we need to recognize that investing in progressive priorities like our healthcare and education systems and green energy actually bolsters our national strength and better serves our military. Video of the speech can be found here.
“For far too long, we’ve measured the might of our military by the size of our arsenal—and in doing so, we’ve made the flawed assumption that our decades of dominance on the global stage can predict our future place in the world.
“But ISIS doesn’t care that we stormed the beaches of Normandy. Russia isn’t giving us points because once upon a time we outraced them to the moon. China doesn’t give a damn what we did during Desert Storm.
“We will lose ground—literally and figuratively—if we sit back and assume that last century’s tactics will win us next decade’s wars, or if we believe that 2030’s battles will be decided solely by how much money we spend on tanks or rifles… No. Instead, we need a platform that balances investing in our weaponry with investing in our citizenry— rejecting the false choice between looking out for our troops overseas and caring for our families here at home.”
“Our power abroad stems from our strength here on U.S. soil. So it’s past time we recognize that funding our domestic priorities actually bolsters our security. Because at this point, refusing to invest in our schools or our healthcare system in the name of national strength isn’t just cruel, it’s short-sighted”
A full copy of Duckworth’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Hello, everyone! Thank you for being here this afternoon.
Sixteen years ago this month, a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles seared into Iraq, beginning a war that would forever change my life and the lives of so many others.
I deployed the next year: a proud member of the Illinois Army National Guard stationed in Balad… a place nicknamed “Mortaritaville” for the constant enemy attacks… and a spot just miles from where an RPG would tear through my Black Hawk helicopter that November.
I probably should’ve died that day.
I still remember the light rain coming down that morning, and I still remember the rare treat of the Green Zone milkshake I had that afternoon.
But most of all, I remember the scorching heat and deafening roar of the blast that cost me both my legs and nearly my life as well.
The only reason I didn’t bleed out on that dusty battlefield was the heroism of the troops around me.
My buddies didn’t know if I was alive or dead, but they lived every word of the Soldier’s Creed: refusing to leave me behind, even risking their own lives in the process.
So from the moment I woke up in Walter Reed 11 days later, I vowed to spend the rest of my life trying to repay the troops who saved me that afternoon.
I can’t fly combat missions anymore, or be the one to drag them out of a burning Black Hawk if the worst should strike again.
But what I can do is use my new role—serving—no longer from the pilot’s seat, but from my seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee—to make sure that the Armed Forces I love are the strongest they can be.
Today, we have the greatest military on Earth. But that may not be true tomorrow if we keep on the path we’ve been treading.
The National Defense Strategy rightly points out the need to prepare for Great Power competition with China and Russia, and I support the NDS call for investing in hypersonic missiles, directed energy weapons and the Future Vertical Lift program.
Congress must also prioritize significant investments in our military’s logistics systems and mobility capabilities.
We pour roughly $600 billion into defense annually.
This week, the Administration asked to set aside more than $700 billion for defense in next year’s budget alone.
And Pentagon spending already accounts for more than half of the discretionary federal budget.
But just funneling money into the DoD’s budget isn’t enough.
If we want to win tomorrow’s wars, we have to reject yesterday’s oversimplified view of what constitutes national strength.
For far too long, we’ve measured the might of our military by the size of our arsenal.
And in doing so, we’ve made the flawed assumption that our decades of dominance on the global stage can predict our future place in the world.
But ISIS doesn’t care that we stormed the beaches of Normandy.
Russia isn’t giving us points because once upon a time we outraced them to the moon.
China doesn’t give a damn what we did during Desert Storm.
We will lose ground—literally and figuratively—if we sit back and assume that last century’s tactics will win us next decade’s wars... if we believe that 2030’s battles will be decided solely by how much money we spend on fighter jets or ships.
You know, I come from a long line of Veterans who’ve served this country in uniform since before Washington crossed the Delaware, and I spent 23 years in the military myself.
I will always—always—make sure our troops have every dollar, every weapon, they need to bring down the bad guys.
But despite what the president proposed this week, we can’t just keep throwing together huge defense budgets every year and thinking that’s enough.
Instead, we need a platform that balances investing in our weaponry with investing in our citizenry... in investing in our economy… rejecting the false choice between looking out for our troops overseas and caring for our families here at home.
It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.
Our power abroad stems from our strength here on U.S. soil. So it’s past time we recognize that funding our domestic priorities actually bolsters our security.
Because at this point, refusing to invest in our schools or our healthcare system in the name of national strength isn’t just cruel, it’s short-sighted:
Recently, the Pentagon announced that only 29% of Americans between 17 and 24 are considered fit to serve. 29%!
The other 71% either:
Failed basic math or English tests,
Couldn’t pass a physical, or
Were barred from enlisting because they made a mistake years ago that still lies on their record… like getting caught with marijuana in a state where it’s now legal or once struggling with an opioid addiction.
Meanwhile, the Army fell short of its recruiting goals last year for the first time since the height of the Iraq War.
So I’m not pushing for more funding for pre-K or mental healthcare just because they’re progressive priorities, or even because it’s the right thing to do.
I’m doing so because I love our country… because I want our Armed Forces to remain the strongest in the world… and we don’t stand a chance of dominating militarily if three-quarters of our would-be recruits can’t even get to basic training.
I’m doing so because our place atop the global order is contingent on us taking up the domestic policy that all too often is seen as in opposition to our defense priorities.
If we don’t… well, then we’ll be letting our dwindling recruiting pool shrink even faster, ceding our place in the world to bad actors like Russia and China in the process.
There are easy, obvious way to expand that pool: policies that show both common sense and common decency.
When I was bleeding out in my Black Hawk that day, I didn’t care if the troops risking their lives to save me were gay, straight, transgender, black, white, male or female.
All that mattered was that they didn’t leave me behind.
If you’re willing to put your life on the line for this country and you can do the job, you should be able to serve—no matter how you identify or whether you were born on U.S. soil.
Since freed slaves put on the uniform of the nation that had kept them in chains…
Since Japanese-Americans fought for this country even while their families sat trapped in internment camps here at home…
Since women refused to be grounded… smashing through glass ceilings to fly more than 10,000 feet in the air to help topple the Nazis...
And since Perry Watkins stood in camouflage as a proud gay man, refusing to be forced out of service because of who he loved, our differences have made us a more effective fighting force.
Scientific research and four-star generals will tell you the same thing: when everyone looks and acts and thinks the same, you become stuck... flat-footed… insular.
Diversity leads to more creative problem-solving and more success. It’s a better expression of who we are as a country, of course, but it also makes us better able to execute our missions downrange.
With fewer people enlisting as the years go on, we should be celebrating every person who serves.
We should be honoring those immigrants who can’t even vote yet, but who love this country so much they’re willing to die for it.
But instead, we’re turning them away.
Kicking them out.
Deporting people like Miguel Perez, Jr., who went to Afghanistan to defend this nation, then was tossed aside when he got back home, deported to Mexico where he’s now homeless and penniless.
Look, I know that some people in power never deigned to put on the uniform, but bone spurs didn’t stop me from serving.
So let me clear something up for those folks:
Our military is the greatest the world has ever seen not in spite of our differences, but because of them.
Bigotry has no place downrange, and winnowing our military in this way weakens our forces and endangers our country.
So step one is simple: stop discriminating against people who can do the job.
Step two is to begin tackling the systemic issues that are robbing us of so many would-be recruits.
How do we expect to win the wars to come if more and more Americans are too sick or have fallen too far behind in school to enlist?
We will lose our place in the world if we don’t do the work today to ensure as many people as possible can wear the uniform tomorrow.
That starts with addressing the fact that half of young Americans are considered too unhealthy to serve.
Some suffer from asthma or are hard of hearing, while 27% are deemed too overweight to enlist… and these numbers are only supposed to balloon in the years ahead.
Let’s be brutally honest:
The recent attempts to strip away healthcare from millions were cruel enough. But they were also hypocritical.
Every time our government makes it harder for an American to get healthcare, they’re sapping the military’s potential strength… robbing it of potential Privates or Second Lieutenants… even while claiming we need to spend more money making our Armed Forces more powerful.
There are fixes here that shouldn’t possibly be considered partisan.
Like putting more money into school fitness programs, or initiatives like the National School Lunch Program, which has led to a 23% spike in fruit-eating among kids… something that, as the mom of a four-year-old, I can tell you is quite a feat!
Or making sure that every child in every classroom in America has access to mental healthcare.
Or guaranteeing that every parent can afford basic check-ups for their toddler.
Or I don’t know, maybe, just maybe, those in power should stop trying to take away Americans’ healthcare in the dead of night.
Listen, the military already pours more than $1.5 billion a year into treating obesity-related medical conditions, discharging those too unhealthy to serve and replacing those discharged with new recruits who have to be trained from scratch.
So no one can claim to care about military spending or readiness if they don’t support the common-sense healthcare policies that would actually get our forces into better fighting shape and save us money in the process.
It’s a similar story when it comes to education.
There’s something wrong when a third of potential recruits can’t serve because they either failed the military’s entrance exam or never earned a high school diploma or GED.
That figure’s shocking but not surprising, reflecting the larger reality that half of U.S. adults can’t read a book at an eighth-grade level.
But here, too, there are concrete ways to solve the problem.
Research has proven that early childhood learning directly affects long-term development, with studies showing that at-risk kids who attend good preschools are 44% more likely to graduate high school.
In 2015, a Pentagon study revealed that $125 billion of its budget was lost to bureaucratic waste.
Another $100 million partly paid for by your tax dollars went straight into the wallets of just five civilian contracting firm CEOs.
Imagine how many more kids would graduate if we invested some of that money in Chicago’s public schools or Head Start programs instead.
And if we don’t make these investments—if we keep letting our schools slide and our students suffer—imagine how many would-be Marines or Green Berets we’d be losing.
If we don’t start to better invest in our kids, we might lose out on that next Black Hawk pilot brave enough to risk their life to pull an injured buddy out of their burning helicopter…
Or the next Navy Admiral who otherwise may’ve led the raid to capture the next Bin Laden.
It’s never been a choice between schools and national security… despite what some suggest as they try to slash billions from the education budget last year, or try to redirect cash for some made-up emergency at the border.
Just as investing in that Future Vertical Lift aircraft is a much-needed investment in our Army, so too is investing in the child who could be capable of flying that helicopter one day… so too is funding the STEM programs that ensure that folks in the private sector as well have the skills they need to develop the next generation of weapons platforms.
Because it’s not just about investing in human capital.
We can’t sit on the sidelines as our adversaries lead the way developing the tech that’ll decide the global power order in the years to come… as China is investing to win the next space race and Russia skates past us in quantum computing.
And we’re putting our troops in danger of losing those battles if we don’t invest in the technology that’ll help us compete on this century’s battlefields: whether that’s a stretch of sand in Southwest Asia or a piece of code that holds up our electrical grid.
Technology like AI and hypersonics… future vertical lift and supercomputers… all of which will determine our standing in the world… all of which more Americans could learn to develop if we had better STEM funding and more need-based grant programs...
Because it’s absurd that right now foreign students—many funded by their governments—are gaining the training to build these next-gen weapons at our universities then taking that learning back overseas, all the while too many Americans can’t afford that same college education.
DARPA invented the internet half a century ago. There’s no reason our nation shouldn’t continue to lead in this field another half-century from now.
Of course, not all the biggest threats over the next 50 years will take the shape of a missile or a hack.
No matter how many people put their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge basic facts, the horrifying truth is that climate change is real, and climate change is here.
Antarctica’s melting and California’s burning. The Maldives are sinking and temperatures are climbing.
This isn’t some partisan squabble.
It’s a national and global security threat… something that military leaders and this Administration’s own intelligence officials admit, as terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram use droughts to solidify their power in Syria and Nigeria…
As high tides flood our Coast Guard stations and rising sea levels threaten to swallow 100 of our military bases.
Tell me that won’t impact troop readiness.
There are no shades of gray here. We need to take action to curb climate change before it’s too late.
One way to do so is to pivot the military further away from fossil fuel, investing in green energy instead.
Even staunch Republicans like former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have spent years pushing for this.
Not just because it’d slash pollutants… not because it’s cheaper… not even because it reduces our dependence on foreign oil and cuts our ties to oil-rich bad actors like Saudi Arabia.
But because it’s proven time and again to save troops’ lives.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Mattis, who all but begged the military to untether itself from fossil fuel since militants led a major assault on a diesel convoy in 2003.
Why? Because fuel supply convoys make for easy, predictable targets. In Afghanistan in 2007, one of every 24 fuel convoys suffered casualties.
Even George W. Bush agreed, setting renewable energy benchmarks for our military to reach—benchmarks that became more ambitious under Obama.
And in the years since, we’ve learned that this policy works:
Green energy keeps our troops safer and efficient fuel-use slashes their number of refueling stops.
Mobile solar panels enable troops to turn off generators, helping them move through enemy territory unheard and undetected.
And low-weight, longer-lasting batteries lighten troops’ packs—meaning they can carry more bullets instead.
As one former Navy Captain put it, “Years ago, the belief was you could either be efficient or a capable warfighter... [Now, we’ve] found they are interdependent. By being more efficient, you become a better warfighter.” End-quote.
In other words, every dollar we invest in green energy makes our military stronger.
Finally, if we want to keep leading on the world stage, we need to reflect on the fact that most of this country has simply accepted—no, seemingly forgotten—that we’re still in the thick of two endless wars.
We need to think about how casually we’re shipping teenagers off to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then we have to question why the hell we’re asking them to die 6,000 miles from home when we don’t even know why they’re still there… when we can’t even verbalize their mission or visualize the end-state.
Last year, Americans who weren’t alive when the Twin Towers fell became eligible to enlist.
18-year-olds who’ve grown up knowing nothing but a nation at war—who weren’t yet born when we first airlifted Special Forces into Afghanistan—were sent into the sandbox themselves.
Most people run away from battle. But our servicemembers run toward it.
They watch their brothers and sisters die. They miss births and funerals, school plays and college graduations, then come home bearing the wounds of war—both visible and otherwise.
They will always do their job defending our country, no matter the sacrifice.
So they deserve to know that they have the moral support and legal backing of this nation.
But for more than 15 years, Washington has failed to give them even that.
One of Congress’s most solemn duties is deciding when and how we send Americans into combat by debating and passing Authorizations for Use of Military Force… which set the legal framework and constitutional basis for military action and are supposed to define the mission of Americans downrange.
But lately, too many on the Hill have shrugged off that duty, hiding behind the outdated AUMFs that launched the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars all the way back in 2001 and 2002.
Scared of the political risks that come with bringing these wars back into the spotlight… staring down Election Days… Congress has shirked its responsibility to our troops.
These documents have been used to justify nearly two decades of war—and the deaths of thousands of American heroes.
But they’ve been rendered meaningless as those in power have stretched and skewed their original intent…
Leaving our troops without a clearly-defined mission. Shadowboxing an ill-defined enemy everywhere from Niger to Iraq.
Enough of being more worried about political consequences than about our troops in harm’s way.
Enough of watching on as another wife learns she’ll never see her husband again... as another father is forced to bury his daughter in Section 60 at Arlington.
Until we muster up the courage to ask and answer the tough questions that will actually tell our troops what they’re fighting for, we won’t be living up to their sacrifices.
Instead, we’ll be leaving them in an endless loop—refusing to even look for an off-ramp.
Look, I have friends in Afghanistan right now—buddies who I served with in Iraq 15 years ago.
These are guys who’ve done seven, eight rotations… who go in knowing they’ll probably be back on that same stretch of sand in a couple years, fighting for that same patch of desert all over again.
They gain a few feet one tour.
They lose an inch or two the next.
They watch their buddies bleed, die over that same piece of ground, time after time, deployment after deployment.
Yet lately we’ve somehow spent more time debating whether athletes kneeling during the National Anthem disrespects our troops than we have discussing what our troops actually need.
It shouldn’t be this hard.
Anyone who claims the mantle of patriotism can’t keep demanding such sacrifices from our servicemembers while refusing to have this debate.
After all, how can we expect Americans to keep re-enlisting—or to sign up for the first time—if we can’t even imagine the end-state they’d be dying for?
Our already-narrowing military population will continue to contract, leaving us with too few people to bear too heavy a burden.
So right now, we’re at a breaking point.
We can no longer keep to yesterday’s definition of national strength:
One where the might of our military is measured by the number of commas in our defense budget… and where our love for this country is judged by how loudly we sing the National Anthem.
Because unless our citizenry is strong, our weaponry and pageantry won’t matter.
Unless our eighth-graders can read and our families have healthcare… unless our troops have the latest tech and our bases aren’t flooded… unless everyone who wants and is fit to serve can put on the uniform, our forces will be at a disadvantage.
And that’s before they even reach the battlefield.
There is no real choice between caring for our troops and caring about our classrooms.
There is no real choice between being a defense hawk and believing in progressive policies.
There is no real choice between loving our military and wanting to make it better.
In fact, working to improve our military is exactly what has allowed it to be so great for so long.
This nation was founded on the notion of a more perfect union… it was built on the idea that we can always do better… never achieving perfection, but always striving to climb a little higher than the day before.
To me, that’s true patriotism. The kind that goes beyond just giving our servicemembers a discount at the ballpark… the kind of patriotism they actually deserve.
Because I know these troops. I fought with these troops. I would’ve died for these troops and some of them nearly died for me.
They’re heroes who lose an arm, yet, umpteen surgeries later, somehow find their way back to the battlefield… refusing to stop serving their countries.
They’re new parents who miss their little girl’s first word or their little boy’s first steps because they’ve put country over self, walking back into harm’s way just weeks after their children were born.
They stand on their front porches and kiss their loved ones goodbye so our loved ones can sleep a little better at night... redefining bravery with every action they take.
We’ll never be able to fully repay the debt we owe them. But it’s on us to try.
That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do from the first moment I woke up in Walter Reed, and that’s what I plan to do every day that I’m lucky enough to work in the Capitol and sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Tour after tour, time after time, our troops risk everything to fight for the rest of us.
So starting today, I hope the American people will join me in vowing to do everything we can to fight for them, too.
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