SHERIDAN — A new veteran-led organization is being established — with its first chapters in Wyoming, Idaho and West Virginia — to amplify veterans’ voices and put pressure on Congress to end the war on terrorism after outcries through statistics and personal stories have become more public.
A July poll by the Pew Research Center found that 64% of the 1,284 veterans surveyed feel the war in Iraq was “not worth fighting” considering the costs versus benefits to the U.S.
Fifty-eight percent felt the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, and 55% felt American involvement in Syria has not been worth it.
A January 2019 poll of 1,031 service members and veterans conducted by the Smithsonian Magazine and Stars and Stripes magazine — the official print media outlet of the Department of Defense — found that 84% agreed with the statement that American conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on too long.
The two conflicts had separate questions but received the same result.
While deployed with the Idaho National Guard in 2005, Sgt. Dan McKnight grew frustrated with his leadership for the lack of basic mission-critical supplies like boots and uniforms and climbed to the top of a mountain in Northeastern Afghanistan with his satellite phone. There he called a friend at home who put him in touch with the then-governor of Idaho, Jim Risch.
“I said, ‘Hey Gov., you’re the commander-in-chief, and you’ve got troops that are in harm’s way and we need your help,’” McKnight said in an interview with The Sheridan Press.
Governor for only three weeks at the time, Risch wasn’t sure how to make it happen but promised he would, and the supplies were on their way in 48 hours.
“So, I always held him up as kind of a man of honor and integrity, and he’s a personal hero of mine,” McKnight said.
Though he never questioned the mission while deployed, McKnight grew critical of American overseas engagements as his friends went through revolving-door deployments over the next 14 years.
One close friend of his missed six years of his children’s lives and came back divorced, bankrupt and mentally and physically exhausted.
When Risch, now the junior U.S. senator from Idaho, became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, McKnight saw an opportunity to advance his cause. After writing a guest column that ran in nine Idaho newspapers and asking Sen. Risch to end the war on terrorism in person at a Boise Chamber of Commerce event, McKnight received a second promise.
Risch, who remembered McKnight and said he had read the piece, told McKnight the U.S. should have been done with nation-building after World War II and said he would use his new position to fight to end the endless wars.
“And so, I thought I’d done my job, and he went back to Washington and did what Washington creatures do,” McKnight said. “He voted three times in the next 90 days to extend America’s presence in the Middle East indefinitely. So, that was kind of the launching point. I said, ‘Well, he’s gonna need a little more encouraging.’”
In February, McKnight started BringOurTroopsHome.us to organize veterans and allies who want to fight to end endless wars.
“We’re done; we’re exhausted,” McKnight said. “The pace of the mission is unbearable.”
Bring Our Troops Home has been expanding its contact list and hosting numerous community events, like screenings of the documentary film “Endless War” followed by discussions.
The group now has formal chapters with websites in Idaho, Wyoming and West Virginia, with 20 more states expected to announce formal chapters in the coming weeks.
Bring Our Troops Home is working on legislation in 22 states intended to hold the federal government accountable by requiring Congress to pass an authorization of military force before deploying National Guard members to combat zones.
“Absent that declaration of war, they’re to stay home and do what the National Guard is supposed to do, which is defend the country and repel invasion and to help during times of national disasters,” McKnight said.
West Virginia Delegate and Air Force veteran Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, has proposed similar legislation in his state’s legislature for each of the past four years and will continue the effort next session.
Spearheading the Wyoming chapter and the legislative effort in the state is Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, himself a five-year veteran of the U.S. Navy. As the Wyoming House majority whip, Lindholm is currently drafting Wyoming’s version of the bill, called the Protect the Guard Act.
Lindholm says he considers the overuse of guard troops an abuse of the states by the Department of Defense, and he points out the cost to the states of assets that could otherwise be used at home.
Though he doesn’t know the fate of the bill, Lindholm now considers it his top legislative priority and says he will not endorse any candidate that refuses to pledge to work toward ending current conflicts.
Lindholm said in an interview with The Sheridan Press the Wyoming chapter has approximately 1,000 veteran and civilian members.
“We’ve been very focused on maintaining political neutrality,” McKnight said, though he believes Democrats have long been on the right side of the issue as the party least interested in going to war.
The group includes Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and the Friends Coalition of Quakers, for whom pacifism is a core religious principle.
“We’re all working together on this because on this one issue, we have common ground,” McKnight said. “We don’t agree on health care, we don’t agree on the environment, we don’t agree on taxes, on anything, but on this one issue we all agree. We’re not all necessarily anti-war, but we all agree on the basis that the Constitution says that Congress should be the one that declares war, and if you can’t follow the Constitution on that one very simple point, then what’s the rest of it mean?”
Despite the partisan unity, Lindholm still sees a strong conservative case for a scaleback.
“These endless wars are really as big government as it can be,” Lindholm said in an interview with The Sheridan Press. “We as conservatives are always talking about small government and those kinds of ideals, but then neocons in the same breath send troops overseas. That’s as big as it gets. When you’re bombing people, that’s big government.”
Just after Veterans Day, on Nov. 12 and 13, the group will travel with 100 veterans and state lawmakers to Washington, D.C., and hold a press event to explain the group’s position and actions and have veterans meet face-to-face with members of Congress. Among those attending the event is retired Brigadier Gen. Don Bolduc, who served as combined joint special operations component commander in Afghanistan and deputy director for U.S. Africa Command. Gen. Bolduc spent 10 tours — 66 months in total — as a special operations officer in Afghanistan alone, having ridden on horseback in the initial American invasion.
Bolduc, now a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, argues that it’s past time for the U.S. to transition authority to the Afghan government.
“We have a policy and strategy today that in my opinion doesn’t justify another body bag or hospital bed for any American service members or any American serving there, period,” Bolduc said in an interview with The Sheridan Press.
Bolduc argues that the policy in the region should be broader in focus than any one country. He proposes a more diplomatic approach, but one that maintains the uniquely economical ability of special operations forces to take tactical-lever actions with strategic-level impacts.
Bolduc would similarly preserve international aid to avoid repeating the mistakes made at the end of the Soviet occupation.
“It doesn’t mean that we should abandon Afghanistan,” Bolduc said. “The international community collectively has created a government, a military and a police that they can’t sustain with their own gross domestic product, so it’s gonna have to be an international effort, and Afghanistan is still gonna require some help.”
Also in need of encouragement, according to McKnight and Lindholm, is Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming. As the state’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the House Republican Chair, she’s an important but reluctant potential ally, according to McKnight and Lindholm.
McKnight says influencing Cheney on the issue is a bit more of an uphill battle than Risch.
“Rep. Cheney seems to want perpetual war,” McKnight said. “She has no desire to end any of these wars, so we’re really trying to influence her there, but it’s like pushing a big boulder uphill.”
Although Lindholm has praised Cheney for “great work for Wyoming” in areas like energy and agriculture, he said “there’s some folks in Rep. Cheney’s camp in this regard, they’re very touchy about the subject.”
Perhaps her camp has a case of trickle-down touchiness. When Lindholm and Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne — former Wyoming Republican Party vice chair — published a commentary in the “Washington Examiner” rebuking Cheney’s criticism of President Donald Trump for the weakness of his response to Iran, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, shared it, and a Twitter feud ensued.
Paul and Cheney argued over who is most “loved” by Trump, and Cheney wrote that Paul’s motto seems to be “Terrorists First, America Second” and shared a 2015 Trump tweet calling Paul “a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain.”
Jeremy Adler, spokesman for Cheney, wrote in an email to The Sheridan Press, “Congresswoman Cheney knows America’s security requires that we prevent terrorists from establishing safe havens they can use to plot, plan and launch attacks against us. That requires a range of tools, including the deployment of military force. She believes we must fight terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them here, and that wars don’t end just because America retreats. As she has said, ‘retreating isn’t ending wars, it’s losing them.’ The Congresswoman will always stand against those who blame America for our enemies’ attacks and peddle isolationism.”
But Lindholm has a meeting scheduled with Cheney to discuss the issue on the sides of the D.C. event, and he’s hopeful the two can reach an agreement.
“Eighteen years in, I’m not saying the American people are asleep at the wheel, but kind of,” Lindholm said. “There’s not a lot of thought process around it anymore.”
The U.S. has relied primarily on the Authorization of the Use of Military Force of 2001 for much of its military action since the start of the war on terrorism in 2001, and many today consider the extended scale of engagement as an abuse of that authority.
Lindholm calls it “carte-blanche.”
“That means any president at any time can declare anyone a terrorist and just deploy troops,” Lindholm said.
Article 1 Section A of the Constitution and the War Powers Act both grant Congress alone the power to declare war, and Bolduc argues it’s shirked its responsibility by refusing to vote on conflict or repeal the AUMF and its 2002 counterpart.
“They have been in the practice of not wanting to be held accountable for things, so they give it to the executive branch, and then they criticize the executive branch for acting,” Bolduc said.
McKnight says a lot of veterans feel they signed up to go to wars, but he argues that they’ve signed up to defend the constitution first — the first line of the oath — and that it’s been ignored.
“We want to tell our elected leaders that if you want us in war, we’ll go to war,” McKnight said. “We’ll do what you ask us to do, but give us the respect of doing it the right way by authorizing it in Congress and let us complete the mission and let us come home.”
“The United States is firmly engaged in armed conflict in over 80 nations around the world,” McKnight said.
Though President Trump himself often speaks about recent wars and exposed Republican divides with his withdrawal from northern Syria, he has deployed approximately 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East since May.
With more than 180 U.S. military bases worldwide, Lindholm has a simple retort for those who call him an isolationist.
“If the U.S. is pulling out of Yemen or Syria, what, we’re gonna have 178 military bases? Give me a break,” he said.
Conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan have cost the U.S. $5.6 trillion dollars as of the end of 2018, according to the “cost of war report” published by the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University.
“One of the greatest security threats to the United States of America right now is our debt,” Lindholm said.
Steep as it may be, however, the bill is not the full cost.
According to the Department of Defense, 4,419 U.S. service members have been killed in Iraq and 2,298 in Afghanistan as of Oct. 28.
Also according to the DOD, injuries from the two conflicts number 31,994 for Iraq and 20,091 for Afghanistan.
Of the 2.7 million service members who have deployed since 2001, an estimated 5-20% return with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the Smithsonian and Stars and Stripes poll, only 41% of veterans agreed that veterans are being adequately treated for their physical injuries. For mental and emotional injuries, only 32% of veterans agreed current treatment is adequate. And the death toll doesn’t stop at home. From 2008 to 2016, more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide each year.
“Just a few weeks ago we heard about a young man that left his home in Missouri, took off and he killed himself in Wyoming,” Lindholm said. “And he’s a veteran — with PTSD — diagnosed. And so I guess that’s the deal. They’re not dying over there but they’re coming back here and dying. So when is enough enough? When are we willing to stop, just to think about this and ask ourselves, how much blood do we need to spill, how many lives do we need to ruin, before we say enough. So for me, the obvious answer is now.”
When prime defense industry contractors met in Casper with Wyoming manufacturers and politicians on Oct. 7 and 8 to consider a northward expansion of the industry from Colorado, Lindholm was conflicted.
“I honestly struggled with that because on the one hand I want to see Wyoming’s economy diversify and grow, we all want to see that for Wyoming,” Lindholm said. “But on the other hand, I don’t know that I want it to grow that way.”
As someone who spent his years in service working on military equipment as a naval aviation mechanic, Lindholm says he is not fundamentally opposed to the defense industry and thinks they do a great job for the country.
But he also feels many national politicians are bought and paid for by the industry and that the perpetuation of global conflict is in the industry’s interest.
Bolduc expressed similar views on the industry.
“I am all for private industry and technology and job creation, but setting that aside the defense industry has become an industry to give retired general officers an opportunity to exercise their Rolodex and influence the military in ways that I think have become counterproductive,” Bolduc said.
Bolduc believes we’ve gone all-in on the military side of our foreign policy at the expense of other parts of our national security structure and must regain the balance. In the industry’s dominance, he sees President Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings of the military-industrial complex coming true.
“It’s gotten out of control. It’s very, very dangerous to our democratic principles, and we really, really have to review this,” Bolduc said.
As remedies, Bolduc supports the enlargement and reform of the State Department and argues that Congress needs to reclaim its right and responsibility to declare wars from the executive.
In 2018, the aerospace and defense industry saw a record $760 billion in revenue, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, with each of the top 11 companies reporting revenue increases.
Although federal contractors themselves are barred from giving political donations, individuals and political action committees associated with the defense sector contributed $27.8 million in the 2018 campaign cycle, with 58% going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In 2018, defense companies spent $126.2 million on lobbying efforts according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
When Lindholm was handing out “Bring Our Troops Home” T-shirts at a Wyoming football game, he offered one to one of his best friends in the Wyoming Legislature, who turned it down with a “No, I’m good, I’m good,” after seeing what it said.
For McKnight and Lindholm, the sad irony is that the pressure to “support the troops” is a major deterrent to speaking out against the conflicts, even for those who have themselves served.
“There’s a lot of folks that feel that if they talk about bringing home the troops and ending these wars, they’re not supporting the troops. I think that’s a real thing. I think folks are unwilling to speak out because of that,” Lindholm said.
For veterans, McKnight and Lindholm believe the training they receive makes many reluctant to speak out, particularly if they feel something they were a part of — that was such a part of their lives — was a waste.
“One of the most heart-wrenching moments for me was when I got a private message from a mother who lost her son in Iraq,” Lindholm said. “She’s just like, ‘I’m so glad somebody’s saying this. Everyone keeps saying ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ but what about the next loss, what about the next gold star mother?”
McKnight says supporting the troops has to be about more than slogans and flags at football games, but many people simply don’t know what to do.
“And considering that most veterans say that these wars need to end and we need to bring the troops home, I would argue that keeping those troops deployed is not supporting those troops. Keeping the troops in harm’s way is not supporting the troops,” Lindholm said. “Support your troops; bring them home.”
“I think veterans are starting to find out that it’s OK to stand up and to question why we’re there,” Lindholm said. “Maybe not openly revolt or march against it, but speak up and say that I don’t support this anymore. That’s where we’re at now. Veterans are really finding their voice right now, which is awesome.”
McKnight urges others who have an opinion on the issue to speak out, but to remember that there are subject-matter experts.
“This is the topic du jour, this is really it,” McKnight said. “This is the one that’s gonna define our generation.”