It’s no easy task graduating magna cum laude from Harvard. And few of us earn the opportunity to attend Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. And being elected mayor of a rust-belt city at age 29 isn’t something most people get to mention about themselves at social gatherings.
But Pete Buttigieg is not typical of a person his age. While accomplishments don’t necessarily come easy for him, there is a clearly a drive in Buttigieg that pushes him to go further, achieve more, and be of service to his fellow citizens in ways most of us only imagine.
Oh, and there’s more: he speaks multiple languages (no biggee), plays piano, and in between all that found himself time to sit down and write a book about his significant life experiences. For most people his age, a book like that might total no more than thirty pages. But again, Pete Buttigieg is not cut from average American cloth.
And among the front-runner Democrats vying for its party’s presidential nomination, Pete Buttigieg is also distinguished by a history of service in our country’s military. He joined the Navy Reserve in 2009, and in 2014 received his call to ship out for Afghanistan.
A history of service ran through Pete’s mother’s side of the family, including a great uncle, Russell Montgomery, an Army Air Corps Captain, who was killed in a plane crash in 1941, and whose portrait hung in the Buttigieg family living room as Pete was growing up.
But it was while knocking on doors for Barack Obama in 2008 in Iowa that Pete says he was moved as an adult to first seriously consider serving his country: “…it seemed like every other teenager I met was signing up for the Army or the Guard. I was only twenty-five years old, but these freckled Iowan recruits looked like children to me. And I began asking myself how it could be that whole communities in this part of the country, just like those in rural Indiana, seemed to be emptying out their youth into the armed forces, while so few people I knew had served at all.” (The Shortest Way Home, p70-71)
While serving in the United States Navy, he was not in open combat, nor was he shot down like Bush Sr. or John McCain. But like those fellow brave Americans, when his country called upon him, Pete Buttigieg proudly accepted the opportunity to serve. He put his civilian life on hold and took an unpaid leave of absence from his duties as mayor. He left behind a sealed letter for his family in case he was killed overseas. He packed his gear and boarded a C-17 for Afghanistan, voluntarily risking his own life in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.
There were no deferments. No delays. No bone spurs. When the United States of America asked for his help, Pete Buttigieg simply said “yes.”
For seven months, Pete worked within the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC), a multi-agency organization including the FBI, DEA and the Departments of both Defense and Homeland Security. In Afghanistan, he was responsible for tracking and exposing insurgents financing their activities through fraud, extortion, and human trafficking. This placed Pete in “an imminent danger pay area.” His time was divided between intelligence analyst and as a vehicle commander for convoys, where he’d routinely cross outside the wire, into the well-populated and hostile areas of Kabul, knowing full well that dressed as a U.S. soldier he was an easy target for anyone looking to kill an American.
While the current president, then a private citizen, was questioning Obama’s birth certificate, complaining on Fox & Friends, and contributing an endless Twitter-driven diatribe against Rosie O’Donnell and other perceived enemies, Pete Buttigieg was becoming accustomed to the daily sounds of gunfire and bombings, along with constant threats of death that could emerge seemingly out of nowhere, at any given moment.
In his book, he recalls one incident in which an American duty driver, just like him, had his throat slit by a member of the Taliban and was left to bleed out in the street. He credits his time in Afghanistan for giving him a new respect for the preciousness of life, both his own and those of his fellow servicemen and women, who risked so much in order to fight for the principles of American democracy.
Pete received the Afghanistan Campaign Medal for service in a combat zone, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Overseas Service Ribbon, and citations for rifle and pistol marksmanship. Upon completion of his seven months in Afghanistan, he returned to his duties as mayor, trading service to his country as a whole to again serve the constituents of his hometown of South Bend, being later re-elected to his office with over eighty percent of the vote.
Pete has since referenced his time in the Navy as having prominently shaped his opinion of the military as “the great equalizer” of society. Of his time serving alongside a cross-section of fellow citizens, he says: “In many ways, we had nothing in common except the fact that we were all American. But the men and women who got in my vehicle didn’t care if I was a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent. They just wanted to get home safe, like I did.”
Most of us can’t speak with first-hand knowledge to the effects serving in the military has on enhancing a person’s character. We learn about the experience of wearing a uniform for this country from others who actually did it. And we count it a blessing that those people were motivated, as Pete Buttigieg was, to give back to our country in a way we never have.
There are three core values promoted by the Navy as the bedrock of its foundation. They are: honor, courage and commitment. The Navy breaks each value down into further dictates which include: conducting one’s self in the highest ethical manner, delivering bad news, even when it is unpopular, respecting human dignity, exemplifying teamwork, competence, and moral character, and making decisions that are in the best interest of the nation.
During this race for the nomination, we have seen Pete Buttigieg demonstrate all of these values with consistency and allegiance. Be it defending his achievements on the debate stage, standing up to racism on the trail, or exemplifying the Navy’s values through his own campaign, adapting them into his own core principles, which he refers to as his ten “rules of the road.”
Pete Buttigieg is a rare combination of intelligence, common sense, trust in his own convictions, and the realization that service to others enriches one’s self in innumerable ways. It is a portrait of decency and a respect for American values he demonstrates not only in word, but in action. In Pete Buttigieg, we have a man of great character and energy offering to lead our nation. What more could we ask?