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How Pete Buttigieg went from war protester to ‘packing my bags for Afghanistan’

  • Author: Steve Hendrix, Joshua Partlow, The Washington Post
  • Updated: July 29
  • Published July 29

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - They don’t get a lot of officer material through the Navy recruiting center here, a one-room office next to a vape shop on the outskirts of town. Those headed for a commission are more likely to enter the ranks through ROTC programs or Annapolis.

But one day in 2009, a rare prospect did walk in: Buttigieg, Peter, 27-year-old Harvard grad. Polyglot Rhodes scholar. McKinsey management consultant. Nordic poetry fan. Hometown boy.

A decade later, Buttigieg, P., is better known as South Bend's Mayor Pete, a first-name-only pol thanks to his tongue-twister surname (BOOT-edge-edge). Mayor Pete is finishing his second term as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. He remains one of the few luminaries to start military service at this modest recruiting outpost.

"We got Mayor Pete and we had an admiral once - that's pretty much it," said Zach Blakeman, the recruiter on duty on a recent summer day, sitting at a desk stacked with the high school diplomas of his more typical enlistees. Because of his pedigree, Buttigieg glided straight into the Navy Reserve's direct-commission officers program, bypassing the more time-consuming training route of other branches.

"We can tell within two hours whether you're qualified or not," Blakeman said.

It took Buttigieg far longer to figure that out.

Ensign Pete Buttigieg during his deployment in Afghanistan in 2014. (Courtesy Pete Buttigieg)

The moment he stepped up on that white Health O Meter scale was a pivot point for him personally and politically. As he was weighed and measured, a process began that would not only put him in potential danger but force him to confront a lifelong conflict at the center of his identity - his sexuality. It would allow him to yield to a revered family calling of military service. And, just months before he launched a career in electoral politics, it would let him add a valuable new credential to his résumé: veteran.

Today, in a crowded field, Buttigieg is one of only four Democratic candidates with experience in uniform. He would be the first presidential candidate with overseas military service elected in three decades. And he has already foreshadowed how he could wield his dog tags in a race against President Donald Trump, who used medical deferments to avoid service in Vietnam.

"I was packing my bags for Afghanistan while he was working on Season 7 of 'The Apprentice,' " he said in May.

Sitting down with a recruiter came after years of uncertainty about his willingness to join a war on terrorism that began one September morning in 2001 as he overslept in his freshman dorm. He was already a student of history and Arabic, and the 9/11 attacks instantly made the possibility of fighting feel more personal, Buttigieg said in an interview.

"I knew that war had touched my country and that I could wind up willingly or unwillingly a part of it," he said in his campaign office overlooking the low-rise cement-scape of downtown South Bend.

Still, he took no part in the conflict as he climbed ever-higher ivory towers in Massachusetts and England, as the war in Afghanistan widened to include another in Iraq, as he became increasingly active in Democratic politics and increasingly opposed to the national security policies of President George W. Bush.

It was only after Barack Obama was elected, and just months before Buttigieg would launch his own political career, that he finally walked into the recruiting office.

Only then did he decide to join a conflict that six years earlier he had denounced from the stage of an antiwar rally.

It was gray March day in 2003, a week before the invasion of Iraq, and the "Emergency Anti-War Rally" had attracted about 350 people to the courtyard in front of Harvard's ziggurat-like Science Center.

Sophomore Jesse Stellato was the first speaker. Junior Pete Buttigieg followed him, speaking without notes on behalf of the campus Democrats and eliciting a roar from the gathering.

"He was brilliant," said Stellato, now a lawyer in London. "The crowd was immediately attracted to him."

And yet, compared to Stellato, a passionate opponent of the invasion who would go on to write a book about antiwar rhetoric, Buttigieg made a more nuanced case. On a campus that had largely banned ROTC units since the 1960s, Buttigieg pointed to the spire of Harvard's Memorial Church - where the names of fallen alumni are carved in marble - and celebrated the warriors as he decried the war.

"They remind us of a time when we had to take up arms against another nation, and there may be a day we have to again," Buttigieg said, according to an account of the rally in the Harvard Crimson. "But that day isn't today."

“He seemed more like a partisan than a pacifist,” Stellato said. “I’m not sure he would have been there if the Democrats hadn’t come out against the invasion.”

Pete Buttigieg's great uncle Russell Montgomery was an Army Air Corps captain. An oil painting of him hangs in his mother's living room. (Courtesy Pete Buttigieg)

In fact, war-fighting had long been part of Buttigieg’s family story. His great uncle was an Army Air Corps captain killed in a 1941 crash. Pete idolized the oil portrait of Uncle Russell that still hangs in his mother’s South Bend living room. He would pore over the flier’s logbook and fantasize about becoming a pilot himself.

His grandfather had been a career Army officer, and he remembers shopping trips with his grandmother to the Fort Bliss PX. He loved the crisp salute that gate guards would snap at her Caprice Classic. He was the brainy son of two Notre Dame professors, but the armed forces held an allure.

"As a kid, I had this sense of being connected to the military," Buttigieg said.

But the connection faded as his academic talents propelled him through Harvard and then Oxford.

After graduation, he continued to work in party politics, campaigning in Arizona for John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. When Kerry lost, Buttigieg's boss, future assistant defense secretary Doug Wilson, invited him to Washington.

"I think he was interested in coming back with me because he saw this as an opportunity to learn about foreign policy and international affairs," said Wilson, who was working for former defense secretary William Cohen at the time. Wilson is now an adviser to the Buttigieg campaign.

Buttigieg quickly fell in with Democrats who were supportive of military power even as they condemned the way it was wielded by the Bush White House. They called themselves the Truman National Security Project.

"There wasn't a lot of space in the country then to say, 'I believe in the military and I believe some wars are necessary and yet I believe the Iraq War was a huge blunder,' " said Rachel Kleinfeld, a Truman Project founder. "Pete was surrounded by a lot of progressives who had served."

One was Andrew Person, a onetime staffer for then-Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who had entered northern Iraq with the 173rd Airborne in 2003 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2005. He wasn't surprised when Buttigieg eventually signed up for "Bush's war."

"I objected to [the Iraq War] from the beginning," said Person, now a lawyer in Missoula. "But I still knew that my job was to parachute in and take that airfield."

Buttigieg finished his degree in economics at Oxford in 2007 and moved to the Chicago office of McKinsey & Co. For the next year, the consulting gig that would make him an expert in grocery pricing also gave him his first taste of a war zone. Buttigieg visited Iraq and Afghanistan as part of U.S. government-funded projects to stimulate private-sector development in countries still engulfed in violence.

A private security guard leading his small-team down the bomb-scarred highway from the airport tapped his pistol and told the group: "If I ever have to touch this thing, you're f---ed," Buttigieg recalled with a smile, his language slipping into troop-talk.

He knew it was a joke meant to frighten the greenhorns. But it made the danger real. It was few months later that he began to entertain his first thoughts of becoming a reserve officer.

In his memoir, he recalls door-knocking for the 2008 Obama campaign in Iowa, meeting veterans and recent recruits in the January cold, almost all younger and less advantaged than he was. One night at dinner, he and two friends could name only a few of their fellow Harvard graduates who had joined the military.

Buttigieg did remember one classmate who had entered the Navy Reserve his senior year, and his own interest increasingly turned that way.

"I'd studied Arabic and thought intelligence seemed like a good fit," he said (although the recruiter actually listed his Harvard minor as "Aerobics").

But he still had reservations about joining under Bush.

"Your service has to be neutral to politics, but you are making a choice when you join the military under a certain president," he said.

A year later, Obama became the commander in chief.

"We were grabbing a beer and he was like, 'By the way, I joined the Navy,' " recalled Eric Lesser, a friend from Harvard and now a Massachusetts state senator. "I was concerned about it. Things were not going well in Afghanistan."

His mother supported her only child's embrace of the family military tradition. She also worried about getting that knock on the door, as her grandmother had after her Uncle Russell's plane had gone down.

"She was proud of that gold star," Anne Montgomery, 74, said in an interview. "It was a mark of honor but also a mark that she had lost a son." She thought of that gold star when her own son signed up. "There was a war on, you know."

Ensign Pete Buttigieg during his deployment in Afghanistan in 2014. (Courtesy Pete Buttigieg)

Buttigieg was sworn in as an ensign in September 2009. A few months later, he announced he would challenge Indiana's Republican state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, in the 2010 election. Being a commissioned officer would play well with the state's conservative electorate. Buttigieg said he never brought it up.

"My campaign manager kept putting it on the literature, and I kept taking it off," he said, because he had only recently started reserve training.

After being contacted by The Post, Mourdock said he was surprised to learn he had been running against Ensign Buttigieg.

"I was going to argue all of the Naval service must have come after the 2010 campaigning because I never recall ever hearing of it in his race for the treasurer of state position," Mourdock said by email.

Buttigieg lost that election by a wide margin. But he won his next one for mayor of South Bend a year later. This time he did make his reservist credentials known, in part because he knew that being mayor would not keep him from being deployed.

And two years into his term, he was called up, even as the worst scandal of his administration roiled race relations in the city. Soon after taking office, Buttigieg had removed South Bend’s popular African American police chief for secretly recording white subordinates who had reportedly made racist comments. Buttigieg refused to release the tapes, citing legal constraints, infuriating activists and some members of the city council.

In 2014, as the controversy reverberated in South Bend, Buttigieg legally transferred his powers as mayor to Mark Neal, the city controller, and boarded a plane for Afghanistan.

Some African American activists complain about the timing of his departure to this day. But many residents expressed support for their mayor's trip to a war zone.

"People were proud of him," said Lesser, who went to a Notre Dame football game with Buttigieg before he left. "The guy at the hot dog window was, like, 'Be safe over there, Mayor.' "

Much of Lt. Buttigieg's Afghan war unfolded in the "tuna can" - a converted shipping container parked inside U.S. and NATO headquarters in downtown Kabul.

It was an office job without much of an office. For part of his tour, only one other service member worked with Buttigieg. As he stood up after meals, he recounted in his book, he would joke to friends he needed to go check on his troops. "You mean, your troop," they would reply.

Buttigieg worked for the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, a Drug Enforcement Administration-led team of investigators with a storied history in the Afghan war. In the years before Buttigieg arrived, dozens of people from the Treasury Department, the FBI, DHS and all branches of the military uncovered rampant corruption within the Afghan government and a destabilizing Ponzi scheme within the nation's largest bank.

By 2014, that work was mostly over. The Obama administration was withdrawing troops and had chosen not to antagonize the government of President Hamid Karzai by pursuing sensitive corruption cases. The threat finance unit shifted to a less provocative mission, disrupting money flowing to the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Buttigieg was dropped into a war in retreat. His unit was in the process of shutting down. The eager young lieutenant was eventually tasked with disposing of the office computers.

"When you're arriving, you want to do a mission. You want to build things. And you find that what you're really doing is orderly withdrawal," Buttigieg said. "It was definitely a sense that you're kind of arriving after the heyday of something."

Buttigieg started at Bagram air base, where his military colleagues worked, then moved to Kabul to serve as the unit's liaison to U.S. and NATO headquarters. His commander, Col. Guy Hollingsworth, chose Buttigieg because he was smart and could advocate for the team's priorities in its last months.

"I needed someone I could trust and be a good communicator," Hollingsworth said. "He was articulate and had a critical mind."

Buttigieg made little of the fact that he was a Midwestern mayor, not telling even the roommate who shared his trailer. His liberal politics were also a mystery to his commander, a Mormon and staunch conservative.

"He did not come in on a horse and say, 'This is who I am,' " Hollingsworth recalled. "Pete was very humble about it."

Ensign Pete Buttigieg during his deployment in Afghanistan in 2014. (Courtesy Pete Buttigieg)

He was discreet about something else. No one in Afghanistan knew he was gay. When Buttigieg had signed up, he said, he still didn't know himself, at least not with clarity. A lifelong struggle to understand his sexuality had only begun to resolve itself, and the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was still in effect. By the time he deployed, the policy had been repealed. Buttigieg still didn't tell.

He heard plenty of "casual homophobic humor," as he put it, in the military weight rooms and chow halls. He knew no openly gay service member and couldn't bring himself to become the first.

"I just wasn't ready," he said.

Buttigieg's daylight hours were packed with meetings, meals and sorting through classified intelligence on war-zone money flows. To break the monotony - "You felt like you're in a hamster cage," he recalled - Buttigieg leaped at the chance to leave base and drive his colleagues to meetings around Kabul. Wearing body armor and carrying an M4 rifle, Buttigieg navigated Kabul's clogged streets behind the wheel of an armored Suburban.

He carefully logged each trip outside the wire - 119 by his count.

Kabul by that time was a more hostile place for foreigners, particularly the U.S. military. A week before Buttigieg arrived, Taliban militants had stormed the luxurious Serena Hotel and gunned down nine people inside. Arriving U.S. diplomats would often take helicopters to the embassy rather than risk the two-mile drive from the airport.

"The last three months, I never left the embassy," said Frank Calestino, a former Treasury Department official who helped found the Threat Finance Cell in 2008 and left Kabul in mid-2013. "The Taliban had retaken territory they hadn't held in years. We could not drive to the airport. The fact that this guy was driving in a car, he was doing it in an environment far more dangerous than we were doing in 2008."

On one trip together to the western city of Herat, Buttigieg and his DEA chief, Joe Kipp, hustled under a concrete bunker as explosions and gunfire erupted outside a military base manned by Italian soldiers.

"There were gunshots and booms," Buttigieg recalled. As he crouched in the bunker to wait out the assault, a B-1 bomber buzzed the base in a show of force. When Italian soldiers bounded into the bunker, the scene turned more surreal.

"The Italians are allowed to drink, right? So they're having a party in there," he said.

Buttigieg chatted them up in Italian but stayed sober until the all-clear.

Kabul did little to settle Buttigieg's ambivalence about the war on terrorism. He believed that the Afghan war was a necessary response to the 9/11 attacks but that it had gone on too long.

Once, as he stood in the gym, trying to decipher a poster of convoluted military "lines of effort" that would somehow add up to a winning strategy, he remembered thinking, "If this is our mission, like, I don't know how this ends."

Although he sometimes briefed generals on the progress of the Threat Finance Cell, as a lower-ranking officer he did not weigh in on more-strategic questions about U.S. objectives.

"Once in a blue moon I'd encounter somebody with a star on them, but even at HQ I was not that close to the flagpole, thankfully," he said, referring to the flags that marked the commander's office.

At least once a week, around midnight, Buttigieg would take his laptop and a cigar up to a rooftop and Skype into staff meetings in South Bend. He had no legal power, but with the occasional F-15 flying over, Buttigieg chimed in on street repairs and bond reports. The power went out on Notre Dame's graduation weekend. Neal had to be his proxy at the funeral of a 2-year-old boy slain by a stray bullet, a reminder of the city's gun violence.

On one Kabul night, the city staff in Indiana alerted Buttigieg to something he hadn't expected: South Bend was to hold its first gay wedding. Neal officiated in the mayor's conference room two days after a federal judge ruled Indiana's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

"I remember seeing the pictures," Buttigieg said, "and being moved by them."

After seven months, his deployment ended. Buttigieg, who had been dropped off by his parents to go to Afghanistan, was met by them when he came home.

But now he was determined to welcome other loves into his life. He came out to more friends, then his to his mom and dad, and then, in a 2015 op-ed published five months before he was elected to a second term, he publicly declared himself a gay man. Three years later, he was the groom in a same-sex wedding of his own, marrying middle school teacher Chasten Glezman.

Military service helped make that joy available to him, he says now. The Navy let him fulfill a family legacy. His Afghanistan Campaign Medal also enabled him to round out a candidate profile that could have been assembled in a Democratic candidate laboratory: Rust Belt mayor, Ivy League whiz kid, married gay veteran.

And it could make him the first Oval Office occupant with active-duty experience since George H.W. Bush. He avoids specifics on how that would affect his leadership.

"If we learned anything from the last decade and a half of endless war, it's that you do not casually threaten military involvement," Buttigieg said recently in an interview with Washington Post Live.

If he is elected, Buttigieg would assume command of a never-ending war he had first protested and then joined and still struggles to understand. And he would find himself not just near the flagpole but at the very top of it.

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