For politicians, the D.C. elite and even a presidential candidate, a Navy program has been an attractive fast-track path to military service

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent
Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: U.S. Military, Mass Communication Specialist Joseph A.D. Phillips/U.S. Navy (2))

Pete Buttigieg was an obscure management consultant in Chicago when he applied to a little-known Navy Reserve program that would allow him to become a military officer without the months or even years of training normally required. Now the mayor of South Bend, Ind., Buttigieg has made his military service, which stretched from 2009 to 2017 and included a tour in Afghanistan, a cornerstone of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In doing so, he has become only the latest and most high-profile political figure to take advantage of the Navy Reserve’s direct commission officer program, which for years has offered ambitious policy wonks a chance to serve their country while simultaneously burnishing their résumés. And by contrasting his own combat deployment with the complete absence of military service from the life stories of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, Buttigieg has also re-ignited the debate over how Americans should weigh military experience — or the lack of it — when evaluating political candidates.

While other services’ reserve officer programs require candidates to commit to months of full-time training up front, the Navy avoids this by blending most of its initial officer training into the traditional reservist’s one-weekend-a-month, two-weeks-a-year schedule, making the direct commission program attractive to upwardly mobile professionals who are reluctant to put their civilian careers on hold.

Although this may appear to some to be an easy route into the military, Buttigieg, who has spoken of making more than a hundred vehicle trips “outside the wire” in Afghanistan, said his active-duty comrades could have cared less. “When you’re in the vehicle, I don’t think a lot of people really care about your commissioning source,” he told Yahoo News. “It very rarely came up when I was deployed.”

The highly competitive Navy Reserve program commissions officers in about a dozen fields. Two of those — intelligence and public affairs — have proven particularly popular with politicians and other policy professionals eager to gain military experience. While the program recruits nationwide — Buttigieg signed up in his home state of Indiana — it draws disproportionately from the Washington, D.C., area. Last year, for example, of the 112 people the Navy accepted as direct commission intelligence officers, 22, or about one in five, were from the national capital region.

The attractiveness of the program to aspiring politicians and policymakers demonstrates how military service is still regarded as a valuable part of a résumé for those seeking power in Washington, even at a time when the number of veterans serving in Congress is falling, and the last two occupants of the Oval Office never wore a uniform. “Military service is universally honored by the American people, by the leadership and I think generally by the elites in this country,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Barno, who has recommended several people for the Navy program, said he did not view military service as “a credential,” but as a way to serve their country and gain a greater understanding of the military. However, he added, for those contemplating a political career, “it’s a net plus for the voters to see someone who’s been willing to make that sacrifice.”

Yet Trump’s comments to a British television interviewer June 4 highlighted the complicated role that military service now plays in American electoral politics. Asked about his avoidance of service in Vietnam, which he has said was due to bone spurs in his feet, Trump said he “was never a fan of that war,” and would have preferred the opportunity to fight in World War II. Yet neither Trump’s “bone spur” excuse, which has elicited considerable skepticism, nor his mocking (“I like people who weren’t captured”) of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, seem to have harmed the president’s standing with his Republican base, something that would be hard to imagine a decade or more ago.

In the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, the total number of veterans in Congress dropped to 96, or less than 18 percent, a figure that has been declining for decades. However, those same elections saw 19 veterans — many who served in the post-9/11 era — elected to Congress for the first time. Like Buttigieg, several of those veterans, like Texas Republican and former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw, made their military service a large part of their campaigns.

Their success helps explain why the direct commission officer program retains an appeal for those with ambitions to run for office, or to work for the government. But there are other reasons. For many, there is a natural inclination to public service, and for some, the desire to gain a more granular understanding of the military than their civilian policy jobs allowed.

“It really helped me understand the military,” said a former senior State Department official who spent about a decade in the program. “For people outside the military, the military looks one way. Then you actually go and serve in it and it looks very different, in a good way.”

A Trump administration national security official said that being a direct commission intelligence officer had given him insights into both the production and the consumption of intelligence. “It’s one thing when you’re a policymaker, or you’re advising policymakers in a policy role,” he said. “It’s another thing to see how the sausage is made as a sausage maker.”

The result of the program’s popularity among the politically inclined is that in recent years current and former Navy Reserve direct commission officers have held senior positions in every national security community that matters in Washington: Congress (members and staffers); think tanks; the upper civilian ranks of the Pentagon; the Departments of State and Homeland Security; defense contractors; the intelligence agencies; and the White House and National Security Council.

In the Trump administration alone, these individuals include Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, new State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, as well as Charles Summers, who from January through May this year was the senior Defense Department spokesman. The Navy also granted Reince Priebus, Trump’s first White House chief of staff, a waiver to receive a direct commission as a human resources ensign at the age of 47. Vice President Pence swore Priebus in as an ensign at his commissioning ceremony on Monday.

A direct commission officer named Michael Ellis even played a role in the mysterious late-night run to the White House grounds made in March 2017 by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the then chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. A National Security Council lawyer who was previously counsel for Nunes’s committee, Ellis reportedly briefed the congressman on how Trump or his associates had been caught up in classified government surveillance.

The direct commission program is also popular with the scions of some of America’s most vaunted political families: Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush (grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) was a direct commission officer from 2007 to 2017; California Democratic Rep. Jimmy Panetta (son of former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta) served from 2003 to 2011; and Hunter Biden (son of former vice president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden) lasted less than a year in the program before the Navy kicked him out in 2014 after he reportedly tested positive for cocaine.

Navy officials deny that they play favorites or are looking to stack their officer ranks with current or future political heavyweights. “We don’t go out and target individuals for recruiting,” said Cmdr. Justin Long, executive assistant with Navy Recruiting Command. “They come to us.”

That may be true, but the fact that applicants typically learn of the program via word of mouth from current and former direct commission officers means the recruitment of politically oriented professionals has become self-sustaining. “The Navy Reserve intel community goes out and recruits,” said Mark Jacobson, a direct commission intelligence officer who from 2015 to 2016 was a senior adviser to Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Jay Maroney, a former congressional staffer who received a direct commission in 2011, said his friends on Capitol Hill still ask him to discuss the program with junior staffers interested in signing up. “The Navy doesn’t have to do anything in that respect, because we do it,” he said.

The program has proven to be both competitive and attractive. Of 3,264 applicants for direct commissions as intelligence officers during the last 10 years, the Navy Reserve accepted 765 — a 23 percent selection rate. The equivalent figures for public affairs were 72 accepted from 251 applicants, a selection rate of 28 percent. “We have great inventory of people who are very interested in the program and not able to get in,” Long said.

The Washington area is heavily represented in the direct commission program, particularly in intelligence, because as the nation’s capital it is home to government agencies and think tanks full of individuals who possess the attributes that make them attractive recruits, according to Capt. John Daughety, reserve community manager at Navy Personnel Command’s Bureau of Naval Personnel.

But there’s a fine line between recruiting people because they have skills that just happen to be found in upwardly mobile go-getters inside the Beltway and recruiting individuals because their current and future civilian jobs might make them useful to the Navy. “The Navy recruits people who are going to do well in the future,” said Mark Jacobson.

As they ascend the rungs of power and influence, direct commission officers are able to form networks with each other and with contacts they make in the wider military when they are mobilized. Charles Summers, the Pentagon’s second-ranking public affairs official, said the connections he made during three active-duty tours in the Pentagon (in addition to one in Iraq) have been “a very, very good thing,” in part because of the opportunity to “meet those who go on to senior positions.”

The direct commission program can also help foster friendships across the increasingly rancorous partisan divide, according to several current and former participants. “One thing that happens when you’re getting a beer after drill is that you’re with people that you think of as your friends and colleagues but who are on a different team, so to speak, in the political world,” said Buttigieg. “So you don’t think of them as a Republican [congressional] staffer, you think of them as a lieutenant.”

Jacobson said those connections across government have proven invaluable to him in civilian life. “I’ve used that network constantly since 2001,” he said. “I used that network when I was a special assistant at DoD and I had to call my counterpart at CIA. You know why it was so easy? They were a frickin’ Navy reserve intel officer with me.”

The network also paid off earlier in Jacobson’s career, when he was an investigator for the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2008 report on the military’s treatment of detainees, which focused largely on events at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “A lot of Navy reservists in the intel community had been deployed to Guantanamo and I certainly used that network to get ground truth on some things,” Jacobson said.

But Daughety was adamant that the chance of an applicant rising to a position of influence in the civilian world had no bearing on his or her chances of admission into the direct commission officer program. The “leadership potential” the Navy seeks relates to the individual, not to “their potential job path in their current organization,” he said.

Nonetheless, the program holds an obvious appeal for political types, according to Jacobson. “When you are political, you go in for a reason, it’s to enhance your own civilian career,” as well as out of a sense of patriotism, he said. “But,” he added, “some politicals thrive in it and learn to love it.”

The senior officers who comprise the boards that typically grill each applicant are well aware of the program’s attraction for aspiring politicians. “During my board I was point-blank asked if I was doing this because I wanted to run for office,” said Jay Maroney, who was on the Senate Armed Services Committee staff when he was commissioned. “I didn’t, and I answered that way.”

The Navy is apparently wary of applicants more interested in polishing their résumés than in taking the risks inherent in military service during wartime. “The Navy was very concerned about that,” said Maroney. “‘Are you willing to deploy?’ They asked that question constantly. And it was very clear that if you said, ‘No, I’m not interested in deploying,’ then you were not going to get a slot.”

Indeed, the opportunity to deploy to a combat zone was one of three main factors cited by participants when asked what specifically attracted them to the direct commission program.

“The reason I joined was to go active duty,” said the former senior State Department official. “I knew that if I got into intel, I knew it was in high demand, I knew I would go.”

Many of those deployments are with Navy SEAL units — including SEAL Team 6 — and other special operations forces, because since 2001 those are the units that have seen much of the fighting and typically need additional intelligence support. That support often comes from the Navy Reserve, which in turn draws 74 percent of its intelligence officers via the direct commission program.

Unlike other routes to a commission, in which the needs of the military dictate what sort of job an officer is given, the Navy Reserve direct commission program guarantees applicants will not be surprised. “I was signing up for intel, I was getting intel,” said the Trump administration national security official. “I wasn’t signing up for intel because my recruiter told me I was going to get intel and the next thing I know I’m sitting in Tallahassee as a supply officer.”

Another factor was the relatively short upfront commitment of two weeks to learn the basics of Navy officership, such as how to salute and other elements of shipboard etiquette, at “knife and fork school,” officially called the Direct Commission Officer Indoctrination Course, which since 2007 has been taught in Newport, R.I. Several current and former officers interviewed for this article said that they came from families with a long history of military service, and had always been interested in serving, but after graduating from college and starting civilian careers — and in some cases, families — they thought the chance had passed them by.

“There’s a convenience to this program in that you don’t have to take two years off to get into it,” said Robert Charles, a former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration who spent 10 years as a direct commission intelligence officer. “It’s all manageable within your civilian world, so that’s really appealing.”

The Navy’s view has been that those entering the direct commission program are bringing with them civilian education and work experience that makes up for the shorter time commitment. (Once in the program, however, officers are required to serve a minimum of eight years.) “It’s certainly one of the easier ways to get in the service because you already have done the work,” said Long, the Navy Recruiting Command official.

But this year, the Navy concluded that the two-week course “did not adequately provide training that met the Professional Core Competencies, which detail the requirements for every Navy officer,” Lt. Cmdr. Fred Martin, spokesman for the Naval Service Training Command, wrote in an email. As a result, starting in October, those accepted into the direct commission program will have to go through a five-week course called Officer Development School.

Out of a concern that more than doubling the initial course’s length would reduce the number of applicants, Navy officials agreed to a compromise whereby officers can ask to split their attendance into a two-week stint and a three-week stint over a 12-month period, said Daughety, the Navy Personnel Command official.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged the potential impact of the two-week course’s demise.

“If it was an advantage,” he said, “we’re not going to have it anymore.”

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