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CNN "State of the Union with Candy Crowley" - Transcript: Military Affairs and VA


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CROWLEY: Two Iraq war veterans now serving in Congress, Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Cotton on how their experiences shaped their votes, next.


CROWLEY: Welcome back, and let me introduce you to our next guests. She served in the Hawaii National Guard and deployed to Iraq with the medical unit handling logistics and operations for 3,000 troops. He was an infantry platoon leader with the 101st airborne and led daily patrols and combat operations through Iraq.

Both were elected to Congress this past November, and both are with me now, Democratic congresswoman, Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii and Republican congressman, Tom Cotton, of Arkansas.

Thank you both for coming here with your particular brand of expertise. And I want to ask you looking at the war now and how you felt about it when you first touched down in Iraq and how you feel about it now, is there a difference?

GABBARD: I'll start out here. When I was activated for duty, it was actually by 29th for the combat team in Hawaii that was activated. I was serving in the state legislature, and like many of the other soldiers, you know, this was not something being a National Guard soldier that was quite expected at that time.

You know, I was serving my constituents in Ewa Beach (ph) in Waipahu, going surfing on the weekend, and then, all of a sudden, found out that this deployment of close to 3,000 Hawaii troops was happening to Iraq. I was not on that first mandatory deployment roster but knew very quickly that there was no way that I could stay home in the comfort of my house and in Hawaii and watch my brothers and sisters deploy and recognizing the necessity to stand with them as they went off to combat.

The experience completely changed my life and was very big motivator in recognizing what are the true costs of war, seeing that on a daily basis and bringing that experience here to Congress, where we have a very real responsibility of making those decisions about when and where our troops go to combat, and I remember those names and my friends and people who were lost every single day.

CROWLEY: Do you find that you just look at war and the declaration of war, although, there wasn't really one in this case, but nonetheless, is different having served?

COTTON: The Iraq war wasn't just a noble war. I joined the army after 9/11, after the Iraq war was started. I joined in part because I wanted to go fight on the front lines. I served there in 2006. Before the surge started, frankly, after I left Iraq towards the end of 2006, I was worried that we were losing the war. But after the surge, I felt that we succeeded.

And we have a generation of veterans now who are going to be leaders all around the country, the same way the World War II generation was, the same way the Vietnam generation was. We have John McCain in the U.S. Senate, for example, or Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, my father who's a leader in our small town.

And I think you'll see a generation of new leaders coming forward again across the country. I'm a veteran, Tulsi is a veteran. My chief of staff, Doug Kutz (ph) is a veteran, served with me at Arlington National Cemetery. I just met last week with a friend from Fort Benning, Jade Alkaby (ph), who's a successful entrepreneur now.

So, we have a generation of veterans whose accomplishments in Iraq we should celebrate but also these accomplishments going forward over the next several decades. We're going to make America a better place.

CROWLEY: Let me then bring you back to the question that everyone ask now ten years later. I put it actually to Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, but in this case, obviously, he's the brother of the president who went into Iraq and showed us the statistics of so many people saying it was just a bad idea. We shouldn't have done it. It wasn't worth it, and here's what he had to say.


JEB BUSH, (R) FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR: A lot of things in history change over time. I think people will respect the resolve that my brother showed both in defending the country and the war in Iraq, but history will judge that in a more objective way than today, the war has wound down now, and it's still way too early to judge what success it had in providing some degree of stability in the region.


CROWLEY: Congresswoman, do you think it's too early to judge the success or lack thereof in the war in Iraq?

GABBARD: I think one of the problems that we've seen today as well as we saw throughout the time that we spent there is victory was not clearly defined. We had many different things. We had taking out Saddam Hussein. We had a civil war that really between the Shia and the Sunni, and then, we also had the threat of al Qaeda and terrorists.

And our, I think, miscalculation there of fighting this unconventional threat, these unconventional terrorists who know no allegiance to a specific flag or country with very conventional tactics. So, I think that as we look through the past and we look forward to the future, we look to the threats we're facing today, for example, North Korea. You know, you talked about this a little bit earl earlier, countries that have very specific capabilities that have nuclear weapons that have missiles that are within range of places like Hawaii and Alaska where the people in my community are very concerned about what kinds of actions we'll take.

CROWLEY: I guess the question is, though, do you think ten years out it was worth it or do you think it's too soon to tell?

GABBARD: Again, it's a question of what does worth it mean? Was it worth it to the lives that were lost there? Was it worth it with the trillions of dollars that we've spent there?

CROWLEY: Go ahead.

COTTON: I would say it was worth it, but it was also a little bit too soon to tell because there's nothing ever certain in human affairs. But if you look at the accomplishment of our troops in Iraq, they deposed an evil tyrant who was an aggressive international dictator. He'd invaded across two boundaries.

He had demonstrated the ability and the will to use weapons of mass destruction. He was believed by every western government, including senior high-ranking officials in President Obama's cabinet right now to be developing new weapons, who's (ph) in violation of numerous United Nations resolutions.

Under those conditions, I think, as I said, it was a just and noble war. There are certainly missteps in the early days of the war, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 just like FDR had missteps in World War II or Abraham Lincoln in the civil war, but we did turn it around after the surge. But still, there's no certainty in human affairs.

We have to continue to be a leader and to try to foil the Iranian regime or Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria to ensure that the gains that we're seeing in Iraq over the last ten years remain over the next ten years.

CROWLEY: Let me turn to you to something, actually, congresswoman, that you alluded to and that is veterans, so many of them now, and a lot of the figures that are coming out of the VA right now don't speak to a country that really is committed to helping these veterans when they come back. I think we're going to pay out like $59 billion, almost $60 billion.

It's almost four (ph) millions vets and their families in this fiscal year. The average time to complete a claim, 261 days, the backlog is more than half a million claims. Do you think that the VA is doing its job?

GABBARD: No, not to serve every single veteran that's coming in, both the new generation of veterans from those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served in Vietnam, who served in Korea and other conflicts in our past. Without a doubt, we need to do better. We need to do better in Congress to make sure that we, as a country, are fulfilling our responsibility to these veterans who've sacrificed so much, to their families, and get the respect in services that they have earned.

CROWLEY: And what is that going to take? Do you think that General Shinseki has done a good job as head of the VA? Because honestly, people talk about this all the time and say we have to do better job at the VA. We're not -- you know, we need the Pentagon and the VA to make a seamless transfer from out of the services to the Va.

It doesn't happen. It's been ten years since the war started and it's been five years, four and a half, since the Obama administration took over. What's it going to take?

COTTON: I think General Shinseki is a good example of the many selfless public servants at the VA in the sense that he is a decorated veteran himself. And I've dealt with VA officials in Arkansas and here in Washington, so many more veterans, and they want to do the right thing. Oftentimes, they may lack the resources. They may lack the best practices. I mean, in some ways, the Department of Veteran Affairs is like, you know, an insurance company or claims processing company. They don't always have the best and most modern practices. I think one thing we could do in Congress to oversight is help to ensure that they're getting the kind of training and resources they need.

I think the will and the desire are certainly there to serve veterans if you look at an organization like Wal-Mart, my home state has just announced a new initiative where they're going to hire every veteran who applies for a job as long as they have a clean background check. It doesn't matter of their skill set or their training, that they want that kind of experience there. So, I think the country certainly appreciates veterans and wants to serve them.


COTTON: Sometimes --

CROWLEY: Good intentions just don't get them those benefits soon enough.

GABBARD: Right, which is why I think it's important and I appreciate Tom's service and being able to work with him as well as other veterans who are serving in Congress and the U.S. senate because it really is going to take all of us having a concerted focus, commitment, and effort to make sure that the resources are there, that the focus and attention doesn't wane if it's not at the top of the headlines.

CROWLEY: I want to thank both of you, first of all, for being here today, most of all for your service both on the battlefield and now in Congress. I hope you'll come back and talk to us.

GABBARD: Thank you.

COTTON: Thank you, Candy. Great to be here.


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