Apr 12, 2023

Jon Stewart Interviews U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks Transcript

Jon Stewart Interviews U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks Transcript
RevBlogTranscriptsDeputy Secretary of DefenseJon Stewart Interviews U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks Transcript

During the 2023 War Horse Symposium, Jon Stewart and US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks discussed the recruiting crisis, military family issues, and the implications of the military and civilian divide. Read the transcript here.

Transcribe Your Own Content

Try Rev and save time transcribing, captioning, and subtitling.

Ethan Bueno de Mesquita (00:00):

Good evening, and welcome to the War Horse Symposium. I’m Ethan Bueno de Mesquita. I’m the interim dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Whether you’ve been with us all day or just joining us, we’re delighted to have you here at the beautiful Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. It’s been an incredible day of thought-provoking conversations inspired by the War Horses’ award-winning journalism in the Harris School’s white paper about how military news deserts threaten national security. We’ve explored the intersection of journalism and public policy while promoting discourse and civic engagement about military and veterans issues across the United States.

(00:36)
Our students have also had a opportunity to engage in this conversation today during a lunchtime panel sponsored by the University of Chicago Office for Military-Affiliated Communities and the Military-Affiliated Students of Harris. The panel allowed a group of military-affiliated University of Chicago students and other students from across the US to explore themes of veterans in higher ed with Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Denis McDonough, retired US Air Force Major General and former POW, John Borling, and US Army Veteran and Medal of Honor winner recipient, Jim McCloughan.

(01:07)
Now it’s my pleasure to introduce Thomas Brennan, who’s the founder and executive director of the War Horse News. Thomas is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and served as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan before studying investigative reporting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Vanity Fair, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the New York Times. Thomas is the recipient of the Fourth Estate Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, and the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Award. Please join me in welcoming Thomas Brennan.

Thomas Brennan (01:51):

Thank you, Ethan, for such a lovely introduction and for welcoming the War Horse team to the University of Chicago for the inaugural War Horse Symposium. Today has really been a truly incredible day, and I’m grateful for all of the guest speakers who all volunteered their time to be with us today. I’d also like to thank the Harris team, the Office of Military-Affiliated Communities, the donors and sponsors who made this day possible, and my fellow teammates at the War Horse. I’d also like to thank all of you. It means so much to all of us that you’re joining us here at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.

(02:29)
As the founder of the War Horse and as a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s really surreal for me to be standing here in front of you today. I can still remember when seven years ago the War Horse was still just an idea, and I was launching our Kickstarter campaign the day that 500 people brought the War Horse to life. I had no money, I had no team, and, to put it bluntly, people told me the War Horse would never succeed. They said our work wasn’t necessary. What they didn’t realize was how stubborn Marines like I can be and how veterans, military families, and civilians would rally in support of the War Horse’s work. Today, our team is a dozen people that publish in-depth, often award-winning reporting projects that help to bridge the military and civilian divide. We’ve also hosted writing seminars where we’ve trained 60 veterans and military family members and have published hundreds of reflections that serve as the emotional cornerstone for all of the work that we do. But more than anything else, I’m proud that our newsroom team is not only earning but maintaining the trust of our growing audience. During today’s symposium, we’ve heard from legendary journalist, Bob Woodward, and Medal of Honor recipient, Flo Groberg. We’ve also heard from national security leaders, like Michèle Flournoy, and newsroom leaders from the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Report for America. But the conversation that I’ve enjoyed the most was between the War Horse’s managing editor, Kelly Kennedy, and VA Secretary, Denis McDonough. In 2008, Kelly, a Desert Storm veteran herself, broke the story about burn pits. For years, she persisted and her dogged reporting inspired the biggest change in the history of VA health care. In short, Kelly’s reporting is the proof of concept for why military reporting matters, and it demonstrates the value that veterans and military families can bring to newsrooms across our country. Kelly is a talented editor, she’s a wonderful friend, and she’s the person that introduced me to Jon Stewart. But what everybody here doesn’t know is that Jon was the first person to say yes to participating in today’s symposium without hesitation. Once Jon said yes, the War Horse team got to work, and we continued to dream big. Over the coming weeks, I met with leaders at the Defense Department, and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks agreed to tonight’s conversation.

(05:03)
Many of the service members who helped make this possible are here in the audience with us today, and I’d like to thank all of you for helping to make tonight possible. The fact that these incredible leaders are here at the War Horse Symposium still feels surreal, but it underscores the critical role that military reporting has on our national security. I hope this next conversation helps to shed light on how issues that may seem limited to veterans and military families in truth have major implications for all Americans. Now, I’ll make the introduction that you’ve all been waiting for, Jon Stewart and Dr. Kathleen Hicks.

Jon Stewart (05:40):

Nice work. Nice job. Nice to see you. Doctor, I think you’re supposed to sit here.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (05:46):

You’re right.

Jon Stewart (05:47):

I sit here. Hello.

Audience (05:48):

Hello.

Jon Stewart (05:52):

That’s overly enthusiastic. Lower your expectations.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (05:58):

Thank you.

Jon Stewart (05:59):

Doctor, thank you for joining us. Throughout the program, will I say Doctor, Deputy Secretary?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (06:06):

What would you like to say?

Jon Stewart (06:08):

Friend?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (06:10):

Friend, friend.

Jon Stewart (06:11):

I want to thank Thomas for putting this together and Kelly for her invaluable work in exposing the burn pit issue. Her reporting really was the foundation for so much of what was done for the PACT Act and for toxic exposure bills in general. I want to give a quick shout out to Rosie and Le Roy Torres, who told me they were watching at home because I guess they don’t have Netflix, who originally got myself and John Feal into that fight and ever grateful for their work. My question to you is, we’ll start basic. You’re with the Department of Defense?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (06:56):

That’s correct.

Jon Stewart (06:57):

From now on, we’ll call that DOD-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (07:00):

I’m good with that.

Jon Stewart (07:00):

… the Pentagon. Obviously, the Department of Defense has a complicated relationship with journalism and reporting. Thomas’s mission, and the mission of the people at War Horse, is to make the Department of Defense more transparent, more accountable, and more accessible for the general public. So I guess the first question would be, why are you here? What do you hope to accomplish by being here?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (07:34):

Oh, absolutely. Well, first I’m thrilled to be here. I want also want to thank Thomas and certainly you for, it sounds like, signing up so early on to help the effort.

Jon Stewart (07:43):

Well, to be fair, I am not busy and lonely. So when he said-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (07:50):

Nevertheless.

Jon Stewart (07:51):

… when he asked, I was just like, “I happen to be free that month.”

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (07:58):

Here’s the reason. I don’t think we have a complicated relationship with the press.

Jon Stewart (08:02):

I’m going to stop you there.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (08:05):

The United States military is about defending the Constitution, and the free press is part of the Constitution. If you go into the Pentagon and you walk the halls, you’ll find that we make space available and fully used by the press. If you take a trip with the Secretary of Defense, you’ll find the press is on that trip. We obviously have a press briefing room that we work from all the time. If you’re on deployment operationally, there often can you find the press. So transparency is absolutely vital to both how we do our mission. Then to the point you made earlier on families and service members, they need a voice as well, and the press brings forward their voice, and we need to hear that voice.

(08:52)
So any major institution hears hard truths, and the press helps bring that and that includes for us. We do like them to be truths when we hear them, so good journalism’s really important, quality journalism, quality reporting, and we work very hard to bring facts to the table. We want to have the press covering the stories for military service members, for their families, and of course, issues of national security that we depend on.

Jon Stewart (09:26):

So you brought up something. What have you been frustrated with in terms of the journalism about the Pentagon, about the Department of Defense? Then I’ll go.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (09:43):

I’m not sure I would say frustrated by. But what I would say is I think it’s always helpful when people have multiple sources. I think it’s helpful when the sources are, wherever possible, able to be named. I think it’s good to bring multiple viewpoints to an issue, the very basic levels of journalism that we don’t always get to see. Again, I don’t think that’s about what we see in the Defense Department. I think that’s a broader issue for the nation.

Jon Stewart (10:14):

I think-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (10:18):

You’ll go.

Jon Stewart (10:18):

Yeah. Along with Kelly’s reporting, what the War Horse does, part of what a military is is a narrative.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (10:27):

Yeah.

Jon Stewart (10:28):

They’re selling a story to not just its own citizens but to the world, and oftentimes that story is manipulated. This is about how the Pentagon and the Department of Defense, as much as they would say “We welcome good journalism,” I have not found that organization… it’s as guarded in my mind as movie studios, do you know what I mean, in the sense of-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (11:01):

I don’t know what you mean, but I will take your word.

Jon Stewart (11:05):

Movie studios are really guarded. But in the sense that the hard truths are not necessarily beneficial to the military’s mission. I’m not just talking about Geraldo drawing positions of troops in the sand as he stands astride a jeep. I’m talking about Kelly’s reporting on burn pits, which was resisted at the Pentagon and the DOD. For years, it was really difficult to get the right information. By the way, still to this day, we’ve had a hard time getting the proper honest truth about what the testing was at those burn pit sites and what the exact things that go in there and what records they had on soldiers’ medical conditions. I understand the official position of the Pentagon is “We welcome good journalism and we try,” but I know for a fact there are layers of people there that stand between journalists and information, and they do so purposefully. So I think we should just maybe start off with a more maybe realistic description of what the relationship between journalism and military [inaudible 00:12:30].

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (12:30):

I don’t accept the premise. I do accept the premise that a large institution such as the Department of Defense, and to include the Department of Defense, has lots of people at lots of layers who sometimes are not focused on the big picture. But what I can tell you is at the leadership level of the Department of Defense, we are focused on the big picture and taking care of people, to get specifically to the PACT Act issue, is front and center, is front and center for the Secretary of Defense, front and center for me. We absolutely, first of all, greatly applaud the PACT Act. The president, I think, rightfully called you out specifically for the work that you have done to bring that to light. Again, this is also part of what good journalism can do: bring issues to light, get actual policy changes in, and then we can act on those policy changes. Are there sources of resistance at times to any change to the policy change in particular? Absolutely. That’s part of my job is trying to work through that and push the change down into the system.

Jon Stewart (13:35):

It’s not to suggest that there’s something incredibly… Even for instance, we just saw something today where the White House released a report on the Afghanistan draw down. Now, they have a narrative that they would like to… and it is an administration line. War Horse and journalists are there to permeate that narrative so that we can get a more clear-minded truth to that. I don’t mean to be argumentative, but I think to suggest that the Pentagon embraces that is not actually so accurate. They are there, especially the political arm sometimes or the entrenched bureaucracy, but they are there to tell a story, and that story is generally more flattering to the military and not, ” You guys, there was $10 billion on a pallet in Kandahar, and we don’t know where it is.” They resist that. I don’t think that’s being argumentative by suggesting that the Pentagon is not particularly embracing of those narratives.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (14:49):

I have not argued with you. I’m simply saying to you that I think all institutions, including whether it’s the Defense Department and administration or others, they have to have that sunlight and transparency that journalism brings.

Jon Stewart (15:05):

You think it’s helpful?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (15:06):

I think it’s helpful, and I think it’s healthy. Of course, there will be differences, as there is in journalism itself, around where the narrative ought to fall along the facts. But I’m very confident about the focus we have at the top on trying to make sure that transparency can come in.

Jon Stewart (15:26):

That’s excellent, and it’s good to hear because it hasn’t been that way for got to be 250 years, so it’s good. It’s good that we’re making-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (15:36):

The news is that we-

Jon Stewart (15:36):

… that course correction.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (15:36):

… didn’t have a Defense Department until 1947, so I’m quite confident that it’s not 250 years.

Jon Stewart (15:43):

I stand corrected.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (15:44):

Back to the fact checking, these are things that would be helpful.

Jon Stewart (15:49):

Very, very wise. In your mind with this embrace, what would you say are the crucial issues then that you would like to see journalists digging into in terms of the Pentagon? Would it be surrounding the budgetary largess? Would it be about military families? Where would you like to see the real energy of journalists as they push through?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (16:21):

I think the personal stories and personal experiences are really important. That can come through the lens of any number of major issues, or, better said, it can illuminate many major issues. Let me pick one that’s very important and part of why I’m here, to answer your question. It’s 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force. We used to, folks will remember, have a draft. After Vietnam, we switched to this all-volunteer force. To maintain it and sustain it, we need to have people raising their hand, signing up, and saying, “I want to go do that.” That is vital to our democracy. That professional force has been absolutely outstanding. It’s brought representation across the country, which a lot of people doubted it could do, representation across all sorts of classes and gender and races.

Jon Stewart (17:08):

Are you about to go woke? Because-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (17:12):

Nope, nope, nope.

Jon Stewart (17:13):

… if you’re about to start talking CRT, I’m going to have to ask people to leave.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (17:18):

What I’m going to tell you is that great leaders at all levels build teams, and that’s what we’re about at the Defense Department. The all-volunteer force has been vital. But what we do need is to connect young Americans to the concept of service. It’s not just in the military. We’re having challenges: nurses, doctors, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps. Everywhere you look, there’s disconnectedness, and that’s very, very challenging, I think, for the country overall. We have a major civics problem, and we, in the Defense Department, feel that in the recruiting challenges that we have.

Jon Stewart (17:49):

So what are the…?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (17:50):

What can journalists do? What can the media do? It can help to illuminate, yes, fairly and transparently, challenges that folks face in the military, but also

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (18:00):

… there’s a lot of fantastic things that come from military service. There’s reward from it. There’s sense of belonging. As I said, connectedness. There are folks who do spectacularly, of course, after military service, and highlighting those stories is really important. I think having a 360 degree look at what military service means in this time and age is important.

Jon Stewart (18:25):

Do you think that part of military service has gotten short shrift from journalists? Or do you feel like something that’s as independent … What I love about War Horse is it’s a lot of people that have served in the military that are also telling these stories and training people who’ve actually experienced it, as opposed to, I think the media in this country oftentimes are excited when they get to embed and they get to fly to a place and they get to sit in a tank. And I think you find a lot of coverage focuses on what they believe to be the sensationalized aspects, but there’s very little coverage of the day-to-day realities of the sacrifices and challenges that military families face.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (19:13):

I’m not sure there’s a question there, but I’m going to answer something in there.

Jon Stewart (19:16):

There wasn’t. Hold on, hold on. That they face?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (19:23):

I think what I would say is, yes, and first of all, veterans who are journalists, fantastic resource. We have to get beyond that just by virtue of the expanse of the challenges to be covered, the experiences to be covered, and the fewer the veterans, the more important it is for non-veterans to be also reporting on and learning this space. That’s back to my disconnectedness piece. But the rounded pieces, and then also, are there not parts of that military experience if fairly and fully reported for service members and their families that have positive aspects as well. And that those stories deserve to be told. I do not think those stories are told as much anymore.

(20:16)
Not because of, if you will, poor journalism, but because there is less interest overall in military stories. It’s just part of an over … It’s shrinking. And there are fewer people to report on it, so there’s less time and attention on the breadth of stories that are out there.

Jon Stewart (20:34):

Yeah. It’s interesting. My feeling of American society is we fetishize service, but we don’t know what it is. We know that at football games, oftentimes they’ll bring out a veteran and everyone will stand and applaud. But when you talked about the all volunteer Army, it is I think, incredible that you can get such a vital fighting force or such a vital from all volunteer, but there’s a dark side to that, and that is that the burden of military service and their families are born by a very, very small percentage of this country, and they’re not aware of the challenges and sacrifices.

(21:13)
And as a political reality, one of the things that ended the Vietnam War that made it so that our political leaders couldn’t misuse the human capital, the veteran population, is that it was a shared burden.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (21:28):

Sure.

Jon Stewart (21:28):

An all volunteer Army, is I think as we’ve seen over these last 25 years, more easily manipulated around the world with not as much political blowback.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (21:41):

I think the United States has to be a responsible power, and that includes how it uses its military forces. We can’t do it casually and we can’t do it without humility. Full stop.

Jon Stewart (21:50):

Starting now.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (21:56):

Well, I think starting before now, but now is good too. I think that’s an unassailable value that the United States needs to carry forward. We still have selective service. I wish to remind you. If the United States were to go to a major conflict-

Jon Stewart (22:16):

Are you breaking news here tonight?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (22:16):

I’m not breaking news. No. We have reserve components we pull in and we also always have that selective service out there. I say that only because I don’t want people to think the all volunteer force is sort of alone when the United States has to make major decisions. They don’t stand alone. That said, your fundamental point is correct, which is we have a smaller portion of the American populace involved in the military.

(22:45)
Nothing inherently wrong with that, but we have to take a lot of cautions because of that. We have to connect it better to society. People need to understand the service. The more people are focused on service in general, the more military service has resonance, they understand it better. And again, I think the media, journalists, have a great opportunity here to help us build some of that civic connection.

Jon Stewart (23:11):

No, I think that’s right. And I think one of the difficulties with that has been in my experience that the Department of Defense, there’s a strange disconnect between that and veterans affairs. That it’s almost as though they don’t particularly realize that all the military operations then create the veteran populations that sort of suffer, and our government doesn’t fund them in the same way.

(23:46)
My point being, for instance, DOD has a computerized system that doesn’t talk to the VA system. Literally, one is Alta and one is Vista. I know they’ve spent billions to try and correct it, but it’s still a really difficult thing. I think we can have the aspirational part of what you’re saying, which is, we have to get this story out to the American public and it’s a real sacrifice. But the truth is, in the internal bureaucracies, they don’t even communicate that well to each other.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (24:19):

We work very closely with VA. I was just over at North Chicago today with the acting VA deputy. Focused on electronic health records. Not sure why the premise is that the Defense Department somehow is doing something to VA that’s preventing us coming together.

Jon Stewart (24:36):

It’s not that they’re necessarily doing it.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (24:37):

I think there’s a lot of focus on trying to get to that common electronic health record and-

Jon Stewart (24:43):

But they haven’t.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (24:44):

Chief information officer. Okay. That’s something hard to work on. We’ve been in two years. I know Secretary McDonough was here earlier today. I know he’s working hard on it. Secretary Austin’s working hard on it.

Jon Stewart (24:53):

Right. But it’s this, if I may, and again, I’m not trying to be argumentative, but that feels defensive to me in a way that I don’t think the question was posed. It wasn’t about blame, it was about reality. It was about the idea that-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (25:09):

If you’ve played yourself back, what you said is, basically how did DOD do this to VA? So that’s why I was trying to understand why it comes from that. Jon, where this is coming from? Let’s talk about your childhood.

Jon Stewart (25:23):

I’d be happy to.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (25:24):

There’s something in there. There is something here about DOD that is coming through.

Jon Stewart (25:30):

I was abandoned by my government at a young age and hung out to dry. Look, I don’t think I’m telling you anything that you probably don’t already know. And it’s not about, I don’t think it’s a terribly aggressive point to make that we have a military that … I was in Afghanistan sitting in a tent watching eyes in the sky with drones that looked out over a three-mile period that could pick a guy off of a motorcycle without knocking over a street sign next to him. The idea that we have the money to make those toys and not the money to make veterans coming back from American wars who are suffering toxic exposures-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (26:13):

Totally agree.

Jon Stewart (26:13):

Not have an IT system that works.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (26:16):

Wholly agree.

Jon Stewart (26:17):

Somebody is responsible for that.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (26:18):

Absolutely.

Jon Stewart (26:19):

To suggest that the poor DOD is being picked on, because they haven’t come up with a system of information technology that allows people that come home from war not to have to tell their story over and over again to people writing it down on loose-leaf paper. That’s not a crazy thing to ask.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (26:38):

We are merging those health records right now. I just went to the pharmacy today at North Chicago. That merger is underway right now. So understand the frustration, the care of veterans is vital to our ability to have a social compact with anyone who serves. Absolutely uncontested. That is absolutely true. We in DOD absolutely have a responsibility to advocate alongside our VA colleagues for what VA’s trying to do and to make this case of continuous service. When someone comes in on our end, if you will, up through recruiting, part of what we’re recruiting them into is a lifetime of a social contract and VA’s at the other end of that. We work really closely with VA and they, they’re doing incredible work to advance electronic health records, but also most importantly, the quality of care for our veterans, which is tremendously improved.

Jon Stewart (27:36):

What is it then in your mind that holds that project back? Why is it? Let’s just take the electronic records. This is something we’ve heard about for more than a decade. And I can remember even those floors at certain VA’s outside of Washington buckling under the weight of folders and paper records. In your mind, what does hold back that cooperation and what does hold back the ability for the most advanced military in the world with the greatest IT and technology ever from being able to do the simplest of tasks, which is connecting medical records.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (28:15):

We have a common, what we call The Firm, a common health records office. It’s staffed with VA and DOD personnel. And they are working, as I said, they were stood up relatively soon before we came back into office in this administration, and we are working to merge those. We will have those merged in the coming, I think year.

(28:38)
On the DOD side, we have a contract approach that is about 90% done for electronic health records for the DOD side by June of this year. On the VA side, I think they have had more struggles. I think they would tell you. I will leave to Dennis and his team to talk about what their challenges have been. We have worked very closely with them to start to try to overcome their challenges. We’re giving them a lot of assistance. An example of that is we have a chief information officer at DOD, very talented John Sherman. We’ve put our chief information officer with their chief information officer to start working with them on the backbone of their IT. Those are some of the things that we are doing. And as I said, we certainly work to advocate with them in Congress. They have a different set of committees as you’re well aware, to make the case that they need that capability.

Jon Stewart (29:33):

In your mind, is it a bureaucratic issue?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (29:36):

I think it’s a timescale issue. I think it has been a bureaucratic issue for sure. I don’t think it is anymore because you have at the top of VA in Dennis McDonough and at the top of DOD in Lloyd Austin, two people who are going to make that happen.

Jon Stewart (29:51):

But those guys are political appointees and depending on-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (29:54):

We’re not that far off. Yeah.

Jon Stewart (29:55):

Okay. Would you consider it a problem then that it basically depends on the political appointee at the top of a really expansive bureaucracy to get that done and with the wrong … Is that a fundamental flaw?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (30:16):

Of our democracy?

Jon Stewart (30:17):

Yeah.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (30:17):

To have political appointees over large-

Jon Stewart (30:21):

No. That are coming in every four years to work on bureaucratic issues as opposed-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (30:26):

You have civil servants, in the case of the Defense Department, you also have military officials, who are more enduring, if you will, than political appointees at the top. I would say, first of all, Congress appropriates the money, so the executive branch executes the money. The conversation is not just about how … Right?

Jon Stewart (30:48):

No. No. No. I saw that cartoon. I remember that.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (30:50):

Yeah. It was a really good one.

Jon Stewart (30:50):

That was a good one.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (30:54):

Where Schoolhouse Rock went, I do not know. We have a civics problem America. Bring it back.

Jon Stewart (30:58):

It’s a good one. It’s a good one.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (30:59):

Yeah. Well, so you absolutely need Congress, first of all to help set the tone and the resources and then the execution. I, on balance believe it is best to have political appointees at the top of institutions because you drive change in that way.

Jon Stewart (31:17):

How resistant are those bureaucracies?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (31:20):

They can be very resistant. You can break through.

Jon Stewart (31:24):

How resistant is DOD?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (31:26):

It depends on the issue. Yeah, I think you-

Jon Stewart (31:28):

How about electronic records?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (31:29):

No, not at all. Not at all. I just told you we’re 90 … 98% implemented.

Jon Stewart (31:34):

No, I know. I know. I was kidding.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (31:34):

Implemented by June. No concerns.

Jon Stewart (31:35):

I can remember this issue like from 2005. So it just-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (31:38):

Well, it’s been a while.

Jon Stewart (31:40):

Yeah. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re in that position. But let’s flip it to, we talk about resources. One of the frustrating things in the PACT Act was Congress and DOD, those budgets, we’ve had 20 years of war. There was a Washington Post editorial, it might have been yesterday or the day before. The thrust of the Washington Post editorial was, we’ve got a problem. And the problem is a ballooning budget for the VA through toxic exposures and through disability payments. It was wild to read, because what it said was, since 2001, the VA budgets have exploded.

(32:27)
And you were like, “Yeah, what happened then?” Is that the Yankee-Mets series? And it was a weird disconnect that 20 years of war … and this is getting back to what I was talking about earlier. That 20 years of war creates 20 years of veterans. Veterans that are going to be going through some of the most difficult challenges of just reintegrating into a society and then also having all of these wounds that, to be fair, before these last two really good political appointees, was a adversarial process for most veterans. Made more difficult by an unyielding bureaucracy.

(33:10)
So these folks come back from a war where they are forced to be their own lawyer, doctor advocate, their families are their caregivers. The pressure that had already been put on them. You have all of these different challenges, and then you have a journalism status quo machine that is somehow suggesting that the veterans are the ones exploiting the system rather than the system exploiting their sacrifice. I’m just wondering if we’re talking about recruiting and making an all volunteer army more strong, isn’t that something the DOD should be fighting tooth and nail to debunk?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (34:02):

Again, DOD absolutely has a dependency on veterans having the quality of healthcare they need and having the quality of life they need. No doubt about that. And we are constantly working with VA to advocate on their behalf, because it’s that wholesale cycle, period. So back to the journalism piece, I think DOD you would find ready folks inside DOD if journalists are looking for stories about how we can help VA or any veterans issues, we’re happy to do that.

Jon Stewart (34:40):

Right. So it’s not in your mind, it’s really more a question of, again, getting back to maybe the lack of understanding from the public about that. Because one of the issues that we faced was the Pentagon’s reluctance to have money that could have been used for force readiness. Sort of this idea that it all comes out of the same pot, as opposed to two separate pots. In other words like-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (35:06):

Oh. You mean you had wanted to create a pool of money or an authority that would have allowed-

Jon Stewart (35:14):

Well, yes. But the idea that the veterans are exploiting this system that actually just wasn’t planned for. In other words, if the Congress gives you $850 billion to go to war every year, for a lot of years, and then the veterans have to fight for $20 billion on the backend and there’s resistance within the Pentagon, that money may come out of their-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (35:46):

That’s the piece I would say, again, I can only speak for this administration, and that is not a concern that we have. We are not trying to take money from VA, deny money from VA. I am probably more than anyone

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (36:00):

Anyone in the defense department engaged in budget discussions, and I can assure you there is no trade off that we are making between DOD and VA. Period.

Jon Stewart (36:11):

Right. So there’s no sense of, within the bureaucracy, that they have to protect in terms of, for instance, the Pentagon. Boy, this is going to sound bad. All departments have to pass an audit.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (36:28):

Yes. Yeah.

Jon Stewart (36:29):

And there’s really only one that hasn’t.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (36:32):

That would be ours. Yeah.

Jon Stewart (36:37):

Bingo. So why?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (36:45):

You and I talked a little bit backstage about really what most people would find very boring, but I think we were excited to talk about business systems and DOD doesn’t have the kinds of backbone business systems that collect data in a way that can allow you to pass an audit. So that’s a high priority for me. We’ve been making sure we’re investing in those systems.

Jon Stewart (37:08):

Right. But to hear that-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (37:10):

It’s probably a 10-year process.

Jon Stewart (37:13):

I understand, but you do realize to an audience of Americans that’s-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (37:16):

Sure. I completely agree.

Jon Stewart (37:17):

… crazy.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (37:19):

I completely agree. Completely agree. Yeah. High priority.

Jon Stewart (37:27):

All right.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (37:28):

Big investments in the last several years since this administration has come in.

Jon Stewart (37:31):

How about this? Let’s remove it out of that. Let’s talk about, I’m trying to get to a different answer. Forget about the political appointee.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (37:44):

Okay.

Jon Stewart (37:44):

Why is it that this organization that is the most well-funded department out of anyone in our government can’t pass an audit and doesn’t have a calculator?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (37:58):

So it’s a big answer. Again, I gave you the IT backbone, but the scale is massive, right? So that’s your point. Clearly your point is you don’t like the defense budget, which is fine but half of that of course directly goes to support the very people that you’re interested in making sure get well fed, well trained, well equipped and all of that. Half of it’s just salaries and benefits. So we can have a defense budget talk if that’s really where you want to go but under the guise that you want to talk about audit.

Jon Stewart (38:33):

I wouldn’t mind going there.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (38:35):

Okay. Under the guise that you want to talk about audit. The answer is an organization of this scale, there is no comparable for trying to develop an audit like that. We have dozens of different specific audits we then have to pass. And so pulling each of those forward, we do have some of those have clean audits, learning from those, getting those IT systems in and accountable and then spreading it across the department. That’s sort of where we are. Yes, it is going to take a long time. I believe we should be there. I’m sure anyone that a journalist would like to talk to in the defense department about the degree to which the secretary and I are on people every day saying, this is commander’s business.

Jon Stewart (39:20):

Do you feel like these are unfair questions of somebody within a department of that size and scope?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (39:27):

I think-

Jon Stewart (39:27):

Did you feel that it’s somewhat unfair?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (39:28):

… you have a particular thing you really want to talk about and you’re asking me other questions, but I don’t think it’s unfair to ask me about the audit. It’s absolutely the case that the United States military should be able to pass an audit and we’ve got to be on that pathway to get there.

Jon Stewart (39:43):

But don’t you think that that does speak to the larger point that we’re trying to get at, which is good journalism uncovers corruption.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (39:54):

Good journalism does uncover corruption, but I’m not sure these two things are linked. An audit is not-

Jon Stewart (39:59):

Oh, but they are.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (40:01):

Okay. So you need to explain to me, do you understand what an audit does and the degree to which it is linked to the question that you’re asking?

Jon Stewart (40:08):

I believe so.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (40:09):

Okay. Go ahead. Give me your explanation.

Jon Stewart (40:13):

No, I don’t mind learning. So what I would suggest is that the audit that they have in the military doesn’t really look at whether or not there’s efficacy, it’s just whether they got delivered the thing that they ordered.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (40:29):

That is any audit, that is any audit. That is true.

Jon Stewart (40:32):

But generally those audits aren’t $400 billion for Raytheon and $1.7 trillion for a plane. There is a lot of waste, fraud and abuse within a system.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (40:43):

Audits and waste, fraud and abuse are not the same thing. So let’s decompose these pieces for a moment.

Jon Stewart (40:49):

Then please educate me on what the difference is.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (40:50):

Sure. So an audit is exactly what you just described.

Jon Stewart (40:52):

Yes.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (40:52):

Which is do I know what was delivered to which place?

Jon Stewart (40:55):

Right.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (40:56):

The ability to pass an audit or the fact that the DOD has not passed on audit is not suggestive of waste, fraud and abuse. That is completely false right there.

Jon Stewart (41:05):

So what is it suggestive of?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (41:08):

It’s suggestive that we don’t have an accurate inventory that we can pull up of what we have where. That is not the same as saying we can’t do that because waste, fraud and abuse has occurred.

Jon Stewart (41:21):

So in my world that’s waste.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (41:26):

How is that waste?

Jon Stewart (41:27):

If I give you a billion dollars and you can’t tell me what happened to it? That to me is wasteful. That means you are not responsible. But if you can’t tell me where it went, then what am I supposed to think? And when there has been reporting, I’m not saying this is on you and that you caused this, but I think it’s a tough argument to make that-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (41:51):

I’m pretty sure I didn’t cause it.

Jon Stewart (41:53):

… an $850 billion budget to an organization that can’t pass an audit and tell you where that money went. I think most people would consider that somewhere in the realm of waste, fraud or abuse because they would wonder why that money isn’t well accounted for. And especially when they see food insecurity on military bases-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (42:23):

You want to talk about that? I’m trying to understand where you’re trying to go, other than the dollars which really bother you.

Jon Stewart (42:27):

I think it doesn’t really bother me. I think it’s all connected.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (42:30):

Okay. Tell me that story, tell me how you’re thinking about that.

Jon Stewart (42:34):

Well, when I see a state department get a certain amount of money and a military budget be 10 times that, and I see a struggle within government to get people more basic services. We got out of 20 years of war and the Pentagon got a $50 billion raise. That’s shocking to me.

(42:55)
Now, I may not understand exactly the ins and outs and the incredible magic of an audit, but I’m a human being who lives on the earth and can’t figure out how $850 billion to a department means that the rank and file still have to be on food stamps. To me, that’s fucking corruption. I’m sorry. And if that blows your mind and if you think that’s a crazy agenda for me to have, I really think that that’s institutional thinking and that it’s not looking at the day-to-day reality of the people that you call the greatest fighting force in the world.

(43:38)
So again, I get back to this idea of I’m not looking to pick a fight with you, but I am surprised that the reaction to these questions are you don’t know what an audit is, bucko. That’s just weird to me.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (43:53):

Okay. On food insecurity, major priority for us. A lot of funds are going toward that. First of all, we have significantly increased funding on food insecurity, and we do think we are getting much better on that. We believe some of the challenges we face are not what you often think of as food insecurity, as hunger. They’re really around, do we have food available, for instance, as people come on and off shifts, is it healthy food? Those are the types of food insecurity issues we are seeing in and around our military installations.

(44:34)
We have increased pay 2 times in a row here. We’ve done 4.6% pay raise last year. We’ve asked for a 5.2% pay raise this year. We’ve also increased basic allowances and increased housing and pay and other allowances. So overall, we definitely think we need to increase the spending that we are putting forward toward our service members and their families. We’re putting our money where our mouth is.

(44:58)
Another big area is childcare, spending a lot more money on childcare. That includes both childcare facilities and it includes a benefit that allows folks to go out on the economy to get childcare and have that subsidized by the government. Those are all examples of ways we’re trying to put money forward for our service members and their families.

Jon Stewart (45:20):

Is that the kind of thing too, that in a change of administration, could that go away or is that made more permanent into the structural system?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (45:28):

The pay raises are in law so those don’t go away. They can only go up from there. Certainly same thing on any kind of childcare institutional development that we’ve done, for instance, new centers and things like that. The things that are more malleable tend to be what goes up and down with inflation. So we have some allowances that are based on inflation.

Jon Stewart (45:52):

Do you think they’ll be adding more presumptions to the toxic exposure bills? Is that something that you’ll be working with VA on to see if they can continue to add to?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (46:04):

Happy to work with VA on that. I have not been aware of any things that are missing, if you will, that needs to be added on. Happy to work with them on that. But I went to a PACT Act fair just a week ago in the Pentagon. We’re enrolling folks all the time. We’re taking active duty military, so they’re not veterans, in other words, and we’re saying, “Hey, start to look at this. Start to see how you can enroll.” A lot of advantages to getting that military community signed up now.

Jon Stewart (46:32):

So for you, what will be the remaining biggest challenges you think for your tenure there and moving forward?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (46:39):

Yeah, I think I mentioned to you, I think talent is a big piece of it. We just talked about some of these aspects. How do you bring in and attract talent, whether it’s civilian or military? You have to be able to attract them with, as I just pointed out, the benefits, et cetera. You have to give them a sense of service. You have to show them that on the backside to the veterans point, this country’s going to treat them well and fund that well.

(47:04)
And then I think on the civilian side, I mentioned to you, we just aren’t up to speed to the degree that private companies are today with the speed of hire, the kind of things people expect to have on day one, does their computer turn on and function, things like that. Little things that attract people to a workplace. We don’t have that environment right now where I want it to be.

Jon Stewart (47:31):

All right. Well, we’re running out of time, but the audience submitted some questions. So I’m going to read some of those and I think those will hopefully be better than my questions. This is from, I apologize, Shamus Murphy, is that correct? Is that Shamus? All right, here we go. This is your question, Shamus, and your handwriting is fantastic. How can DOD help with veteran transition, SkillBridge and mandating that sort of thing, internships and such?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (48:10):

Sure. So SkillBridge is a program that we run that does exactly that transition. Tries to bring folks in, make sure that they have the skills they need before they leave the DOD side. Couple things we’ve done there. First, we don’t think that all levels of command are ensuring that their folks are able to take the time to do SkillBridge. So we’re trying to mandate that to make sure folks can get out and use it. We also have expanded the timeframe in which DOD services are available to folks who are transitioning out to ease that period of time. So it’s not like you move out of our system and directly into the VA system. If you aren’t ready or you haven’t done all the paperwork, we’ve extended that period of time. But a lot of these transition assistance programs are really important. Again, if we’re going to say, you come in here and you’re going to do well out the other side, we have to invest in those transition programs all the way through.

Jon Stewart (49:14):

Do you think that is a major frustration for folks that get out? It’s also a population that’s relatively stoic and oftentimes doesn’t want to, we found that with the PACT Act stuff, that there was a sense of, I’ll be fine, do it for somebody else, that it’s sometimes difficult for them to reach out and take advantage of certain benefits and programs?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (49:37):

Yeah, I do think part of it is that can-do attitude where people don’t reach out for the help that they need. I do think, again, the culture overall is changing societally. I think we’re bringing the military cultural along to really be willing to raise your hand and say, “Hey, I need some help.” But also bringing it to them so they don’t have to ask those questions. SkillBridge is a great example. Making sure that folks just are put into that cycle, given the time off from work in order to go do the coursework that needs to be done, take on the experiential. We have some experiential learning approaches with companies, for instance, that folks can do through SkillBridge, and that’s really important as well.

Jon Stewart (50:21):

All right. Here’s a good one. Shamus, is that what you were looking at? All right. Shamus. I’m sorry, Shamus, if I don’t get you home for your Passover Seder tonight. Shamus obviously is a Hebrew, right?

Speaker 1 (50:42):

It is Passover.

Jon Stewart (50:44):

It is Passover. I am doing this on Passover, I want to make that clear.

Speaker 1 (50:48):

Same.

Jon Stewart (50:51):

How do we stay dedicated to and faithful in entities like the government or military while recognizing their flaws? And this is from Keenan, and I think that was getting to a little bit about what I was saying, is I think sometimes recognizing and being open to the flaws of something is almost a healthier way to attract and retain people than sometimes more not recognizing them. So what do you think of that?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (51:27):

Yeah, I started off with that. I think you have to have a lot of transparency and ask hard questions. And I think good journalism does that. I think good engagement overall going out, not just the journalism, but our ability to communicate and engage publicly in ways that acknowledge it’s going to take 10 years to do an audit, for example. Those are important. I agree.

(51:52)
I think people can sense, particularly in the generation that we’re trying to attract now, they don’t have a lot of trust in institutions and I think everybody knows that, but certainly polling reinforces that. So making sure that you can speak to both the value that the institution can bring, what it can do for them and their families, how it feeds something in them. And I think that’s how the question is phrased, how you can have this sense of mission and purpose, but also really acknowledge that you’ve got to get better. I think that’s the core of it.

Jon Stewart (52:25):

Do you think that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the way that they ended, maybe not a mortal blow, but how big a blow was that to the credibility of institutions like our government and the military, and how difficult does that make your job going forward in terms of rebuilding that trust?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (52:49):

I think the reality of the US experience over the last 20 years of war has been very challenging. You had a generation that 9/11 really excited to, if you will, got it energized to want to serve in all kinds of ways. We’ve seen that on the civilian side as well as the military side, and it’s a public policy school. People who are here want to serve, they want to work. So that still happens, but after 20 years of war, you have challenges with the seams that that’s shown in our society. There are other seams that are rather substantial in our society right now that probably don’t trace quite so closely to that, but you bring it all together and I think we have a really hard time for exciting people into public service to include military service.

Jon Stewart (53:38):

Are there other ways you think that those seams can be repaired? I do think there is a loss of trust, but are there other forces at play within there that you think also need to be looked at?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (53:57):

In terms of the rifts in society, is that

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (54:00):

… Is that what you mean? Yeah. I mean, I think for… I’ll just speak to DOD, we find that there’s a lot of playing out of national politics. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that in terms of how we operate as an institution and we just try to keep ourselves focused. I think one of the big things we can do is just keep the eye on the ball of putting out leaders who look out for their teams, who keep their people safe. And that’s actually a workplace a lot of people want. We have a very disconnected society. People want to go somewhere where they feel connected, they feel cared for, they know their leadership is going to look out for them. I think that’s a lot of what we can do. We can model some of that behavior and I think that can help more… Can kind of broaden out from there.

Jon Stewart (54:48):

Here’s another question, as the government and VA uncover additional presumptive conditions connected to military… Sorry.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (54:54):

I’m thinking, is this related to the one you asked?

Jon Stewart (54:56):

It may be, yeah. I haven’t read these. I’m not a prepared-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (55:00):

No worries, no worries.

Jon Stewart (55:01):

They handed me these right before I went out and they’re in script, which I haven’t read in God knows how long.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (55:07):

It’s the bar.

Jon Stewart (55:08):

I only read things in email format. As the government and VA uncover additional presumptive conditions connected to military service, are you going to continue to advocate for the troops? Oh, that might be for me.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (55:19):

Yes. Oh, that might be for you. Yeah.

Jon Stewart (55:23):

Yeah, no. Here’s something… And yes, I will, obviously.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (55:44):

I knew that.

Jon Stewart (55:47):

Yeah. I have to say, and I think some of my discontent is forged by my experience in that arena.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (55:54):

I’m sure. Yes.

Jon Stewart (55:56):

And I think it’s really based on the difficulty that I saw so many good people, and Kelly uncovered this in many years, and I saw so many internal documents that spoke to not political appointees and all those things, but a corruption within an institution that was hiding. I think it comes from a place of, 9/11 was the original burn pit, Ground Zero. And I saw what that did to the people who lived in that area and the men and women who fought there. And they were really the first veterans in this war. And it took 10 years to get our government to recognize that breathing on top of a fiery jet fueled burning pit might not be good for you. And the EPA said the air was clean there three days into it.

(56:57)
And when I saw the same thing happening… I mean, to be honest with you, when I went and visited Iraq and Afghanistan and I flew into one of those places, I thought it had just been attacked and it was just a burn pit. I thought it was the enemy that had bombed it. And when I found out it was our country’s own contractors and that they had sovereign immunity, like this all boils down to me believing that this system was designed to exploit the men and women that they were raising up as heroes. And it brought them home and made them fight against the very government that they had been overseas sacrificing and defending. So I do apologize. I come from a place of this… And [inaudible 00:57:46] Al Pacino, but this system is out of order. We’re out of order. This whole room is out of order. And so that’s where this is when you say, what are you getting at? I think that’s what I’m getting at.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (57:59):

Yeah. I think it’s what you’re getting at too. And I think you should be incredibly proud of the work you single-handedly-

Jon Stewart (58:07):

Not proud in the slightest. I provided air support for the men and women-

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (58:11):

You should be proud that you brought voice to people-

Jon Stewart (58:13):

I’m more sad.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (58:14):

To people who needed voice. Of course because it should never have taken that. Never should have taken that. Totally agree.

Jon Stewart (58:20):

And so when I look at an institution and you’re not responsible for it, but I think the questions have always for me are how can we make this machine less corrupt and more responsive to those who so desperately want to uphold the values that cause them to join in that sacrifice in the first place. And that’s my overarching thought because I think if you can figure that out, boy, they’ll be knocking down the doors to not be part of a war machine, but to be part of something that they think… You want to make this country be something that’s worth defending.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (59:05):

Absolutely agree with that. Yeah. And I think we in the defense department own a big piece of that, how to be something worth defending and so does the rest of society. And I’m not saying that as a dodge, I’m saying that because we’re going to be a small percent for all the reasons we just talked about. We’re not going to suddenly be 40% of the American public is not going to be in the military. We need to get the whole of society to recognize the sacrifice and to make sure no one is taken for granted and that there can’t be corruption that allows for people to be abused over time.

Jon Stewart (59:43):

So I think that’s a really positive place to end on in a more hopeful place. So again, I think the conversation would be in your mind, how do we begin that? What part of that, on a more practical level, can we as… Look, we’ve got really energized young people in this room listening to this conversation saying we’re actually going to hopefully be a part of building that new machine. So what parts of the system that you have identified where you think to them really not to me and not to the administration that they would look at and say, this is what you are going to have to dismantle and this is what you’re going to have to rebuild.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (01:00:29):

What I would say is there is incredible opportunity for all those students who were out here. I was a public policy student just like you were. I was by the way in the Pentagon on 9/11. I sucked in a lot of toxic air myself. I mean, I’m very proud to have served in national security, whether you’re national security, health security, public policy, environmental security, you can and you should be making a difference. And you can do that in the way, Jon, you just framed it in terms of unearthing problems, which we need. And you can do it by bringing new solutions and that we really need as well. And we need folks kind of to self-actualize and make themselves available. Volunteer, do a federal job, that’s great. A state job, a nonprofit job or just be active in your community. And for those of you who are willing to decide to serve in the military, reserve, active guard, we can make a difference if we work as a society to bridge those challenges that we’ve had in the past.

Jon Stewart (01:01:37):

Is there something in your mind… I always wonder about this. Is there a way to give the men and women in the military and their families a more equal footing to the lobbyists, to those who… I remember when they were working on one of the military bills and there were 650 military lobbyists and there’s only 535… Like each congressperson got their own lobbyists. And I thought, That’s the problem with poor people. They’ve just got lobbyists. That’s their… So I’m wondering, is there something in your mind that can help elevate the military spouses and the military families that can allow them better access? How do we democratize that access so that their issues of food insecurity and caring for their spouses and military suicide are given the same audience as we just developed a laser that shoots out of a tank’s butt, like that, those lobbyists, how do we balance that? And by the way, I’ve seen the pictures. They’re amazing.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (01:02:51):

I think a lot of the questions you’re asking honestly are beyond DOD. And they’re beyond my writ on national security. They’re on campaign finance reform and they’re on the way in which we write ethics rules on Capitol Hill, and that is beyond my areas of knowledge. What I will say is there are support organizations, military and veteran support organizations that we listen to all the time. I meet with, the Secretary of Defense meets with, very active engagement. I do think there are great advocates for military families on Capitol Hill and-

Jon Stewart (01:03:31):

Phenomenal ones. I’ve worked with them. They’re tireless.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (01:03:36):

And they’re making real changes happen. You mentioned food insecurity before. That’s an area. Childcare. We get a lot of help on spouse licensure to make sure spouses can work even if they’re moving. Reproductive healthcare, lots of different areas where we get a lot of support from Capitol Hill. So I don’t want to paint it all as sort of not supportive of military families. I come from a military family and I feel that support and we see it certainly in the way we’re legislated.

Jon Stewart (01:04:08):

Very nice. That’s pretty much our program. Is there any final thoughts that you would like to impart?

Dr. Kathleen Hicks (01:04:17):

I really did welcome the opportunity to come. It is the 50th anniversary of the all volunteer force. I think this is the kind of dialogue we have to have. We have to be able to talk about the challenges we face as a society and certainly as a military. And we have to be getting better. I think we’re getting better, but we need Americans to come along.

Jon Stewart (01:04:38):

Very nice. And my final thought to all of you is, and that’s why I think an organization like War Horse is so crucial. It’s independent. It’s outside of the status quo, it’s outside of the system. It can have these tough conversations, but it is not owned by it. And I think we have a status quo that is making change much more difficult. Power doesn’t cede itself. And I’ll give you just an example of this. That’s something that you would never think of. When we first went down to DC to get the PACT Act going, we sat with the For Country Caucus, which was all military veterans. And we laid out, Rosie Torres and Leroy Torres laid out their case. They’d been working to this for eight years and hadn’t been able to get an audience with congresspeople. And we laid it out in front of the congressional delegation and they were very moved and they were shocked and they said, “This is amazing.”

(01:05:41)
And then they said, “But we’re kind of overwhelmed here and pretty busy. So if you guys could write it, that would really help.” The legislation. So if you’re wondering why things are the way they are, imagine a busy Congress and lobbyists that work for certain industries and those same congress people going, we’re really busy. So if you could write this, that would really help. It’s kind of how we get the laws we get. And it was interesting, we were in a room with all the VSOs and all their partners and they laid out the PACT Act of what would help fix this problem. And then I sat in that room and I watched them over the next hour negotiate against themselves for what they thought they could get. They sat in that room and they laid out a solution and then they spent the next hour cutting it down to a point where they thought it might pass.

(01:06:41)
And when I asked why, they said, “It’s money and they’ll never go with presumption. There’s certain things.” And they had been so beaten down by this system that they no longer could even dream of the ideal of helping. And when they said it was money, I said, “Here’s an idea for the money. Let’s slap a 2% war profiteers tax.” Defense contractors get 400 billion. You can leave for this part. They get 400 billion a year. 2% of that goes into a fund so that the damage that is done by our war machine to our veterans will be ameliorated by this pot of money. And they all went, “That’s an amazing idea.”

(01:07:29)
And an hour later I got a call from a VSO that will remain nameless. They said, “Yeah, we can’t do it.” Because guess who funds the VSOs. Defense contractors. So for a million dollars, they get out of paying a billion. So I think that speaks to the structural issues that we have in the country, the difficulty of entrenched bureaucracies, the incredibly talented and goodhearted and well-intentioned and hardworking people like the good doctor here who has been gracious enough to come down and listen to my ramblings. It’s a system that makes your efforts so crucial but also so difficult. So if I’m addressing those who are going to be a part of this system, it doesn’t have to be this way. This is what we made of it, but we fucked it up big. So it would be nice if you guys could fix it for us. And I’ll talk to Tom Brokaw about calling you the next greatest generation. Thank you very much for being here. Thanks. Thank you very much. Hope that was okay. It’s all quite well-intentioned.

Thomas Brennan (01:09:02):

Thank you Jon. And thank you Dr. Hicks. Your participation in the inaugural War Horse Symposium means so much to me and so much to our team. I hope that each of you in the audience today leave this conversation with a better understanding of the human impact of military service and a desire to bridge the military and civilian divide through continued conversation. Like Jon said during his remarks, “Our country fetishizes service, but we don’t know what it is.” And like Dr. Hicks said, “Journalism can help rebuild civic connections that have eroded in our country.”

(01:09:33)
Part of how you can help us improve that understanding is by sharing The War Horse’s work. You can subscribe to our newsletter and you can foster conversations. Talk to your friends and family about today’s symposium. Tell your friends about our work. Take action in your community to support local journalism. And if you’re able, donate to The War Horse so we can continue the work that you experienced today. You can help The War Horse have a bright future and you can help veterans and military families reconnect with the communities we served. The conversation starts today, but it’s up to you to keep it going. Thank you and have a great night.

Transcribe Your Own Content

Try Rev and save time transcribing, captioning, and subtitling.