EP. 41 Daniel Barkhuff, President of Veterans for Responsible Leadership
NICIE PANETTA: This is The MidPod, the Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We are two moms traveling America to bring you the voices of the 2018 midterm elections. Our democracy is in trouble and we're here to help you become a more active citizen. We interview candidates, activists, and experts on important issues, profile key congressional races in-depth, and we hold a citizens' potluck supper in every district we visit. Join us in our quest to rebuild trust in our democracy, one congressional district at a time.
NICIE: This week we have a really thought-provoking interview for you. But first: two quick things. First off: we have moved to two episodes a week. Tuesday we will bring you your usual MidPod fare: either a district profile or some form of interview or context show. And Friday's an interview with a compelling candidate running for Congress. Second: did you know that we now have a weekly newsletter for you. It comes out every Thursday and rounds up key news of the midterms. We hope it will be a one-stop every week for you. To subscribe, all you have to do is go to themidpod.com/newsletter. Join us and give us any feedback. We'd love to hear it. You can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NICIE: So, this week we have an interview for you with Daniel Barkhuff. He's the founder of Veterans for Responsible Leadership. Barkhuff was born in Maine and lived his childhood in New England, attended the United States Naval Academy, and graduated in 2001. Barkhuff served seven years on active duty as a member of Navy Special Warfare. That means he was a Navy SEAL and he completed multiple combat tours. After he completed his service, he went to medical school. He's now a faculty member, an emergency room doctor at University of Vermont. We interviewed Barkhuff at The Waring School in Beverly, Massachusetts as part of a collaboration with a group of students and teachers interested in politics and podcasting.
DANIEL BARKHUFF: I'm Dan Barkhuff, I'm the president of Veterans for Responsible Leadership. I grew up in Maine and Central Massachusetts. Lived in Maine 'til I was about six and then a town called Groton in Massachusetts. Went to the Naval Academy, graduated in 2001. I was lucky enough to be selected for the Special Warfare Program and served as a SEAL for about eight years, both on active duty and then in the Reserves and then got out and went to medical school. After med school I did an emergency medicine residency program in New Mexico, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then recently moved from New Mexico to Vermont and I'm faculty at University of Vermont.
NICIE: So Dr. Barkhuff, it would be great if you could tell us just a little bit about your journey to service. What inspired you to apply to the Naval Academy and go into the military?
BARKHUFF: That was kind of one of those things that I sort of always knew I was going to do. From the time I could read I was reading books about soldiers and you know, things like that. And I was always kind of fascinated by the World War II veterans and the Vietnam veterans. It was just kind of wired in me from an early age that I was going to go to a service academy and the only three schools I applied to were: Air Force, West Point, and Navy. And chose Navy.
NICIE: Did you have a background in your family of folks serving in the military?
BARKHUFF: Not at all, actually. My maternal grandfather was in the Army in World War Two, never deployed outside the U.S.. Both parents not from a military background and not a military family at all.
NICIE: So what was it like? What was it like when you got to Annapolis?
BARKHUFF: I enjoyed Annapolis quite a bit. I mean you know, one of the things you do when you go to college, whatever it is, it sort of broadens your horizons. You know, I'm giving this interview in an affluent town in Massachusetts and I grew up frankly in an affluent town in Massachusetts and when you join the military you're exposed to, sort of, segments of society and folks from different geographic and racial and cultural and economic conditions. And so for me it is really kind of eye-opening. And I got a lot out of that part of being in the military.
NICIE: So that's one of our key themes on The MidPod, is country over party and it would be really interesting just to hear you reflect a little bit more about how that works because I think many of us in our country are struggling with how to talk across our differences. How does it work, as a practical matter the military?
BARKHUFF: So the military, you know, there's kind of the broader military. And you know I mean, this is a massive discussion that you know, people get their PhDs and write dissertations on this topic but when you join the military, you know, everyone shares a common experience. You go to boot camp, you get your head shaved, you know you're told that you're not good, you're worthless, and we're going to teach you how to - we're gonna to rebuild you back up. Whether it's a soldier, sailor, airman, or something that you know, is able to perform a job. And so your value to your peers in the military is kind of how well you perform that job. People don't really care if you are from Alabama or if you're from Alaska. You know, in the SEAL team certainly what mattered was, are you a team player and can you shoot? And if you can do those two things, you know, by and large you're generally a good SEAL.
NICIE: So there's a mission and everyone has a piece of that to take care of?
BARKHUFF: Yeah you know, it's not that people don't have different political opinions or different personalities, I mean of course that stuff all exist but it's all second to the jobs of the mission. You know, whether you're a pilot or the guy working on the airplane or what have you, it's your value and the military is really good at making you realize that your sense of self-worth is really caught up in how well you're performing a job.
NICIE: And maybe just spend a minute on how you decided to become a doctor and what that's been like?
BARKHUFF: Medicine was something I was always kind of interested in. And you know, at a certain point you get promoted to middle management in the military, especially on the officer side of things, and being in middle management in the Navy you know involves from: instead of going out on operations and things like that, you're back at the base listening to the radio or you're doing PowerPoint presentations for generals and things like that. And that didn't appeal to me as much ultimately as trying something new. And like I said medicine was something I was always interested in and it was a good fit.
NICIE: Now you have started a new organization, Veterans for Responsible Leadership. Tell us about how that came about.
BARKHUFF: VFRL started as initially a Facebook group about a month after President Trump's inauguration. We gave him about a month and then we decided to start doing something to get ready for 2020. It initially began as this Facebook group with a few of my friends from the Naval Academy, a couple of friends from elsewhere in the military and you know, sort of gained some traction. We started with I think 10 members of this Facebook group and then you know, we're up over over 500 now and it's just sort of spread through kind of word of mouth and then now we're starting to get some more press and some more publicity, but initially it was largely word of mouth. And then we decided to file the paperwork to become a PAC. Actually, what I did was just google, how to start a PAC, and a bunch of high school kids had done it. And the Washington Post wrote an article about it. I was copying the high school kids.
NICIE: And what's the goal of your political action committee?
BARKHUFF: We have a number of goals. I mean in 2018, which is the first election that we're kind of playing in, I mean our goal is to support candidates you know who are optimistic, civil, and demonstrate integrity, and to oppose candidates who don't. That is, we support Republicans, we support Democrats. We endorse folks from both parties. But you know, we don't want to limit ourselves to just veterans although we do think there's something to be said for people with military service being elected, but we also - we don't have a sort of a core mantra besides that and we don't care what someone's position is on taxes or abortion or defense sequestration. You know, we care that you're a good person who is going to engage in simple debate with people who have different political views than you.
HEATHER ATWOOD: Can I just ask you to unpack "responsible leadership" a little bit, that term? And I would be interested in hearing you discuss irresponsible leadership and maybe our president, if that's appropriate.
BARKHUFF: I think a responsible leader - so, the traits that make one a good Commander-in-Chief are the same traits that are going to make someone a good squad leader in the military and likely a good manager at 7-Eleven. You know, and it all starts with trust, particularly military leadership. I mean, you have to have trust because if you trust someone you know you're going to be able to operate as a team. Trust leads to teamwork and teamwork is how you get things done. So teamwork leads to accomplishment. So you know, you can't do anything alone. In the military you have to - you're only as good as your team is. So a responsible leader is someone who can put into effect conditions that optimize teamwork, and the essential condition is trust. In the military, specifically in combat operations, the way the military works is your own personal self-interest is second and you address the biggest threat to the team first. That doesn't mean you address the biggest threat to yourself first. If everyone on your team does that and puts their own interest second, then on average you're going to win. And that's the whole, you know kind of, system and to have a system like that where people put their own interests in the back seat, you have to trust who you are there with. So a responsible leader is someone at the bare minimum, the very first thing is, you have to be able to trust them.
HEATHER: And irresponsible?
BARKHUFF: Someone you can't trust. The short answer would be someone who doesn't take seriously the responsibility that they have. There is a saying in the military: "you can delegate authority, you can't delegate responsibility." That is true. And the current Commander-in-Chief for example, I think, is quick to point fingers at other people when something doesn't go his way and regularly engages in demonstrably untrue falsehoods.
NICIE: You recently wrote cowrote an op-ed piece and we'd like for you to tell us tell our listeners a little bit about that op-ed and then maybe read a little bit.
BARKHUFF: So, we wrote an op-ed, myself and another gentleman, Bill Burke, who was a naval academy classmate of mine and is kind of the general counsel for VFRL and he's down in Virginia. But we wrote an op-ed to coincide with President Trump's speech at the commencement of The Naval Academy. Now, one thing I would say, this is my opinion and also Bill's opinion. This is my disclaimer of this op-ed; you know, we don't speak for all graduates of service academies or anything like that and we don't pretend to. But our sense of it is that the President giving a speech at an institution where you have an honor code, an honor concept. West Point, for example, their honor concept I'll use because it's a little more pithy than the one at Annapolis. But you know, "I will not lie, steal, and cheat. Nor will I tolerate those who do." And you can use whatever word you want, you can use irony or something like that to have Donald Trump come give that commencement address. That being said I mean you know, I say this in the in the op-ed, Donald Trump is the duly elected president of the United States. He is our president. He is my president. He's - I'm an American and he is the President. That doesn't mean I can't work very actively to make sure it's only for one term and that is our goal.
NICIE: Would you mind reading just a little bit from it?
BARKHUFF: Why don't we start with the top. You know, a little backstory on this. The oral tradition of the Vietnam POWs at the Naval Academy is sort of very strong. I would say within 72 hours of induction day you're memorizing the tap code that the POWs used to communicate through the walls in North Vietnam. Admiral Stockdale, who has since passed on, was, when I was there, was as close to a living legend as one could be.
BARKHUFF: "In 1969, after having already been held hostage for four years, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy faced a lonely choice in a North Vietnamese prison camp: how to prevent his captors from using him in a propaganda piece. James Stockdale chose to smash in his own face with a stool rather than give aid and comfort to the enemy. In the early years of Stockdale's seven year imprisonment, the current President in the United States was enjoying the comforts of Wharton Business School, having received four draft deferments to attend college. He received another after graduation for supposedly having bone spurs in his heels. He would later go on to make fun of the POWs of that era, claiming that John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured." The op-ed sort of goes on to use other examples of graduates who you know, were chosen for - because they accomplished incredible things. With the exception of one, the examples we chose were of Naval Academy graduates giving their life for this country. Now of course the Naval Academy does not have a monopoly on military courage or anything like that, but Donald Trump was speaking at the Naval Academy, which is why we chose those specific examples.
NICIE: We have tons more questions but we have a roomful of eager students here and would like to open it up to the room. Does anybody have a question for Dr. Barkhuff?
JEFF: My name is Jeff. I love the idea of trying to find leaders that are optimistic, civil, have integrity, and are open to discussion. But I'm really curious as to how you find those. It seems like a very subjective criteria and so I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit about how you identify the leaders and the politicians who who have those characteristics?
BARKHUFF: That's an excellent question. The short answer is it requires a little bit of a leap of faith but we quickly get to their inherent problems with this. But a lot of it's kind of word of mouth. So you know, a group has you know hundreds or thousands of members and, "hey, did anyone work with this guy? Does anyone know this guy? Does anyone know this gal? Is she good? Is she a good person?" Because you know, there's no way to sort of objectively quantify that. I mean, we put a lot of stock in, "Oh I was in, you know, that guy's platoon and he's awesome. He's great, you know he's a good man, or, I was on a ship with her. She's fantastic. She was a good officer." So you know, we realize that in 2018 America we're kind of supposed to be this meritocracy. We're probably missing people who are excellent that you know, we just don't know of. You know, we try to keep our ear to the ground in that regard. But yeah I mean, there's a leap of faith. I mean, there's a chance we're going to be like, “hey, this is the greatest guy since sliced bread" and then he's going to be running a dog-fighting ring or something. So that's a risk we're taking. Yeah.
NICIE: Do you want to share a couple examples of candidates you're supporting? Are you at that point where you could talk?
BARKHUFF: Yeah I mean, we love this gentleman down in North Carolina named Dan McCready who's running for Congress. He was a Marine, served in Iraq. He was in a Marine ground unit in '06 and then came home, went to grad school and got involved with a solar company and is now running, you know, he's a great example of one of those guys that we've heard through the grapevine, "hey this is a good person, this is a leader, a real leader." On the Republican side of things we're looking to support this gentleman Scott Taylor down in Virginia Beach. Full disclosure, we overlapped briefly in the SEAL teams. He impressed us and he's kind of a true, dyed-in-the-wool conservative but he impressed us for, kind of, speaking out against some of things early in Donald Trump's administration and you know, standing up for what we felt was right, and we have a couple more that we've sort of are continuing to discuss but we really like a gentleman down in Houston who's running as a Republican and then we really like a woman in New Jersey who's running as a Democrat. We're trying to keep it more or less bipartisan. I mean, the numbers might not add up perfectly but that's the plan.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You're spending your life saving lives and helping people when they have emergencies. Have you felt the call to political service as well from your experience here?
BARKHUFF: You mean, like personally running for office? No, I'm not going to do that. I would be a terrible politician as my op-ed would attest. I've got little kids. I'm just not interested in it. I started VFRL because I was concerned about the way that the country was going, and sort of in some ways I think if, you know, you founded an organization that can provide political top cover for folks who stand on principle, is probably going to have a bigger dent than me being the county dogcatcher.
HEATHER: You also wrote a really interesting piece in The Daily Beast. Could you go into that?
BARKHUFF: Yes, so I wrote a piece for The Daily Beast, you know, in response kind of to some of the school shootings and some of the gun violence and you know, the question I ask myself is you know, what is kind of missing in the current debate over gun violence? On the one side you've got folks who, you know, for better or for worse want to limit some aspects of access to guns. They're going against folks who, you know, don't want any restriction on or very minimal restrictions on who has access to guns and things of that nature. So an interesting question I thought was: why now? You know, what's different about our debate over guns and gun violence? You know, when I was a kid there was no such thing as school shootings. I mean I was in college when Columbine happened and that sort of started it all. One thing, you know, that is different is, we don't have a draft anymore. You know, I was born in 1978 and the Vietnam War had ended about five years earlier. You know, you had a kind of generational kind of knowledge and familiarity with guns in a way that, when you have an all volunteer military, you don't. And I think that takes some of both the stigma away from guns but it also takes some of the almost novelty out of it. You know, folks today who are buying a AR-15s, and you can argue yes or no, they should be able to do that. But one undeniable aspect of why they're doing that is they think it's really cool. They think it's really fun. They think it's really exciting to go to the range to shoot and some part of that, I think, is because they've never been exposed to it before. You know, nightly you have images from Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan, all these places, and you know, you could argue that for the last 18 years, firearms manufacturers have had the best free advertising you can imagine. If for the last 18 years people were drinking Pepsi on TV every single night, I'm sure Pepsi would be pretty popular. That was the point of that piece. If you think our gun culture is to blame for these mass shootings, and I'm not saying it is or it isn't, how did that gun culture come to be? Because when I was a kid again, this is almost 30 years ago now, but you go into a gun store and it's mostly shotguns, you know, here and there you might have one AR-15. Now if you go to a gun store it's wall-to-wall AR-15s. So something has really changed and one of the things that I think has changed is guns got cool. Why did they get cool? Cuz nobody serves in the military anymore.
HEATHER:There’s no real serious personal risk like having to go to war.
NICIE: Do you think national service should be required?
BARKHUFF: I think I do. I wouldn't say military service. Part of the problem is we got rid of the draft, right? There was no such thing as national service and there hasn't been anything since 1973. So people feel like a hypocrite to tell, you know, you and you and you and you - you guys are the first ones who have to do national service. But someone has to have the, you know, kind of political and moral courage I think to stand up and actually do that and be like, “hey I didn't have to do this. This wasn't my experience. But for this reason and this reason and this reason I think we should make our citizens do it,” but that's a tough sell to, you know, a politician or a citizen to say, "now you're required to do this when I didn't have to do it."
NICIE: Back to a VFRL, are you mostly trying to raise money from other service veterans who share your values? What are the sort of practical next steps that you guys are most focused on?
BARKHUFF: You know, we've kind of identified the candidates that we like in 2018, some of whom have been featured on your podcast. The practical next step is, you know, we are in a fundraising kind of cycle. We're continuously fundraising. The small donations from folks in the community, you know, the five dollars here, the 100 dollars there, are fantastic and that's how we've operated thus far, but we haven't really had that much overhead. We've come up with our strategy and our methods and now we need to create, you know, the ads we want to run, get the airtime by the the space on Google and Facebook and things like that. So now it's time to implement our strategy.
NICIE: And you mentioned you have a bipartisan approach. How hard is it when push comes to shove, or the opening of the actual wallet, to get over that? For some people, the Second Amendment, gun safety might be a kind of a non-negotiable issue. For others it might be women's reproductive health and choices. How do you kind of get people past that?
BARKHUFF: That's a good question. We're working on that. That's an active, everyday issue. But I mean I think people, if they're going to be political donors of any sort, I think they're going to donate for candidates who most agree with them. But our kind of starting premise is that, you know, we don't care what your position on abortion is. We don't care what your position on guns are. We care that you're a good person who demonstrates integrity, is not going to lie to the public, and is open to civil discussion with the other side about the best way forward. And there are Republicans and Democrats who fit that bill.
CHARLES: My name is Charles. I'd like to know about opposition to the group that you formed and what that's looked like. Because I'm sure there are some people who are not happy about it.
BARKHUFF: So we're small. We're kind of, you know, up and coming, right? So the people who thus far have been interested in us have been supporters. For example, after the op-ed was published, the hate mail started coming in. So there's a couple different sort of subgenres of folks who were writing us hate mail. You know, you've got on the one hand - I saved this Facebook message because it was great. It was brief, it was to the point, it was: "you are a communist traitor. John McCain is a communist traitor. I hope you die." You know, if someone wrote to me three pages of hate mail I'm probably not going to read all of it. So they're kind of like the looney tunes, you know, wackos who don't want to hear anything you have to say and they're entitled to their opinion. You know, they send their responses in and that's fine. You know, if someone sends me an email and it's, "hey I think you're wrong. It's for this, this" - even if it's a little vitriolic and, you know, maybe they're mad. They're mad about the op-ed, they're mad about what I said about the President. Those people I've been responding to. And I would say about 50 percent of the time, I'll write them I'm back and I'll say, "Hey, I respect your passion. Clearly we both care about this country clearly your view might be different than mine but we're starting from a good place where we both passionately feel that there is a best way. We may not agree on what it is, but there is a best way forward for us as a country." And I'd say about 50 percent of those people, they've emailed me back and the second email is a lot more civil and you know, "this is why I feel the way I do." So it's a learning experience for me because I've never run a PAC before. I've never been any kind of public figure before. But if you talk to people who disagree with you and you're respectful about it and you assume they're coming from a good place then you kind of find out you have a lot in common.
ANAN: Hi my name's Anan Fidelli. And my question is: in your opinion, what are the most significant ways that veterans impact our social and political discourse in this country?
BARKHUFF: I think veterans - and the whole idea behind VFRL is, you know, that veterans have something special to offer. Now, what do they have that’s special? OK. So it's not that they're any better or braver but they've been exposed to things. They have experiences, shared experiences, that you know, someone who wasn't in the military might not have. I'm sure everyone knows somebody who grew up in this community and stuck around this community and, you know, went to college at Tufts and has never really been outside 128. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's totally fine. But if you do what I did or what some of my peers did and are stationed in Annapolis, Maryland, and San Diego and Virginia Beach, and traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, Germany, South America, you know, you are forced to interact with people from all sort of walks of life. You know, I have seen people who come from affluent families kick in doors in Fallujah. I've seen people who are not U.S. citizens kicking in doors in Fallujah. It's a great sort of leveling and it's a great sort of way to put a fire under that melting pot as a culture.
NICIE: I wanted to explore briefly - you talked a little bit about interacting with people and recognizing the emotion in their responses. And this is something Heather and I've been talking about a little bit is, it's a very emotional time and how we manage our emotions and channel them constructively is a challenge that's worth spending a minute on. And the tone that you stuck in your piece about the service of people in the Navy versus the President's is in my mind one of righteous anger but controlled. And I was wondering if there are experiences that you had in the service that have informed that. Are there stories that come to your mind that help you both to experience that anger and then channel it?
BARKHUFF: Yes and no. I mean you know, I am not going to tell war stories. I don't have as many as you might think and I certainly have never done anything kind of heroic or anything along those lines. The tone of the op-ed, so military people, and this is a broad generalization back to that culture of trust, and dishonesty is something that I think many military people get very fired up about. I was at the Naval Academy when Bill Clinton was debating the meaning of the word "is" in the Monica Lewinsky deposition. And people were just fired up about that. And you know what? Rightly so. You know, a Commander-in-Chief should tell the truth, if to no one else than to the people that he's potentially going to order into battle. So I think if there's any anger it comes from that. I don't have any wartime experiences particularly that, you know, I was thinking of when I wrote that. I just think we need a Commander-in-Chief who is not going to tell five lies before breakfast every day.
TIM: My name's Tim. I was going to sort of follow up on that question. How do you think we maintain civil discourse when our standard for truth and falsehood is, seems to be beaten all the time. I'm a debate coach and the whole thing that we recognize is we can't have a debate unless someone is willing to agree on objective reality. So how do you fashion your message in such a way that you point out when someone else is in fact dishonest and then engage people that are willing to accept the idea of objective reality?
BARKHUFF: You’re getting philosophical. I mean, is there objective reality? You know, I think that step one of any conversation is to acknowledge the other person and that, their feelings, their point of view is legitimate. I don't have any malice towards someone who voted for Donald Trump. In fact those are exactly the people I want to talk to because I want to convince them to vote for someone else. And I understand why they did it. When you go back and you look at 2016 there are the people who are really super enthusiastic about Donald Trump and you know, they had their reasons for doing so and those reasons are just as valid as my reasons for not being enthusiastic. And then there are some people who held their nose and voted anyway because they thought it was the best of two evils and that's a valid position. So I think the important thing is to say, people talk about agreeing on facts and that is very important. But the first thing is to agree on emotions. You can sort out the facts but let's have a discussion and let me say to you, "I get it. You're mad about Benghazi still. You're mad about it Hillary Clinton. You're mad about this, that, and the other thing, and that's something that you are allowed to be mad about. You know, you're the captain of your fate. And if if that is an issue that you're going to vote on? OK. Let's start with that. Let's start with, you have these reasons for voting for Donald Trump. And there are legitimate reasons and I respect that." And if you say that to someone, that goes a long way.
HEATHER: I'm sort of curious: when you're actually in service, let's say you're in Iraq and you're in your platoon. How much are you aware of the Commander-in-Chief? How much did you think about him every day?
BARKHUFF: Close to zero. So Bush was the Commander-in-Chief and all Commander-in-Chiefs, you know, they all do good things, they all do bad things. But no. On a day-to-day basis you're not. There's a few layers in between. You know, your daily existence. You had a task unit commander then a joint task unit commander and then generals and secretaries of defense and things like that. You know there's about seven layers of sort of bureaucracy before you get to the President, so it doesn't affect you very much.
NICIE: OK so I think our time is getting short. Anybody else?
COLIN KEEGAN: Hi Colin Keegan. So you mentioned wanting to have - believing that everyone in the country should serve some type of national service. So can you give some specific examples of other countries that have implemented a system like this, and based on those countries why you believe America should do it? Because I'm pretty sure there are other countries that have a system like what you would recommend implementing?
BARKHUFF: You may be very right. I have certainly more research to do on that topic. You know, just because something hasn't been done before doesn't mean it can't work.
NICIE: So just in closing, Dan, could you share with us what success looks like for you as you think about the future of a VFRL?
BARKHUFF: I think success for us is our 2018 candidates are elected in Congress and at some point one of them takes a stand for moral courage and does something unpopular and does it out of principle, and VFRL will laud that person and tweet it out and put it on Facebook and give it to all the broadcast networks and say, “look, this is what we need. This is what we're doing." And this is unpopular, but this is a person who is trying to make his country a better place. And that is patriotism.
NICIE: And for our listeners who might want to learn more about the organization, where should they go?
BARKHUFF: You can check us out - we're at VFRL.org, and also on Twitter @vetsforRL.
NICIE: Thank you so much. [The MidPod theme music]
NICIE: That’s it for this Tuesday's show. In the meantime, find us online at themidpod.com or on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram @themidpod. [end music]