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Pete Buttigieg touts his military service as tension with Iran simmers

Pete Buttigieg is closing out his campaign here in Iowa by highlighting something that separates him from the rivals he will debate on Tuesday: his military service.

Buttigieg, a veteran of the US Navy Reserves who served one tour in Afghanistan in 2014, has touted his service in the past — his first television ad in Iowa featured him holding a rifle and introducing himself “as a veteran.”

But that focus has taken on a new context in light of the conflict with Iran and the fact that Buttigieg will be the only veteran on the debate stage (Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard failed to qualify). The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor is using his experience to both burnish his national security credentials and subtly answer questions voters may have about how the youngest candidate in the race would confront life-or-death issues like war.

The strategy appears to be resonating with voters in early nominating states, where voters told CNN that they see Buttigieg’s military service as a key factor in their decision making process.

Organizers here in Iowa for Buttigieg’s campaign say that people answering their front doors across the state have asked about the former mayor’s military service and how it relates to everything they are seeing on television about Iran.

“He knows what war is like and I don’t think he will get us into one,” said Peggy Casper, a 75-year-old from Winterset, Iowa, who runs a grain elevator with her husband. “I just think he seems cool. Like he would take everything into consideration and not fly off the handle and do something rash. We need someone like that.”

While tensions with Iran have been ratcheting up for weeks, they reached a fever pitch earlier this month when President Donald Trump authorized an airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s leading military figure and the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, an elite unit that handles Iran’s overseas operations. Iran responded by sending around a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases housing US troops days later. No casualties were reported.

The back-and-forth has set off a string of dire headlines and Buttigieg has responded by lamenting the way Trump has handled the situation — and by highlighting his own experience.

“When I was deployed, I felt it. I felt that the flag on my shoulder was keeping me safe because it stood for a country that was known to our allies and our adversaries to be one that keeps its word,” Buttigieg said here in Winterset on Monday. “And when I’m your commander-in-chief, no ally will ever have reason to question whether it’s a good idea to bet your life on the credibility the United States of America.”

This was far from the first time Buttigieg referenced his service during his stump speech.

The former mayor used a question about conflict in the Middle East during a town hall in New Hampshire to pivot to how his service would focus how he approaches issues of war and peace.

“As a military intelligence officer on the ground if Afghanistan, I was trained to ask these questions before a decision is made,” he said earlier this month, after Soleimani was killed but before Iran launched its missile strike. “And I know right now, across the country, a lot of families with members of the military are going to be holding each other a little more tightly wondering what this might mean, even as we have citizens in and out of uniform right now as we speak, who may be in danger across the region.”

In Nevada, supporters waived “Veterans and Military Community for Pete” signs and Buttigieg responded to a question on how “Trump said he would stop endless wars” but “now he and the Republicans may start another” by talking about the men and women he served with.

“This morning in the airport in Los Angeles, I was on my way here and I ran into somebody, senior enlisted leader who I had served with,” Buttigieg said, describing a woman who lost a leg after being injured during an attack in Afghanistan who was slated to see another tour of duty.

“All I could think of was we owe it to anyone who has put their lives on the line to… make sure that we will never ask them to go into harm’s way unless there is no alternative and we made sure it is absolutely the only way forward,” Buttigieg said.

And on Sunday night in Des Moines, Buttigieg said his service would inform his decision on war if he becomes President.

“If we’re serious about honoring our troop, let’s honor them by making sure they are never sent to sacrifice in a conflict that could have been avoided,” he said. “That’s part of patriotism and national security, too.”

Anti-war sentiment has been a key force in the Iowa caucuses before. Then-Sen. Barack Obama seized on anti-war sentiment aimed at the War in Iraq during his upstart run in Iowa in 2008 and used then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of the war against her.

While that fervor does not appear to be as prevalent as it was a dozen years ago, the lines Buttigieg delivered on Iran were well received by voters, many of whom expressed deep skepticism toward a conflict with Iran.

“The thing that distinguishes him from the other candidates is not being part of the Washington elite and that he’s served in the military,” said Matt Sheeley, 55-year old criminal defense lawyer from Des Moines. “He knows the implications of putting boots on the ground. He’s seen the havoc in the middle East firsthand and I can’t find another candidate that has actually served in the military.”

Sarah McKinney, a 29-year old teacher from Bondurant, Iowa, said Buttigieg’s service was “critical” for she and voters she knows in Iowa.

“His service will help him understand the seriousness of going to war,” she said, “and to take actions to prevent going to war.”

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