Common Defense is the largest membership organization of progressive U.S. military veterans and the only one that invests in the leadership of its members through training and deployment in grassroots campaigns that leverage the credibility of their service. We are a BIPOC-led organization with 300,000 members, including veterans, military families, and supporters, and nearly 2,000 highly engaged and mobilized veteran “Cadre” members across the country. Veterans have long been ignored as a potential constituency for the progressive movement, but Common Defense is changing that by uplifting the powerful voices of working class veterans. Our members are highly effective activists who are organized and trained in social change tactics. A movement which started as a hashtag – #VetsVsHate – soon contributed to Trump’s 2020 defeat, became instrumental in achieving the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and raised a political storm through a Veterans for Democracy campaign by highlighting how voter suppression tactics threaten disabled vets’ ability to vote. And we have only just started.
Common Defense’s organizational priorities stem from the demands of our membership base and the purpose of this document is to provide a broad overview of Common Defense’s major policy issue areas and our proposed solutions to the problems our constituency is facing.
Naveed A. Shah
Veterans For Democracy
The right to vote is sacred in a democracy. The United States has struggled for generations with racist and sexist laws that prevent millions of people from having a say in their nation. Although the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 granted the right to vote to most of the people who had been denied at the founding of the nation, there are still efforts to suppress and remove voting rights from formerly disenfranchised groups.
This has not only pushed millions of people out of voting access, but it also has second-order effects on vulnerable populations not normally considered in discussions of voter suppression. Nearly 5 million veterans have a service-connected disability or a chronic health condition, including 40% of Post-9/11 veterans. Many veterans are unable to drive to polling places, stand in line for hours, or deal with crowds due to these health conditions and disabilities. Veterans rely on early voting, mail-in ballots, and increased accommodations, and by standing against voting rights, Republicans are blocking veterans from participating in the very democracy we swore to defend.
Solution: Expand Voting Rights
Our democracy needs to reform how we run elections to preserve our right to vote from corrupt state-level lawmakers who are only concerned with keeping their own power. Bills like the Freedom to Vote Act create a baseline national standard for voting access and preempt many of the restrictions that have been passed in those states. The bill includes expanding early voting and mail-in voting opportunities for all Americans, making election day a holiday, national standards for voter ID requirements, and protections for voters with disabilities. Further, we support banning deceptive voter suppression tactics and expanding voting access so voters don’t have to wait hours in long lines. Lastly, gerrymandering must be banned and replaced with neutral redistricting standards, and we must overhaul our nation’s campaign finance system so the wealthy don’t get to pick our national leaders.
No War on Our Streets
The killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that resulted were a major wake-up call to the nation about the role of policing in our communities. Images from that summer of protests highlighted how militarized police are acting like an occupying army and treating peaceful protesters like enemy combatants. This problem is particularly acute in low-income communities of color – and it goes against every democratic ideal our country was founded on.
However, the militarization of the police did not begin in 2020. Congress created, as part of 1997’s National Defense Authorization Act, what is now called the 1033 program. This program allows the military to get rid of excess equipment by passing it off to local authorities. The problem of sending military equipment to law enforcement to perform “normal” police work has become more and more apparent as situations that do not have to involve violence are dangerously escalated. The change in equipment comes with a change in attitude by many police where they begin to view themselves as “at war” with communities rather than as public servants.
Since the 1033 program was authorized, the military has shipped over $7 billion of equipment to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the country – including armored combat vehicles, bayonets, and grenade launchers.
Solution: Demilitarize the Police by ending the 1033 Program
Police are not warriors, they are public servents. They do not need weapons of war to keep our communities safe. The proliferation of military equipment has created a militarized mindset among police which is incompatible with community safety. We support legislation or administrative actions that either abolishes the program, or prevents the transfer of equipment inappropriate for local policing, such as military weapons, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, weaponized drones, armored military vehicles, and grenades or similar explosives. The Biden Administration took a step forward with an Executive Order in 2022, however, it falls short of fully ending the program. The program must be abolished to make our streets safer for citizens’ encounters with police.
Vets for Climate Justice
Climate change is no longer a far-off future menace: climate change is here. All over the world, millions of people are being impacted by our planet’s rapid warming. As veterans, we’ve seen the crisis firsthand. We have fought in wars waged over fossil fuels, and we’ve served on the frontlines of hurricanes, wildfires, and heat waves. We have suffered from exposure to burn pits, forever plastics, and Agent Orange. And too many of us have returned home only to find our communities subjected to poison and pollution, economic exploitation, and environmental destruction. Everyone will be affected by these intertwined crises, but the impacts are not equal. Low-income communities of color continue to face the greatest threats from both climate change and pollution in our air and water. To protect our communities and our country, we must act now to prevent the most catastrophic outcomes of a warming planet.
Solution: Clean Energy, Clean Air, Clean Water
While initial steps, such as the Biden administration’s use of the Defense Production Act, are laudable, more action is needed. We support bold, comprehensive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition our country to a clean energy economy. This investment in infrastructure, manufacturing, and deployment of renewables should also create millions of good union jobs, especially for the many unemployed and underemployment veterans in this country. We must also ensure that this transition addresses longstanding issues of inequality and racism, including the protection of sacred lands for indigenous communities, and mitigation and restitution for communities who have been exposed to poisons and pollutants. Legislation such as Rep. Grijalva’s Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act achieves many of these goals. Clean water and breathable air must be a right, not a privilege.
Director, Climate Justice
The Forever Wars
Common Defense defines the open-ended, unauthorized, and interconnected U.S. military interventions that began after September 11th, 2001 as the “The Forever War.” While the largest troops deployments were in Afghanistan and Iraq, these counter-terror operations have spread to dozens of countries, including Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Niger, Pakistan, Philippines, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Yemen – and they continue to this day.
Our country’s military has been in a permanent state of expanding, endless conflict for over twenty years. More than 380,000 civilians have died violent deaths as a direct result of America’s involvement, and more than 7,000 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and dozens of other countries. These endless wars have also been a major source of trauma for the veteran community for two decades. More than 30,000 service members and veterans of the post-9/11 wars have committed suicide – nearly four times as many than have died in combat. Importantly, the U.S. has spent $8 Trillion fighting these conflicts – money that could have rebuilt our nation instead of destroying communities on the other side of the world.
Solution: End the Forever War
Common Defense supports bringing the Forever Wars to a responsible and expedient conclusion. While we stridently advocated for Pres. Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, ending individual conflicts is not enough. We support legislation that reasserts Congress’ war powers, such as the National Security Powers Act and the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act, as well as the Yemen War Powers resolution. The Constitution vested Congress with the power to determine when America was to engage in war so that the people would have a say in the most consequential and sacred decisions their government makes. By passing war powers reform, we can rebalance the outdated and distorted military landscape that allows these conflicts to continue unchecked.
Save Our VA
The Veterans Affairs healthcare network is critical to veterans, their families, and as the COVID-19 pandemic showed, to the larger population. Veterans often have healthcare needs which require specialized care. Despite this, conservative politicians have attacked the Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA) by repeatedly attempting to undermine it’s services through privatization, outsourcing veteran healthcare, and assuring that the VHA is chronically underfunded and understaffed. By some counts, the VA is short staffed to the tune of about 50,000 jobs, mostly in the medical departments.
Ostensibly to provide greater healthcare access, opponents to VA care push for legislation that expands veterans’ eligibility for “referrals” to private healthcare providers. Funds directed to the private sector have increased dramatically over the past several years, but those dollars are coming out of the VHA’s already underfunded budget. This undermines the VHA’s capacity to serve the nine million veterans who depend on it. Numerous studies have shown that VHA healthcare is as good and often superior to private-sector healthcare, and more importantly veterans who receive care at the VA consistently give it good reviews and would recommend it to other veterans. Despite this, efforts to curtail the VA’s services persist.
Solution: Save the VA.
When America sends its troops to war, they sign a blank check payable to their country risking their health, their limbs, their mind, and their life. Billions of dollars are spent by the Pentagon every year, much of it on defense contractors and the military industrial complex. But when the troops return home, suddenly the well is dry and every “benefit” they were promised is limited, trimmed, or discarded entirely. After sending a generation of young people to fight in unjust wars, the degradation continues by forcing them to fight for every inch of care even though they earned it. Common Defense strongly favors legislation and executive action which expands access to the Department of Veterans Affairs benefits for all veterans. In order to truly accomplish this, Congress must increase the VA’s capacity to provide care, and both the VA and Congressional oversight committees must uphold the highest standards to provide world class healthcare. Legislation such as the Honoring Our PACT Act, and the Veterans Dental Care Eligibility Expansion and Enhancement Act seek to fulfill the promises a truly grateful nation made to those who served it.