Pete Buttigieg was an obscure management consultant in Chicago when he applied to a little-known Navy Reserve program that would allow him to become a military officer without the months or even years of training normally required. Now the mayor of South Bend, Ind., Buttigieg has made his military service, which stretched from 2009 to 2017 and included a tour in Afghanistan, a cornerstone of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In doing so, he has become only the latest and most high-profile political figure to take advantage of the Navy Reserve’s direct commission officer program, which for years has offered ambitious policy wonks a chance to serve their country while simultaneously burnishing their résumés. And by contrasting his own combat deployment with the complete absence of military service from the life stories of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, Buttigieg has also re-ignited the debate over how Americans should weigh military experience — or the lack of it — when evaluating political candidates.
While other services’ reserve officer programs require candidates to commit to months of full-time training up front, the Navy avoids this by blending most of its initial officer training into the traditional reservist’s one-weekend-a-month, two-weeks-a-year schedule, making the direct commission program attractive to upwardly mobile professionals who are reluctant to put their civilian careers on hold.
Although this may appear to some to be an easy route into the military, Buttigieg, who has spoken of making more than a hundred vehicle trips “outside the wire” in Afghanistan, said his active-duty comrades could have cared less. “When you’re in the vehicle, I don’t think a lot of people really care about your commissioning source,” he told Yahoo News. “It very rarely came up when I was deployed.”
The highly competitive Navy Reserve program commissions officers in about a dozen fields. Two of those — intelligence and public affairs — have proven particularly popular with politicians and other policy professionals eager to gain military experience. While the program recruits nationwide — Buttigieg signed up in his home state of Indiana — it draws disproportionately from the Washington, D.C., area. Last year, for example, of the 112 people the Navy accepted as direct commission intelligence officers, 22, or about one in five, were from the national capital region.