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Transcript: Reps. Pat Ryan and Mike Waltz on "Face the Nation," May 26, 2024

Rep. Mike Waltz and Rep. Pat Ryan on "Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan" | full interview
Rep. Mike Waltz and Rep. Pat Ryan on "Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan" | full interview 19:48

The following is a transcript of an interview with Reps. Pat Ryan, Democrat of New York, and Mike Waltz, Republican of Florida, on "Face the Nation" that aired on May 26, 2024.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So Congressman Waltz, more than 3 million people including 58 thousand Americans died in the Vietnam war. When you came up with this idea back in 2019, what, what was your inspiration?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: Well, I actually came across, a-a colleague that was a Vietnam veteran himself. And he just told me that he was going that morning to go wash the wall. I said, wash the wall. He said, yeah, the park service, before all of the vet visitors come on Memorial Day, they literally clean the wall because people have fingerprints on them, they want to touch the- the marble or bird droppings, what have you. And, and I said, can I join you? Absolutely. And there was just a group of Vietnam veterans, volunteers on their own time, down here helping the park service. That was years ago. And then once I got elected, you know, and I saw the acrimony and the- the end fighting and I said, you know, let's, let's get a group of veterans together. People who really have skin in the game. I think that's important for the American people to see. To see us honoring our forefathers, to see us where Democrat, Republican, black, white, brown, none of that matters. It just matters that we're all Americans, we're all veterans. And we're honoring those that came before us. And it's turned into a bit of a tradition now.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And exactly, bipartisanship is sort of rare these days, or at least, an effort to be bipartisan. What made you come out, Congressman?

REP. PAT RYAN: So this is my second year doing this. I'm a freshman, and this is the most powerful thing I've done in Congress, truly. Very- it's very emotional and it's- it's positive. I mean, there's so many divisive forces, and so to get together with fellow veterans, all services, all generations, and just actually do something with your hands that improves the world, that honors our veterans, that prepares this memorial for hundreds of thousands of Americans that are gonna come here this weekend. It's- it's really- it's an honor. And again, I think it's important to show, as Mike said, the American people that there are people trying to bridge this divide that we have right now. And I, and I thank Mike for organizing this because it's- it's, I think it's been special for all of us.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you deployed to Afghanistan–

REP. PAT RYAN: I did two Iraq deployments.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Two- two Iraq deployments.


MARGARET BRENNAN: Who are you thinking of this Memorial day weekend?

REP. PAT RYAN: Well, I think, Mike and I both have on these Memorial bracelets that- that we wear every day. So, but, but this weekend obviously is particularly important. I- I think about actually one of my soldiers who I brought home from my first 12 month deployment and then tragically succumbed to the- the invisible wounds of war and took his own life, Sergeant Keith Nowicki. And I think it's important we talk about that too. Because now we have more post 9/11 veterans that have taken their own lives post-service than gave their lives during service. And that's something else that we're working on together.

REP. MIKE WALTZ: Yeah. I- I think of my uncle who is a Vietnam helicopter pilot, Greg Waltz. He survived, but he's told me about the people that are on this wall. And even though he survived, to this day, unfortunately he's very bitter about how he was treated when they came home, and how badly they were treated when he came home. And I think this is the least we can do to come and honor them and keep their story alive. But I also think about Matt Pucino, one of my green Berets that-that I lost who volunteered to go on point every mission and eventually was killed by an IED, and as a commander, bringing my green Berets home is my responsibility. This is something that I will always live with, commander's guilt or survivor's guilt is very real.


MARGAERT BRENNAN: I'm sorry. I just wanna make sure we don't step on that because it's important.

REP. MIKE WALTZ: That's okay.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Tell me about Matt.

REP. MIKE WALTZ: So, Sergeant Matt Pucino was one of my Green Berets that we lost in Afghanistan. He volunteered to go on point every single mission, and eventually a trip wire IED killed him. I think about him, I think about his family and- and I have to say, I think Pat would agree with me. You know, survivor's guilt is a very real thing. Why him and not me? He was my responsibility, as were the other Green Berets that I didn't bring home. And I just tell myself, I look in the mirror every time- every morning before I go into the Capital and tell myself to be worthy, you know, be worthy of that sacrifice, and our charge I think as leaders, as elected leaders is to comport ourselves in a way that's worthy of their sacrifice in- in front of the American people.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You mentioned that stunning statistic, what 7,000 service members died in the war since 9/11, but it's 6,000 veterans every single year, since 2001 who have succumbed to suicide. Do you think that the government and American taxpayers are doing enough to address this?

REP. PAT RYAN: We're not doing enough. We don't have the urgency. It- it needs to be a national problem. It needs to be a problem that every American recognizes as theirs, because these are the- the small percentage of the American people who have put their life on the line and- and ultimately given their life. It's such a small percentage. It's about 1%--


REP. PAT RYAN: --Of the American population and there's just too much of a disconnect. I actually think that's a big part of the reason why we see people coming home from service and feeling alone, even surrounded in their hometowns, feeling alone because they can't relate. And so there's so many aspects to solving it, but it- it- it can't- the government has to do a whole lot more. We in Congress have to do a whole lot more, but the whole country has to do more. The whole country has to come into Memorial Day weekend, and yes, you can celebrate, but please take a moment and think about the names on this wall, the names on your local hometown memorial, the names on the memorial bracelets of the veterans that you see, ask them about it, ask them to tell you those stories and, and we should be sharing those stories.

REP. MIKE WALTZ: You know, I would just say from the government perspective, you know, the VA's budget has gone from about $90 billion in 2000 to almost triple that with the same results. And that's not necessarily a knock on the VA, but I think we have to start talking about this problem and thinking about it differently. I want the providers to have the full menu, not just drugs or another appointment, but a full menu of service dogs, of therapeutics, of hyperbaric chambers, even hallucinogenics and other kind of non-traditional therapies. They should have everything at their disposal, number one. And number two, I don't think government can solve this. This is a societal problem. This is going to be solved in churches and communities and neighbors and families that I think need to be more deliberate in reaching out to veterans. They know that they're- that are struggling.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you're working on legislation together to try to expand healthcare coverage for the children of veterans until age 26. Do you have any pledge from leadership to actually move this anytime soon?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: Well, I think- Pat's bill, I'll defer to you.

REP. PAT RYAN: But so this is a bill, by the way, that's been going on. We've been having this fight in this country for longer than both of our time in Congress, I believe. This is something I actually picked up from the representative who I- two people before me who served my district. And this is a bill to make sure that the children and family members of military folks have the same healthcare coverage as other Americans. That's it. It's- it's- it's actually just getting them to the same level of coverage under the Affordable Care Act, for TRICARE. And the reality is- is that it costs some money to do the right thing to make sure these- these young people have coverage. And because of that, we have not been able to move it through. So we've been working together with this Caucus of bipartisan military veterans to apply pressure. Because if we don't apply that pressure, if we don't shine the spotlight on this problem, it will get sort of stuck in the dysfunction of the Congress right now. And it's just too important, I mean--

REP. MIKE WALTZ: The- yeah, the Caucus is the For Country Caucus of veterans, both sides of the aisle, Republican and Democrat. And we- we're working, I think, I want to say to get that into the defense bill.


REP. MIKE WALTZ: But the issue is getting it paid for underneath the caps that were agreed to last year. But I do think eventually we will get this through. Legislating is a little bit like, I don't know, like football, sometimes. You run up the middle and it's three yards and a cloud of dust. But I- I do think we'll get it through. At the end of the day, it's becoming a recruiting and retention problem when service members can't have their kids covered.


REP. MIKE WALTZ: Right? And so if they're looking at other alternatives or getting out or getting other types of coverage for their kids, then that's becoming an issue for the Pentagon. We're working with them to make it a priority and working with leadership to make it a priority and get it paid for.


REP. PAT RYAN: I mean, it's hundreds of thousands of military service members and their families right now in this country that don't have the same healthcare coverage as other Americans. That is outrageous.


REP. PAT RYAN: And yet again, it- it- it gets stuck in the- the typical excuse making. And especially for folks, I think, that are served and are mission oriented and outcome oriented. It's incredibly frustrating when you- when you hear those things and you get the same excuses. So I'm encouraged and appreciate Mike's partnership on this, because it's gonna take us breaking this current mode of legislation to solve these kind of problems.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You also have some other areas of bipartisan agreement. Congressman, I heard you yesterday- I heard you pressing Secretary Blinken on getting more visas and helping some of those Afghan allies who fought on the battlefield alongside the United States. He pushed right back at you and said, "Congress, extend this program past 2026, give me more visas." Why isn't that getting done?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: We had a measure in the defense bill that we were working on just last night to increase the number. My issue with Secretary Blinken is regardless of the overall cap, they're still three years on only processing a thousand a month. That may sound like a lot, 12,000 a year, but we still have 150,000 to get out. So do the math, what I was asking Secretary--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --150,000 Afghan allies of the United States--

REP. MIKE WALTZ: --Afghan, SIVs that stood and fought with us, were willing to die with us fighting extremism, that we have a sacred promise to get out and are being hunted down right now by the Taliban. Twelve years is not acceptable. That's the amount of time at the current pace to get them out, literally as the Taliban are hunting them down. That's my issue.


MARGARET BRENNAN: All right, I wanna pick up on that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We are in an election year, which means politics get even sillier. How are you going to be able to lift the number of visas to get some of those Afghans who fought alongside the United States into this country when immigration is such a hot button issue?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: Well, look, if there is anybody who deserves to be here, legally, it- are- it's the SIVs, the interpreters, the Afghans that were willing to die for us, for our common values in fighting for our freedom and protecting the homeland from another terrorist attack. So, this has been a bipartisan issue. I don't think it's going to be an issue. It'll be in the next defense bill. But again, regardless of the number--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --The number? Eighty, what there are 80,000 or more--

REP. MIKE WALTZ: --Right--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --You're gonna get that through?

(REP. MIKE WALTZ: But they're only processing now 12,000 a year and these are people that were already in the system. And it's not as though they're kind of hanging out, maybe in not the greatest conditions. They're literally in hiding. They are being executed, tortured and murdered by the Taliban simply for working with the United States. I had the brother of one of my interpreters, who we got out. The Taliban hunted down his brother and his cousin. They drug him behind a truck through the village to death to send a message, "Don't you ever work with America again." That's happening right now as we speak and taking 12 years to honor our promise is just simply unacceptable.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you both believe that this will get done in the coming year, because the program expires 2026.

REP. MIKE WALTZ: Yeah. I'm confident.

REP. PAT RYAN: And this has been something that, again, this For Country caucus has really been focused on for several years now. And you know, to your question and your point, Margaret, we have to figure out to both apply pressure on something that's existential to our values, I think our American values of keeping faith with our allies, but also turn down the temperature and remove these things that should not be partisan. That should not be divisive. Remove them from this really toxic rhetoric that's starting to dominate,you know, so much of at least the- the media coverage of, of Congress. I mean last night we were up till very late in a very productive, mostly boring,defense bill markup that happens once a year. And you know, the American people should see more of that. We disagreed on principle on policy and then we came together and actually had a standing ovation, late last night.

REP. MIKE WALTZ: And the bill came out what- 59 to one?


REP. MIKE WALTZ: Something along those lines that never happens anymore. And there, there are going to be contentious issues. I think the Afghanistan withdrawal, and how that was conducted, is going to be a campaign issue. We are going to highlight that failure on this administration, certainly from my perspective in a campaign year, but at the same time we can work to still honor our promises to our, to- to the Afghans, and press the administration to do the right thing.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So to that point, I know you were up in New York with Donald Trump in his, court case there. Can you get Mr. Trump to support your effort here? Because that would make a difference wouldn't it? In getting other Republicans on board?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: Oh, he is not only of- we introduced and had some of our Afghan allies with him. We've had the 13 Abbey Gate gold star families with him. He's promised them directly to release all the tapes, all the transcripts, all the emails, just full transparency so that they have some closure. They still to this day have questions about how their service member died, why they were in the position that they were in, and what have you. So I- I'm confident he'll be completely supportive. Not only transparency for them, but honoring our promises to our allies.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But on the visas? Will he bring those Afghans to America?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: -- And on the visas too? That's right. That's right--

MARGARET BRENNAN: -- Because you know--

REP. MIKE WALTZ: That's legal-- I mean that is legal immigration. And- and if you talk about anyone who is- this isn't just some kind of lottery as our current system is. These were people that were willing to fight and die for America. Absolutely we'll honor those promises and I'm confident he will as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: For both of you, neither of the two presidential candidates have served in uniform Biden received five draft deferments from Vietnam. Trump, five draft deferments as well. What do you think your past service does for your thinking? Why do you think it's important for leadership?

REP. PAT RYAN: We're it's essential to have people that have been on the receiving end of foreign policy at the table, especially with, with the 50- 58,000 names behind us to keep in mind that every one of these decisions has tremendous human consequences for the service members, for their families. And there's not enough of that right now. Both in the presidential candidates and in Congress, I mean we're- we're working to get more military veterans and others who've done real national service--

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why do you think the number serving is so low? When it's less than 1% of the population is active duty.

REP. PAT RYAN: Yes. In Congress, at least we're getting, the number up closer to 20%--

REP. MIKE WALTZ: -- We've increased it, for the first time in 40 years.

REP. PAT RYAN: -- Yeah--  

REP. MIKE WALTZ: -- Just this last- this congressional cycle.  

REP. PAT RYAN: But in terms of the divide between 99% of Americans who aren't serving and the 1%, that is deeply problematic as a democracy. When you lose touch between those that are fighting our wars and their families and everyone else. That's something so essential that we have to figure out how to bring folks together, and- and get more folks serving. So that's again- another thing that- that we're focused on. A lot of the work we did last night on the defense bill is recruiting. Every service has been challenged on recruiting numbers and we've been pushing and a bunch of directions to say that is not acceptable to the Department of Defense. And, and we're starting to see the numbers come up

REP. MIKE WALTZ: And- and service doesn't just have to be in the military. And one of the things that we're both, adamant and advocates of is getting us back to national service as a country. That's not a draft. That doesn't necessarily have to be in uniform, but it could be with the national park, inner-city tutoring, elderly care. But how do we get young people out in an environment where they're learning leadership, discipline, followership, serving a cause bigger than themselves and with fellow Americans who may not look or come from the same backgrounds as them. I think there's ways we can incentivize that. You know, people here are talking about just giving away college or just eliminating debt. Well, how about the American taxpayer gets something in exchange for that in terms of service, you graduate high school, you go serve a year or two, maybe it's FEMA, maybe it's the- the Peace Corps and then you get- get some type of benefit. So I think we need to rethink service as a- as a country and also in the= in the defense bill, we've expanded junior ROTC in high schools where you get those positive male and female role models. You get those life skills, you get those leadership and- and in teamwork skills. I think that will make a difference in the vast majority of the expansion of junior ROTC in high schools will happen in minority- minority, majority high schools where we've had the most problems with recruiting.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I was looking at a Pentagon study that said one in four active duty service members suffer from food insecurity. And then within that subset, it were- over 120,000 dealing with extreme food insecurity. How is that possible in America right now?

REP. PAT RYAN: It's a disgrace. We have soldiers. I have this in my unit when we were deployed overseas in combat, their families were home on food stamps using SNAP benefits. So one of the things we've done the last several years is raise baseline pay significantly--

REP. MIKE WALTZ: -- For the most junior--

REP. PAT RYAN:-- for the most junior soldiers who are the most left behind right now. Raise housing, basic allowance for housing, VAH,  housing costs across the country are so high. So bringing up housing and- and the quality of life in- in barracks, thinking about all the elements of a family's cost. Like that's why this healthcare bill is so important, because health insurance is such a driver of- of that pressure. So again, if the American people knew you had people putting their life on the line for the country, not able to put food on the table, we have to wake people up and stop focusing- I mean, some of the, with respect to our colleagues, some of the- the tenor and the tone is disgraceful. When you think about the urgency of just that problem, we just talked about, we've gotta come together. We have to, it- it is so we--

REP. MIKE WALTZ: -- These are serious issues and we need- we need serious thoughtful approaches?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Can you change the tone? I mean, we were hearing about concern about political violence, not just threats to lawmakers and to your staff, but concerns about political violence in America, particularly in this election year. Can you change the tone?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: I think that, you know, our governments comprised of the people and their backgrounds that- that come to it. And you know, we were- we were talking about that in the 70- 75% of the Congress, Senate and the House, were vets. By 20- by 2018, 2020, when I came in, it was down to 15%. We've been recruiting both sides of the aisle, more veterans to say, hey, you're not done just because you came overseas, your country needs you. We've increased that number back up to 22- and I think it's going to- 22%. And I think it's going to keep going higher. People with real skin in the game- just a few years ago, Margaret, we could have been in the same platoon together, willing to die together. No one cares on that helicopter in the middle of the night, what political party you're in. Right? Then we could come together and try to fix these problems.

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden's addressing the graduating class at West Point. What do you think he needs to say to those young men and women?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: Well, President Biden, of course, is going to honor these young men and women who are willing to step up and- and devote their lives to service. But I hope- also hope he sends a message out to our adversaries and to our enemies. Iran is on the march. We're seeing an unholy alliance between China and Russia. We frankly have our allies that are not doing enough in- in our view to contribute to Ukraine and to 2% of their national defense, right now only 11 of 31 NATO allies are- are- are contributing with World War II- World War III on their doorstep. If they're not gonna do it now, when are they? So our adversaries, our enemies need to respect and to fear us, that is how deterrence works and keeps the peace. And those officers need to know that they are going to be the best trained, best equipped and best led military in the world with unprecedented threats that they're facing. But I- I really pray that we see a strong message from Biden right now because deterrence is crumbling around the world.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But are you comfortable then with how Donald Trump speaks about veterans?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: Absolutely. He loves our veterans. And our veterans love him--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --What John Kelly has said. He heard him say--

REP. MIKE WALTZ: --I mean- I, like I said, I've seen him with Gold Star families. He was only supposed to spend 30 minutes to an hour with him. He ended up spending six hours with him, meeting with each one individually, talking to them collectively. Then said, come on, let's have dinner, closed down the restaurant. I had two of the Gold Star mothers come up to me afterwards and say--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --These are family members of people killed in Afghanistan?

REP. MIKE WALTZ: This is the best thing that had happened to them since they'd lost their loved ones at Abbey Gate in Afghanistan. I mean, that's the- that's the man I've seen behind the scenes, hugging them, consoling them and saying, what do you need, what questions do you still have? We'll get the answers. That's- that's the man I've seen. And- and I think that's the, you know, someone that we need to have as a Commander in Chief.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll see in election year. We got to break this down because of the rain. I know. All right. Thank you.

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