Navy SEAL skills serve Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke well
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 23, 2015
This is part of a continuing Stars and Stripes series profiling the 101 veterans now serving in Congress.
WASHINGTON – Rep. Ryan Zinke explains his philosophy of government through the 13 military combat knives he keeps in his House office.
They are all the blades issued to the freshman Republican from Montana over his 23 years as an officer with the Navy SEALs and a commander with Team 6. During that time, the special operators were searching for an ideal tool.
Zinke said he began his SEAL career with the classic Ka-Bar knife in the 1980s, during what he calls the ponytails-and-pirates era of the storied special ops teams.
It was a simple and effective knife design first fielded during World War II. But the SEALs were changing from the swashbucklers of the Vietnam era to a more conservative modern force, Zinke said, and they wanted to design a specialty knife to meet their unique requirements.
The result was the Buckmaster, a tricked-out, all-silver survival knife with a hollow storage handle, makeshift grappling hooks and a storage pouch. Despite the bells and whistles, the Buckmaster was heavy and unwieldly. Eventually, the SEALs moved on to simpler Bowie knife designs, yet still struggled in later years to find an all-American product as required by purchase rules.
By the end of his career, as a Navy commander, Zinke was back to carrying a Ka-Bar-type knife.
“The irony … we almost started where we ended. The lesson learned is sometimes the original stands the test,” Zinke said. “The lesson learned for acquisition is that sometimes when you have too many chiefs -- you know, everyone putting a requirement in -- what comes out doesn’t work well.”
Zinke may now be in a better position to do something about the bureaucracy that dogged the SEAL knife design.
The 54-year-old is wrapping up his first year as the sole representative for Montana – the second biggest district behind Alaska – and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which takes the lead in creating annual defense policy.
His focus has been trimming back military bureaucracy, focusing more on the warfighting abilities and front-line leadership that make up the “teeth” of U.S. might.
“You see it almost in every aspect of government. In the military, the decisions that should be made by the [Navy enlisted] chiefs are now going to flag officers,” Zinke said. “When you have 740,000 [Department of Defense] employees, which is now about equivalent to our active-duty Army and Navy combined, that’s an enormous amount of headquarters at the expense of your teeth.”
Zinke recently sat down with Stars and Stripes for an interview in his office.
Q: As the only congressman representing your state, you’ve criticized federal bureaucrats for being out of sync with local needs. What doesn’t Washington get about Montana?
A: It’s the same with the military. The view from the headquarters is oftentimes not the same view from the front line. One-size-fits-all may work in Washington but when you bring it out to Montana it just doesn’t fit. The model is either inefficient or trying to please everyone.
Q: As a SEAL commander, you have been in charge of nimble, effective teams. How does that compare to working in a Congress that many see as gridlocked and divided?
A: I haven’t seen anything in 10 months that is outside the ability of America to fix. That’s a good thing. There is an enormous amount of talent in Congress. The art is getting that talent organized where it acts as a team rather than individuals.
Q: Do you support the significant cuts to Defense Department headquarters staffing in the proposed 2015 defense budget?
A: The acquisition process in the military is broken. You have major weapons systems that are 17 years old before they’re fielded. Imagine having a cell phone that is 17 years old. The rate of technology is moving faster and we need to move at the speed of our competitors, and we’re not. What happens is you have these programs where you try to over-test and remove all the risk. It goes through a labyrinth of these desks whose only purpose is to say “no.” Now, we have the F-35 and other major weapons systems where the turnaround rate is too long. When we were kids, if you got something military it was cutting edge. Now, cutting edge rarely is in the military. You have to remove some layers, incur some risk and have some accountability.
Q: As someone who put in over 20 years of service, do you think the military retirement overhaul in the 2016 NDAA – providing 401(k)-style accounts to everybody -- is a good deal for those who sign up in the future?
A: It’s certainly more flexible. Some of the concern prior to this was individuals who served their country for eight years or 10 years would be without any transportable mechanism for retirement. The downside is there is some concern that it is going to be harder to hold people in because you can leave the service at 12-14 years. My response was, if you’re not happy and if you don’t feel like you’re being effective in your job then you probably shouldn’t be in the military anyway.
Q: People talk about the public being out of touch with the 1 percent or so who serve in uniform. Is there a cultural divide between veterans and non-veterans in Congress?
A: The divide really is practical experience. I think the consensus of Congress is they support the veterans. But supporting the veterans is more than just allocating resources. It is understanding what the veteran faces and understanding priority. Also, just because it is a Department of Defense budget, it shouldn’t get a pass. They have to be held to the same level of accountability as any other department. The military is the largest budget in discretionary spending -- I mean it dwarfs everybody else -- and yet we are running further behind on aircraft carriers, hulls and battlefield technology.
Q: What are the top legislative issues on the Hill right now for servicemembers and veterans?
A: Certainly the VA is a concern. The number of deaths of veterans who are waiting for medical care is a significant concern. Also, we have more women serving in the military than at any other period of time, yet the VA has not done a pivot to adequately address female health care issues. Traumatic brain injury is just appearing as an issue. As an example, we would oftentimes go into abandoned hotels for SEAL training and do repetitive explosive breaching for an entire block every day. Looking back now on what that means neurologically, to have a force of that magnitude repeated over and over again, is probably similar to a boxer or the NFL.
Q: The VA is moving toward more private care. Do you think that is a way to solve the agency’s problems?
A: I think it should be judged on metrics. If veterans are dying waiting for health care, that is inexcusable. That means we need options to make sure they have care. If the VA can’t deliver care in an appropriate time and be competitive with what’s out there, then veterans should be able to go out there and get private care. I think we need to look at shaking the VA up, and there are some things that VA should do better than anybody. I think they should do trauma, burns and prostheses better than anybody. They should do traumatic brain injury and help with that bow wave, and post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide support.
Q: How did the death last month of Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, an Army Delta Force special operator, affect your thinking on the U.S. intervention in Iraq?
A: I was privy to a lot of individuals, and close friends, that perished and I remember every one. I think it is a reminder of what the sacrifice is. Also, it is a reminder as a congressman to hold the administration accountable, to make sure we have the right rules of engagement to win decisively. When you go to battle you want to make sure someone has your back. That if you get in trouble there’s a force ready-trained to assist you, either a quick-reaction force, an air cavalry or a combination of both, as well as medical evacuation. All that I think is a requirement for a great nation to lend its troops that are in harm’s way.
Q: The president sent 50 U.S. special operators to Syria. How can they shift the momentum of the war?
A: I don’t see where 50 operators is going to shift the momentum. My concern is the operators are going to be put in harm’s way without sufficient support in terms of security, medevac and a quick-reaction force that’s near or co-located. And being farther from the front lines also has a downside. The people you are trying to motivate to fight don’t see that there’s a commitment to it. That has been one of the failures of this administration, that our allies don’t see us as committed.
Q: What should be our military strategy against the Islamic State?
A: I don’t think you can do it any worse than we’ve been doing. I’m concerned you have Russian aircraft that could be potentially flying over the forces that we’re trying to help. The agreement with Russia I saw simply is “don’t bump into each other” and a “don’t target each other’s air assets.” But it doesn’t speak to ground forces and whether you are going to engage. We have a case where we’re helping anti-Assad forces and they’re helping pro-Assad forces. ISIS tends to sit in the middle as a common enemy but the boundaries are not clear. ISIS isn’t wearing blue jerseys, we’re not wearing white and Russia’s not wearing red, so the operational picture is much more difficult. It will take an engagement with our allies in the area, and we are going to have to show them we are a reliable partner in this.
Q: What’s your most vivid memory as a Navy SEAL?
A: Probably being deployed forward in Iraq when my daughter was also deployed and my son-in-law was deployed. My wife was at home with my two young sons. Chris Kyle’s movie “American Sniper,” when that came out it focused a lot on the families back home, and that kind of prompted me to remember that period. That movie was about wounds and sacrifice.
Q: Your colleague from Oklahoma, Steve Russell, was an Army infantry commander and helped capture Saddam Hussein in 2003, in a mission that included a joint special operations task force. Did you two work together on that, and do you ever reminisce now that you’re both in the House?
A: We had very similar experiences and Steve is a good friend of mine. We were over there during the same basic period and we were facing the same challenges, to a degree. There is a lot of camaraderie in that, and our views are similar about the importance of accountability, of when you commit you commit to win, certainly the rules of engagement and taking the politics out of the battlefield. Being politically correct is not in the mission’s best interest.
Q: The mission that killed Osama bin Laden has made SEAL Team 6 more famous than ever. Are there any SEAL missions you really want to tell people about but are sworn to secrecy?
A: I signed disclosures on every one. With bin Laden, I think it should have been just “U.S. special operations forces” who were credited. I think we should have left it there. Over the course of time, it’s been drilled down to individual trigger pullers. ...
After bin Laden, the Obama administration released what SEAL Team 6 did. I’ve been very critical of this administration for releasing information, in some cases while special operations were still on target. That is unprecedented.
Q: Can women be effective SEALs under the current standards?
A: In my career, there have been women operators that I’ve worked with, and I think everyone has their roles and missions. I look at the Marine Corps study and I think the Marine Corps had it right. What is important is mission success, and everyone needs to do their duty to the capacity they can. It is not a question of being tough, it is a question of putting the right person in the right place. Not everyone needs to be a quarterback on a football team. Certainly women have a more significant role in the military than ever before, and I think we will continue to see that. Walter Reed (National Medical Center) has a significant number of women with weight-bearing injuries that have sentenced them to a lifetime of disability, so we have to be cognizant that the anatomy is different, and we want to make sure someone can go through a career without having to have a disability at the end.
Q: When did you join SEAL Team 6?
A: I was there in 1990. We were still in what I call the “pirate phase.” There was this kind of swashbuckler attitude. The senior enlisted more or less ran the team. An officer’s job was to be quiet and learn and not get in the way. And we were pretty wild. Over a period of time, I think the team had to change. In my career, I spent a lot of time training hard, a lot of time looking at the next contingency and a lot of time looking at what equipment was out there. Occasionally, there’d be a conflict. Today’s SEAL enters the service at war and they’re likely to spend their entire career at war. They are far more lethal. I would say that they are smarter, faster and more capable than my generation. People ask me how my generation would compare with SEALs in Vietnam. Well, just our equipment alone. We have mastered things that the guys in Vietnam would never even think about. I have no doubt that if the SEAL team of my generation went against the SEAL teams today, I wouldn’t last very long.
Q: Was being a special operator something you wanted to do since childhood?
A: I had no idea what a SEAL was until I graduated college. I played football at the University of Oregon. There was an admiral who commanded the USS Enterprise during the Vietnam War. He was a great Duck alumni and he used to give the leadership talks to the football team. He just commanded respect. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was going to be a field geologist working off the coast and diving as part of that. He said, ‘Well, if you’re going to dive, the SEALs are more your personality.’ He arranged for a recruiter and arranged to help me with a set of orders.
I certainly would do it all again, even with the mistakes I made going through. I miss the guys and I miss the camaraderie. I miss the mission focus. I was a witness to great talent. While I was never the best jumper, diver, explosive expert, I always knew who was. I had an opportunity to surround myself with what I think were the greatest teams assembled.
Q: You’ve said Teddy Roosevelt is your favorite president. What do you like about him from a military perspective?
A: He did what he said. Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t perfect certainly but he led from the front and he had the courage to think big. We have a lot of our public lands because he had the courage to look 100 years ahead and wonder what the United States should be. It was Teddy Roosevelt that drove the Great White Fleet, that understood the importance of having the Panama Canal, and that understood the importance of America emerging as not a country of isolationism but a factory of freedom.