The first West Point graduate to represent the academy in Congress — a Democrat — is warning Republicans against using the military academies in their planned war on “wokeness.”
In an interview Monday with Military.com, Rep. Pat Ryan, D-N.Y., argued political attacks such as GOP accusations of “critical race theory” infiltrating the military academies undermine public trust in the military and distract from preparing the services to compete with China.
“Especially at a time of great global risk and change and uncertainty between China and Russia and everything else, we need to be the adults in the room here. We need to be the ones thinking not about scoring political points or what’s gonna get you more likes on Twitter or hits on Fox News,” he said.
“I have zero time for the political distractions and BS, and I will very aggressively call that out,” he added. “The ultimate irony to me, a lot of people calling this out haven’t spent a single day in uniform, and I think that certainly shows in how they’ve conducted themselves.”
Ryan, a self-described “red shirt freshman” who expects to return to the House Armed Services Committee this Congress after his short stint at the end of last year following a special election, spoke with Military.com by phone about his military and veteran priorities this year. He spoke a day after holding a ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point overseen by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who nominated Ryan to the academy two decades ago.
Ryan highlighted preparing for competition with China, conducting oversight of the new military toxic exposures law, and getting a bill he first introduced last year related to Department of Veterans Affairs home loans across the finish line as among his top priorities.
Ryan, an Iraq War veteran, was first elected to Congress in a special election in August in a race that gave Democrats hope the expected “red wave” of the November elections wouldn’t materialize — hopes that were borne out when Republicans won a narrower House majority than expected and Democrats retained control of the Senate. Because of redistricting, Ryan ran this time in an adjacent district in the general election that includes West Point, making him the first academy graduate to represent the school in Congress.
With their narrow House majority, Republicans have vowed to target “woke” military policies, a term they apply to a wide range of policies they disagree with but most often refers to efforts to make the military more welcoming to minorities, women and nonconforming genders.
Republican attacks on wokeness in the military have also pulled in the military academies. An infamous exchange between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee in 2021 centered on allegations that critical race theory was being taught at West Point. Critical race theory is an academic framework largely confined to graduate-level courses that examines the intersection of law and racism but has become a label the GOP applies to any discussion of racism in America.
Ryan dismissed such attacks as a “distraction” from the more important issue of ensuring the military academies are training leaders and building a military force that’s ready for competition with China.
Ryan offered few specifics on what Congress should be doing to advance the military’s China strategy, though he commended some steps the military has already taken, such as the Marine Corps‘ reorganization of forces in the Pacific. In general, he said will be looking for “more creativity” and “a fresh set of thinking” during the upcoming budget cycle when it comes to tackling threats from China.
He also said he thinks the newly created House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, one of the only House proposals to receive widespread bipartisan support so far this year, will be an important “clearing house” for lawmakers to craft a “comprehensive strategy” on China. While he would like to serve on the committee, he acknowledged his junior status makes it unlikely he will be appointed to the panel.
“I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old, two boys, and at the end of the day, if we don’t get this right, this being the competition with China, I fear that they could fight in a World War-style conflict with China that would be devastating for the whole world,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ryan pointed to his experience as a veteran as he discussed conducting oversight of the PACT Act, the sweeping measure passed last year that expanded health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service. One area he wants to keep an eye on is whether more symptoms and medical conditions need to be added to the list of illnesses presumed to be connected to service after the bill added 23 diseases.
Ryan himself enrolled in VA health care for the first time in December after the PACT Act allowed post-9/11 veterans who didn’t previously enroll to do so. He said he found the experience harder than it needed to be since he was missing some paperwork and, rather than being able to show someone the copy he had in his email, he had to print out a hard copy and fax it.
“It’s 2023, and I have to fax something to get access,” he said. “You think about the number of people who might already be hesitant to go, then you go and it’s not as smooth as it should be, and it just further dissuades people from getting the ultimate care they need or should have. So I’m not knocking the great people that work at the VA because they work hard and they really believe in the mission. But we’ve got to bring it into the 21st century in terms of a lot of the technology and the approach.”
More immediately, Ryan said he’s pushing for passage of his bill to expand VA home loan eligibility to more Guardsmen and reservists. Specifically, the bill seeks to ensure that any day Guardsmen and reservists are on federal active-duty status, including for training, counts toward home loan eligibility. Right now, Guardsmen are eligible after 90 days — 30 of which must be consecutive — of “full-time National Guard duty,” but Guardsmen have said there are gaps in the law that cause them to be denied loans.
The bill passed the House in September, but was not taken up by the Senate before the end of the year. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., introduced the companion bill in the upper chamber in December, and Ryan attributed the holdup in the Senate just to the fact that there was not enough time left in the year, adding that he’s hopeful it will become law now that there’s a full congressional session to take it up.
“I still think in a very divided moment politically, we are going to be able to come together around issues of national security, of taking care of veterans and military families, and I remain optimistic that we can do that,” he said. “When there are other members and other folks who are in it for their own, whatever reasons of ambition or whatever reasons are causing them to politicize this stuff, we have to call them out. So I will certainly be doing that on behalf of all my fellow service members and veterans because we are more than those that have put their life on the line and those that are in harm’s way right now.”
— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.