A Conversation with Rep. Michael Waltz
Before Rep. Michael Waltz became a member of Congress in 2019, he found acclaim as an entrepreneur, an advisor to senior Washington officials and a television commentator.
Waltz credits his success in these endeavors to what he’s learned in his 26 years in the military, mostly in the Maryland Army National Guard.
The first Green Beret elected to Congress, he continues to serve as a colonel.
He’s also a family man with a daughter in college and a son who arrived in January. His newborn’s nickname reflects his affinity for his service branch.
Waltz, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, sat down with NATIONAL GUARD’s Mark Hensch to talk about his background and the many issues currently facing the Guard, the entire military and the nation.
You’re a member of Congress and a Special Forces colonel in the Army National Guard with a new child. What’s your secret for juggling everything?
Time’s the great equalizer, right? No matter who you are, how wealthy you are or what you do, you’ve got those 24 hours in a day. I try to stay very disciplined with my time. I don’t have any hobbies. You know, it is family, representing Florida in Congress and Guard. That’s pretty much it. But somehow, we manage to pull it off.
I also have a great wife that herself was an Army veteran. She let me get away with naming our son “Armie.” His actual name is Arman Ben Waltz, but we call him “Armie” for short. It’s Ben after her father.
It’s a negotiation. The deal was, she said, “Fine with an -ie, not a -y.” I was like, “Alright. OK. As long as I get to say, ‘Go Armie’ around the house, then we’re good.”
As the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee, what are some readiness challenges keeping you awake at night?
Particularly as it pertains to the Guard, there’s two things. One is having modernization parity. As we modernize through the Army Futures Command and these different new weapon systems come online, the Guard has to be interoperable. There needs to be parity there.
I think the bigger issue when it comes to readiness is the Guard has just been worn out in the last several years in particular. Between COVID mobilizations — at one point, we were at 70,000-80,000 across the Guard, the largest mobilization in I think Guard history since World War II — the vaccine mobilizations, the social unrest in 2020 in particular. We even saw Guardsmen being used to drive buses and hand out food stuffs when you have labor shortages. And oh, by the way, they still have to train and be ready for their overseas mission.
So one of the things I’m working with the National Guard Bureau on is to take into account these — because obviously, the Guard works for the governor and the president — domestic mobilizations and how that affects readiness and how many Guardsmen each state should have to support their population. Because if you look at, for example, Florida and Texas and California, they’re ranked 52, 53 and 54 in terms of ratio of Guardsmen to the populations they’re supporting in their state, and that’s not sustainable.
NGAUS recommends Congress provide medical coverage to every military member. For Guard personnel, getting preventive care before unexpected deployments could be huge. What’s your take?
I’m certainly supportive. The issue is always how to pay for it. If you look at the overall defense budget, the thing that is eating up the most is the rising cost of health care and personnel costs in the out years. If you have a flat, topline defense budget and you have personnel costs eating up, you don’t have a lot left for training, modernization, procurement and all those other things.
President Biden has proposed a record amount of spending in next year’s defense budget. With the current rate of inflation, do you think Congress might add funding to that number like last year?
The budget the president put forward was wholly inadequate. The comptroller of the Defense Department told us in a hearing he used a 4% inflation figure. Why? I mean, it’s been clear for some time now that it’s hovering around 8-9%. Actually, that defense budget’s going backwards in terms of buying power. It’s actually a defense cut.
At the same time, we’re seeing Russia on the march, China on the march, Iran marching toward a nuclear weapon, North Korea, global terrorism. It’s not the time with inflation to be giving the Department of Defense cuts. It’s not acceptable.
In the foxhole, plane or ship, nobody cares about political party or race, religion or creed. It's just about your mission.
How did your Guard work prepare you for everything you do, including Congress?
I think the military in general — and the Guard as well — teaches you these life skills that I don’t think you get anywhere else. Leadership. Followership. Teamwork. Discipline. Having an objective mindset. All of those things have served me well in business and certainly now in Congress.
But I think the thing that is just as important is, you know, in the foxhole or on a plane or ship, nobody cares about black, white or brown. Nobody cares about political party or religion or what have you. You’re all American, you’re all soldiers with a job to do. You take care of the men and women to the left and right of you and you accomplish big things for your country.
I think that mindset, we need more of in politics. Unfortunately, we’re at a record low in our nation’s history in terms of veterans in Congress. We’ve gone from 75% to 16% from the 70s to now. I think that mindset is something we have to get back to.
What are the Guard personnel you’re drilling with passionate about?
It’s really mixed frankly. They’re really focused on what’s going on around the world. At the same time, they’ve been called on to do a lot. I mentioned COVID, vaccines, social unrest, guarding the Capitol, Jan. 6, all of these other missions. They want to stay focused on their overseas mission as well. Every time they have to go to their employer and say, “I’m being called up again,” it’s hard. It’s a retention issue. I just think they want me to realize — and me being in the Guard, it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed in — so I could see firsthand what stresses are being put on the force.
How does Congress get a Space National Guard into the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act?
I’m a big supporter. Florida is a Space Guard state. Of course, we have the Space Coast. One of the first pieces of legislation I put forward was to establish the Space Force. At the end of the day, I think that this will have bipartisan support, both sides of the aisle. We’ve seen that in the House. We’re seeing that in the Senate. I think the administration’s objections are unfounded. I think you’re going to see it in this NDAA and it’s not something the president would veto the defense bill over. I think we’re going to get it across the finish line.
The HASC has a reputation for bipartisanship. Why is reaching across the aisle important for this committee and Congress?
It’s how you get things done. Or at least you get things done that will last. Not only do you need bipartisanship in the House, but you’ve got to get 10 votes from the other side in the Senate to get it into law.
But at the end of the day, particularly in the House Armed Services Committee, these issues shouldn’t be partisan issues. It’s upsetting that they have become so so much.
We’ve passed a bipartisan defense bill [the NDAA] every year for the last 61 years straight. No other committee can say that. No other piece of legislation has done that. I expect it to continue. And I think the reason is we have so many veterans on the committee. It’s back to my point of in the foxhole, plane or ship, nobody cares about political party or race, religion or creed. It’s just about your mission.
How does your military experience influence your HASC work?
One of the reasons I’ve stayed in the Guard is it keeps me grounded. It’s everything from taking the new Army Combat Fitness Test to participating in the diversity standout that [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin [III] called for. Bringing that ground truth into legislating is really important.
I also did it when I was in the Bush White House, where I actually deployed to Afghanistan after I’d helped craft the strategy for President [George W.] Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney. Then I would come back and bring that ground truth of having just been out there a year back to the White House and policymaking. Only a Guardsman can do that back and forth. Literally, there I was in the White House Situation Room to the front lines back to the Situation Room.
Now I’m obviously not going to the front lines, but I still stay grounded with the force and bring those soldiers and Guardsmen’s concerns back into legislating, which is really important.
What have you been working on with the Maryland National Guard?
I’m part of the joint force headquarters. It’s everything from hurricane preparedness to being ready to support the inauguration. Gosh, the Maryland Guard has aging A-10 [fighters] and would like to be prepared to accept Joint Strike Fighter at some point, so kind of taking on broader issues like that for them. It’s really across the board. They have a very strong cyber presence.
I work a lot with them just because obviously I’m a member of the Maryland Guard, but I’ve commanded there and just stayed in the Maryland Guard.
I’m constantly in touch with the Florida adjutant general [Maj. Gen. James O. Eifert] as well and carrying some of their concerns forward. I get two flavors with both Florida and Maryland.
As a military veteran, how would you rate Russia’s military performance in Ukraine?
Horrible. It’s a real teachable moment in terms of readiness. Our intelligence community was spot on and absolutely got it right in terms of counting planes, tanks and ships, seeing them moving, seeing them massing and predicting when they would likely come across the border.
I think they completely missed it when it comes to readiness, morale, training, logistics, maintenance, the health of their vehicle and aviation fleet. That’s the part where the Russians are failing. That’s the part our intelligence community missed.
But bringing it back to now being the ranking member on [the] Readiness [Subcommittee], that’s the part that often gets shortchanged in our own defense budget and that we have to really keep a close eye on and do a lot better.
Do you think China is the single biggest long-term threat to the U.S.?
Absolutely. Actually, Russia is showing that they are far less of a threat than we thought they were. They have a nuclear deterrent. We always have to take that seriously. But their conventional military — heck, if they can’t handle Ukraine, they certainly can’t handle the most modern military alliance in world history, which is the NATO alliance plus the United States.
At the end of the day, the Chinese Communist Party fully intends to replace us as a global superpower. They intend to replace the American dream with the China dream, in [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping’s] words. And they’re developing the capabilities to do so. Their navy is larger than ours now, their space force is launching more into space than us and the rest of the world combined.
Technologically, they’re stealing their way to the top. And we’re funding it with our own money, with U.S. taxpayer dollars between our pension funds, Wall Street, academia, Hollywood, the sports industry, hedge-fund world. That’s the frustrating piece, but that’s the piece we’re working hard to stop here.
As someone with congressional, business and military experience, what’s the best leadership advice you’ve heard?
I really try to practice — and this is really from my roots as a Green Beret — bottoms-up leadership. Everything in the Special Forces community is geared toward supporting that operator or supporting that Special Forces team that may be out in the middle of nowhere, completely isolated. If you look at the liberation of Afghanistan in 2001, that’s the model.
I try to apply that. I’ve tried to apply that in business. I would end every meeting as a CEO asking, “What do I need to be doing for all of my front line employees?” Now, with my own team, I try to make decisions to make them more effective rather than demanding what they owe me.
I think as long as you put your soldiers, your employees, your team first as a leader, you’ll be in good shape.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS are not done. And the intelligence is clear they're developing the capability to hit us again.
What impact do recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq have on the Guard and the military?
I think the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the way it was conducted is, No. 1, just a moral stain on our national consciousness that we’re going to feel for generations. Every day, I’m still getting pleas, videos, cries for help from our allies that we left behind, women that are being abused, former Afghan female soldiers that are being hunted down as we speak.
From a counterterrorism standpoint, the problem hasn’t gone away. Al-Qaeda and ISIS didn’t get the memo that President Biden decided the war is over. They’re not done. And the intelligence is clear they’re developing the capability to hit us again. One way or another, we’re going to have to deal with it. And I think that’s absolutely going to impact the Guard and the Reserve one way or another.
What’s something surprising about the Guard most Americans might not know?
That’s actually something I’m trying to address with the National Guard Bureau and with the Department of Army — how much they’re called upon for domestic duties.
But the thing is, what we saw with the Colonial Pipeline hack that was literally this close to shutting down gasoline for the entire East Coast, what we’ve seen with the pandemic — the last three have come from China, there’s no reason to expect that the next one won’t, and everyone has been exponentially more lethal if you look at the deaths — not to mention natural disasters and other things, all of those the Guard is on the hook to be prepared for and to be ready to support the active-duty military in any kind of global contingency. It’s really a lot.
I think the surprise for me that a lot of people don’t realize is the breadth of things from presidential inaugurations to winter storms to hurricanes to pandemics to cyberattacks and overseas combat that your everyday Guardsmen have got to be ready to deal with. And, oh, by the way, they have a civilian job.
What could that agility teach the active-duty military?
I think it’s taught them a lot, actually. Post-9/11, when in the early days there was really this kind of looking down their nose — How could you possibly be prepared to shoot, move and communicate, Guardsmen, doing it one weekend a month or two weekends a year as we are doing it every day? But what the active duty learned — and I think now over the span of 20 years with so many operations together — are all those other skillsets that we bring.
I had a sergeant that was a vice president at a telecommunications company responsible for cell towers on the entire East Coast. He brought a lot to the table. I had another sergeant who was a neurosurgeon’s physician’s assistant. He brought a lot of other skills to the table.
I think those civilian skillsets are something that the active duty now really appreciates, particularly when it comes to places like space and cyber, where the private sector is so outpacing government to have someone that can go out, really understand the latest and greatest and then put a uniform on and bring that into our commands is incredibly valuable.
What are your thoughts on the Guard’s State Partnership Program?
I just had a conversation with the chief of staff of the Army and I don’t think he would mind me sharing that he is a big fan of the State Partnership Program. He thinks it’s completely underappreciated.
If you look at the results that we’ve now had from the long-term relationship we’ve had with Ukraine, the results that we’ve had from the long-term relationship with the Baltics as they’re getting stressed, we’re looking at applying a similar model to Taiwan and having great conversations there with the Guard Bureau, the Department of Army and the Taiwanese. It’s relationships that matter.
And the Guard, who doesn’t rotate around as much out of units, to have that habitual relationship with one of our allied countries — I’ve been a fan for a long time. And I think we’re really seeing it pay off in tangible ways right now.
What’s your favorite highlight from Congress?
I think for a while, I was the only congressman on jump status still jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. I’m not on anymore.
One of the real highlights of my time here has been jumping out of an original World War II aircraft over Normandy, over Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
I did it with a Democrat, a former Ranger, [Rep.] Jason Crow out of Colorado. I also did it with a 92-year-old paratrooper who hadn’t jumped since 1944. The reaction of the French people was just spectacular.
Those kinds of things I think veterans can bring to the table. America needs to see that kind of bipartisanship or that kind of focus on what’s really important.
AT A GLANCE: Rep. Michael Waltz
BORN: Michael George Glen Waltz, Jan. 31, 1974 (Boynton Beach, Florida)
FAMILY: Wife (Dr. Julia Nesheiwat) and two children
EDUCATION: Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia, B.A. International Relations, 1996
CIVILIAN OCCUPATIONS: House of Representatives, Florida 6th Congressional District, 2019-present; defense policy director for two secretaries of defense; counterterrorism advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney; founder and former owner of Metis Solutions, a provider of intelligence analysis and operational and tactical training; former Fox News Channel contributor
HOUSE COMMITTEE ASSIGNMENTS: Armed Services and Science, Space and Technology
MILITARY SERVICE: Active Component Army, 1996–2000; Army National Guard, 2000–present.
OVERSEAS OPERATIONS: Served worldwide as a Special Forces officer with multiple combat tours in the Middle East and Africa
ALSO NOTABLE: Lives in St. Augustine, Florida. Recipient of four Bronze Stars, including two for valor. Led the teams searching for Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl following his disappearance in Afghanistan in 2009. Succeeded Ron DeSantis, who was elected Florida governor in 2018. Author of Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan.
Source: House bio