Guest opinion: Tester fulfills constitutional duty

by Billings Gazette, Josh Manning

When I was in the U.S. Army I recited an “Oath of Enlistment” when I joined, gained rank, and re-enlisted. In it, I swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” There are fewer words you say in the military that show the seriousness of what you are about to do.

Our nation’s senators also must support and defend the Constitution. In that amazing document, our nation’s founders required senators to “advise and consent” on choices for executive office. Montana’s senior senator, Jon Tester, did this over the past week when he disclosed numerous concerns raised to him about the nominee to lead the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs, Admiral Ronny Jackson.

The concerns did not come from one unnamed anonymous source. Tester said he heard from 23 military personnel who served under Admiral Ronny Jackson in the White House Medical Unit. One witness is interesting and two can provide confirmation, but two dozen witnesses all saying much the same things point to a pattern. A disturbing pattern at that.

The details Tester revealed to the nation were much the same ones that have caused VA hospitals to toil and rendered many unable to serve the veterans guaranteed health care for their years of difficult service. There were numerous allegations (also underlined in an internal Inspector General report done years before the Senate became involved) of Admiral Jackson handing out prescription medications to people (and presidents) without following guidelines, of being drunk on duty and passing out on his hotel floor while in the service of the president, and of creating a toxic working environment by emotionally and verbally abusing subordinates. Are these simply allegations? Yes. But allegations of far lesser faults have sunk numerous other nominees in past administrations.

Montana has the highest per capita population of veterans in the country. Our VA hospital and clinics have numerous issues of their own just as in other states. Given these problems, installing an administrator that has little experience leading a massive bureaucracy and who exhibits many of the same problems as his agency would have been a disservice to Montana’s veterans, their families and communities.

So Senator Tester did something that not a lot of politicians in the nation are willing to do anymore: He took a stand. With a nod from the committee chairman, a Republican from Georgia, our senior senator ensured voters understood what he had heard from people who served under Admiral Jackson and gambled his re-election on doing the right thing. We have a name for that in the military – leadership.

When I became a non-commissioned officer I had to recite a lengthy creed about being part of the “backbone of the Army.” One phrase that sticks out to me now is this: “I know my soldiers and will always place their needs above my own.” This last week Tester did exactly that.

His job is not to be a rubber stamp for every person the president nominates. He is not a tool for an autocratic regime, which would run counter to what the founding fathers outlined in the Constitution and military leaders instilled in our culture. No, Tester took the idea of advice and consent to its truest form. He could not consent to a nominee unfit to lead the program meant to heal our nation’s wounded veterans. He advised the president and nation that this was not a good idea. Jackson then withdrew his nomination. The system worked and democracy continues to be an amazing thing. Do not lose sight of that.

Josh Manning is a three-time veteran of the Iraq War who lives in Helena.