Slotkin talks traveling to Turkey and Iraq, fixing the VA 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin at the American Legion in Oxford, Nov. 11, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

For Veterans Day, I spent the day following U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and her campaign team as they embarked on a full itinerary of events. This happened to coincide on mid-Michigan’s first day of real, sustained snowfall, and as a result, I ended up on a 24-hour odyssey

University of Michigan | Image by Renee Gaudet from Pixabay

I was finally able to speak at some length with the congresswoman after her last scheduled event at the University of Michigan. She had just emerged from a panel on national intelligence with Lt. Gens. James Clapper and Michael Nagata. The snow-related traffic had been so bad that Slotkin only made it for the last 25 minutes.

After the crowd of students and panel attendees around her thinned out, Slotkin spoke to the Advance about her unusually pragmatic politics, her thoughts on President Donald Trump’s promise to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and what she experienced during her recent Congressional delegation (CODEL) trip to Turkey and Iraq.

The following are excerpts from my interview with Slotkin for the Advance.

Michigan Advance: Trump has said that he wants to fix the VA, but we’ve seen mostly inaction on that front so far. Do you think that should be more of a priority for his administration going forward, and what do you think there still needs to be done?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin and her husband, Dave Moore, at the American Legion in Oxford, Nov. 11, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

Slotkin: Well, I’m on military insurance [through her husband, a U.S. Army colonel]. That’s my health insurance. So is a good part of my family, and my stepdaughter is a brand new physician at the VA. So this is something we think about from a family perspective all the time. 

And now, on the [U.S. House] Armed Services Committee, we get sort of a front row seat to it. To me, we still have some major problems in how we fulfill our commitment to care [for] and protect our veterans for their entirety of their life. And I am interested in ways that we improve access to care. If you live very, very far away, we have – especially places in Michigan – people who have problems accessing care. 

But I am a little concerned about some suggestions that we privatize military insurance, and I think the only action I’ve seen from the president has been action that suggests he’s interested in moving us towards more privatization. And I just don’t support that. We have a massive problem with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and suicide. I mean, we have now lost more veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to suicide than in combat. 

So it’s like an amazing statistic that demonstrates how long service in a combat zone affects people. I mean, it’s deeply, deeply disturbing. And I talked to some veterans today who are still really struggling. So we have a ton of work to do. Luckily, in Michigan, the VA here in Ann Arbor is one of the best in the country. We’ve just got to make sure anyone and everyone who served can access it in the way that it was intended.

Michigan Advance: And you think privatizing the VA would further —

Slotkin: I just think that there’s a lot of interested actors in privatizing the VA that don’t necessarily have the interests of the veterans at heart. And we have a problem with health care right now in our country; let’s not expand and extend the problem by privatizing the VA, where suddenly care goes through, you know, what I call the ‘cost gonkulator’ of the health insurance companies, where they are making decisions almost exclusively based on profit margins. 

That’s not what we ever intended for the VA. And I don’t want to see us move in that direction.

Michigan Advance: You were recently in Turkey for a congressional delegation trip. What did you see while you were there, as far as the humanitarian situation in Syria goes?

Slotkin: So we were in Turkey, having some pretty tough conversations with the Turkish government about what they were doing, present tense, in northern Syria, and then what they intended to do. And they’ve been very vocal about wanting to turn this safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border into a place where refugees, Syrian refugees, can go back to Syria and live. 

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And I just am having a hard time understanding the infrastructure, the support mechanisms. And we made it very, very clear that we have zero tolerance for ethnic cleansing, for forced migration, for forced repatriation, and for pushing people into an area where basic humanitarian standards cannot be met. So we had pretty tough conversations on that.

And then we had some of the groups that the Turks are using, some of these sorts of militia groups that they’re using to aid their efforts in northern Syria, are sometimes not very savory groups. So we want to make sure that it’s not just Turkish military behavior that they’re concerned with, but the behavior of their aligned militias should be within the normal realms of humanitarian standards.

Michigan Advance: Did you happen to hear from any Kurds of their perspective of how the situation right now is affecting them and how they feel toward the United States?

Slotkin: So we went from Turkey; we flew to Baghdad. And a number of the senior government officials, including the President of Iraq, is a Kurd. And then we flew to northern Iraq, which is Iraqi Kurdistan, where you have Kurdish Regional Government, and then a ton of Kurds who have now fled from northern Syria into Iraq. So we met with a huge number of Kurdish officials and Kurdish individuals, and they’re deeply concerned. 

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I mean, they’re concerned because they see their brethren who fought and died with us fighting ISIS, now running for their lives and leaving their villages. They’re concerned because they’re worried about the potential rejuvenation of ISIS. And ISIS was out to kill them just as much as they were out to kill … people in the United States or people in Europe, and they’re worried that they don’t know what the United States’ level of involvement is going to be.

So we did speak with a number of groups. And then frankly, we have constituents who are from Iraq, who are from Syria, who are working alongside the military, who are working alongside our embassy, who have reached out to our office to talk about their concerns about what’s happening in northern Syria.

Michigan Advance: And do you think that’ll have lasting impacts in the future?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin at the American Legion in Oxford, Nov. 11, 2019 | Laina G. Stebbins

Slotkin: I think we will be dealing with this disputed territory along the Syrian-Turkish border probably for the rest of my life. I think that the Turks do not plan to be leaving that area anytime soon, and they are interested in a long term change of demographics — which always has lasting implications, and not good ones.

Michigan Advance: I know that you prefer to come at issues from more of a nonpartisan political philosophy than many of your colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Do you think that aided you in flipping the 8th [in 2018]? Do you think that more of your colleagues should practice that philosophy?

Slotkin: For me, I mean, the 8th District is full of a lot of independently minded people. And that’s great, because I’m a very independently minded person. And I have tried, to the best of my abilities, to reach out to a broad group of people, to make myself available and introduce myself to people who never thought a Democrat would set foot in their town, and to represent the true interests of my district. That is what I tried to do. 

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presides over a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives on a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry centered on U.S. President Donald Trump October 31, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

And sometimes, that means going against my party. And the truth is, my background in national security has actually helped me prepare for this job very well. In national security, you are often asked to make difficult decisions that might be unpopular, because they’re the right thing to do for the country. And that’s what I feel like I continue to do. 

And I hope that my constituents believe that even if they don’t agree with me on every decision, they at least understand that I’m doing it based on personal integrity and what I think is right.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, immigration and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).