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Pete Buttigieg reflects on his military service in defense of national anthem protests

Posted at 11:19 AM, May 23, 2019

(CNN) -- Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on Thursday defended athletes who choose to kneel during the national anthem, saying that he served in the military to defend their right to do just that.

"I felt that I was watching Americans exercise a right that I had put my life on the line to defend," the South Bend, Indiana, mayor said during a live interview with The Washington Post when asked about athletes who kneel to protest police brutality and the mass incarceration of African Americans.

"The point of defending free speech is not that you expect to be perfectly aligned with every speech that is protected," he added, saying that this dynamic is a "huge part of what makes America, America."

Buttigieg served in the United States Navy Reserve in Afghanistan in 2014. He invoked his own military service to explain a host of his views on Thursday, including his position on President Donald Trump pardoning service members convicted of war crimes and Trump not serving in the Vietnam War because he received multiple education deferments and one medical deferment for bone spurs. Buttigieg is often asked about his military service on the campaign trail and he has said that it was that service that helped him focus his life and compelled him to come out as gay.

Anthem protests have been happening in American sports since 2016, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt to draw attention to racial injustice. The numbers of players kneeling grew in the following months and have continued, with varying degrees of participation, since then.

Trump, while running in 2016 and as President, called on team owners to stem the keeling and even suggested that the players should be fired for the protests.

"A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest," Trump tweeted in 2018. "Most of that money goes to the players anyway. Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!"

Buttigieg took issue with this view during the live interview, saying that when he served, he "didn't think of the flag, that itself as an image was sacred," but he did believe it was "sacred because of what it represented" and that included freedom of speech.

Buttigieg also used his military service to explain his view of Trump possibly pardoning servicemen and women who were charged with war crimes. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Trump requested paperwork allowing him to quickly pardon servicemembers either facing trial or those who have already been convicted.

Earlier this month, Trump pardoned US Army officer Michael Behenna, who was convicted of killing an Iraqi prisoner.

Buttigieg said pardons like that are "disgusting."

"When you serve, when you take that oath, that oath is to the Constitution," Buttigieg said, adding that if a soldier is "convicted by a jury of your military peers" and then let off by the President, it is an "affront to the basic idea of good order and discipline and to the law, the very thing we are putting our lives on the line to defend."

Buttigieg added that Trump issuing those pardons is "blowing a hole in the integrity of the military and he is putting troops' lives at risk" because, as he put it, those servicemembers who serve in harm's way like he did are somewhat protected by the belief that the United States stands for law and justice.

Buttigieg also said Thursday that he has a "dim view" of Trump "using his privilege to fake a disability to get out of service" in Vietnam while others went to serve in his place.

Trump attended the private New York Military Academy in high school, but he avoided the draft through a series of education and health deferments. After receiving four deferments due to education, Trump was diagnosed with bone spurs in his heels at the age of 22 in 1968, seven years before the Vietnam War ended. The diagnosis earned him a 1-Y medical deferment, meaning he was barred from military service in the same year that roughly 300,000 troops were enlisted into the military.

When asked point blank whether he believed Trump faked a disability to get out of serving, Buttigieg quickly added: "Do you believe he has a disability? At least not that one."

"This is actually really important," Buttigieg said, "because I don't mean to trivialize disability, but I think that's exactly what he did."