Navy SEAL congressman volunteers for Wreaths Across America

Rep. Ryan Zinke
Kristina Wong / The Hill

A U.S. congressman and former Navy SEAL more than six feet tall, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mt.) was at perhaps one of the few places where he wouldn't stick out in his service dress blues — Arlington National Cemetery. 

Standing in line for more than two hours, Zinke waited along with thousands of other volunteers — many of them also in uniform — to receive Christmas wreaths to place at the gravestones of service members interred at the cemetery. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Zinke said volunteering for Wreaths Across America on Saturday morning was more than a congressional photo-op. 

He is a retired Navy SEAL commander and an Iraq War veteran, with more than 23 years of service and a half-dozen deployments under his belt. As a former unit commander, he feels a strong sense of duty to honor those who have served.  

Zinke's own son-in-law — also a Navy SEAL — just deployed overseas for his ninth or tenth deployment, and his daughter is a reserve Navy diver. He feels it's necessary to support not only the troops, but their families as well. 

Seeing the rows upon rows of gravestones at Section 60 — for those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan — he thought of the young men and women who've sacrificed their lives, their future families and their future children. 

"We often fight wars with our young," Zinke said. "That's the sacrifice." 

He noted that many of the headstones are marked Jewish, Muslims, Christians, lamenting the current religious and political divisiveness. 

"What's important is that they're Americans," he said. Veterans, he added, "have a higher purpose." 

Zinke has filled almost half his staff with veterans. In his Washington, office, of 18 staffers, six are veterans, and they are receiving a Navy fellow next week. 

Zinke, who has commanded over 3,500 special operations forces in Iraq, also reflected on the demands on young troops today — who he said have faced "far more combat experience" than those before them, in terms of tours, time away, and the strain on their families.

"This is the longest period of sustained combat operations in history by almost double," he said. "The force is strained but not broken." 

He also said believes that the U.S. has fallen into a trap of using special operations forces "to solve every problem." 

"Special ops isn't the answer to everything. Special ops is not the main guard," he said. 

Zinke's hard-won experience colors his criticism of the president's strategy to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

Zinke does not necessarily recommend sending more U.S. ground troops to Iraq or Syria, as some other critics have suggested, but would loosen what he says are overly restrictive rules of engagement in the war for the 3,500-plus U.S. troops in Iraq who are now fighting it. 

He said ISIS is aware of the U.S.'s rules of engagement, and their fighters know how to avoid getting hit. That combined with having to get Iraq's permission before engaging targets is making it easier for ISIS fighters to get away. 

"I'm concerned we are putting forces into harm's way without the rules of engagement advantageous to win," he said. "In order to prosecute war, you have to take some risk." 

He said he is the "last person" to advocate going to war. But when you have to, he added, you want to make sure troops have the right equipment, the right training and the right rules of engagement. 

"Putin drops bombs. We drop leaflets."

 

-- Updated 8:08 p.m.