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Getting the job done’

Nicole Michels | Tuesday, September 17, 2013

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg disclosed orders to deploy to Afghanistan at a press conference Thursday, which will mark his first time in active duty. Buttigieg, a Lieutenant, Junior Grade (Lieutenant JG) in the United States Navy Reserve, said he received the orders on Aug. 28.

At Thursday’s press conference, Buttigieg said he expects to be mobilized from Feb. 24, 2014, to approximately Sept. 20, 2014. Buttigieg named City Controller Mark Neal to serve as his deputy mayor while he is on active duty.  

Indiana Code 5-6-2 holds that if an elected official is called into active duty during their time in office, he or she may appoint a deputy. Buttigieg said Neal will vacate his post as City Controller at the conclusion of 2013 and then return to the private sector when Buttigieg returns to South Bend. 

Buttigieg stated at Thursday’s press conference that he could not share details about his assignment for reasons “including operational security, personal safety and military policy.” However, he said his selection was based upon his qualifications and military background.

“There’s not a lot that I’m in a position to talk about now; what I can say is that this is work that I’ve been trained to do,” Buttigieg said. “It’s work that my command thought would be a good match based on my background, my rank, specialty training and so forth. I have some colleagues who have done similar work and I’m looking forward to applying my training and getting the job done.”

Buttigieg, 31, commissioned as a Lieutenant JG in 2009. Because next month marks his fourth year of service in the Navy Reserve, Buttigieg said he will then be promoted to the rank of full Lieutenant. 

“I’m a junior officer, so my responsibilities include work on the intelligence side that I can’t say very much about and then work on the unit side like organizing the fitness tests: running, push-ups, that sort of thing,” Buttigieg said. “It’s not glamorous, but it’s work that I enjoy and that I believe in and I’ve always been glad that I do it.”

Buttigieg said he joined the Navy Reserve after working on the Barack Obama presidential campaign during the 2008 primary election season.

“I was working [at McKinsey and Company] at the time but took a week off, rounded up some buddies and we flew to Omaha, rented a car and were sent to some of the poorest counties in South-central Iowa,” Buttigieg said. “We were in these small, mostly rural communities knocking on doors, and so many times I was knocking on doors and would have an interaction with a young man preparing for basic training, on his way to either the [Army National Guard] or the full-time military.  

“You knew that these kids were on their way to Iraq pretty fast, and to me they looked like children. … And it started me having a conversation with myself about why if all these kids [are serving], if this small town in Iowa is emptying its youth out, what my reasons are for not serving.”

After reflection, Buttigieg said he felt compelled to serve in solidarity with the kids he met in Iowa, and others like them.

“Suddenly all of these other things – that I was traveling a lot, that I was too busy, that I had another kind of career – for me they began to feel like excuses,” Buttigieg said. “It became harder and harder for me to explain why I was not serving, and I was especially concerned by the fact that it seemed like there was a bit of a divide between the people who served and the people who didn’t, and that it had to do with class and background. 

“If you compare that to my grandfather’s generation, for them, service was something that brought people together. People from different backgrounds, people from different races often got to know each other for the first time in the context of their service. And I think we ought to get back to that.”

Buttigieg said he decided to join the Reserve by the end of 2008, and took his oath one year later in September 2009. 

To remain prepared for active duty, most members of the Reserve and the Guard devote one weekend each month to training. Reservists and Guard members also complete a two-week tour of duty known as Annual Training each year. Though reservists do not complete this training with a definitive tour of active duty in mind, Buttigieg said they know they will likely be called to active duty at some point.

“This is something I’ve been training to do for years,” Buttigieg said. “All of the activity that reservists do on the weekends every month and then on the two-week annual training periods are designed to make sure that you’re ready for any kind of recall to active duty.”

Buttigieg said he will continue this weekend training until he reports to the Navy Operational Support Center Chicago on Feb. 28, when he will begin training more specifically tailored to his mission in Afghanistan.

“I’ll be going through a sequence of training that everyone who deploys to Afghanistan goes through,” Buttigieg said. “I’m not completely sure what to expect because I haven’t done it before.”

Buttigieg said he will deploy as a Navy “Individual Augmentee,” which means he will mobilize separately from the unit he has trained with during his time in the Reserve. He said this type of deployment is usual for people in his unit, though Guard members typically mobilize as a unit and know of their assignments further in advance.

While Buttigieg serves his tour of duty in Afghanistan, deputy mayor Neal will make executive decisions in his absence, but Buttigieg said he plans to remain in close contact with his administration while in Afghanistan.

“My priority, knowing I was going to be away, was continuity of government and making sure that residents of the city continue to feel that the government is serving them, and that our key initiatives continue to move forward,” Buttigieg said. “There are really three principles that will allow the administration to operate while I’m away. One of them is that department heads will continue to have a lot of autonomy to make decisions for their departments as they see fit. The second is that I’ll be involved as much as possible to make sure that my preferences and intentions are known. The third is that the deputy mayor will have all my authority while I’m away, so if there’s a need to get a decision or answer especially if I’m not reachable, that’s why we have somebody in that position and why there’s only one person in that position. That [person] will be Mark Neal.

“I really feel that there will be total continuity and terrific competence while I’m away.”

Neal’s administrative experience gained as city controller prepare him well to assume mayoral duties, Buttigieg said.

“He’s not a politician – he is mostly from the business community – but he understands government, and the role he’s in now … is one of the most pivotal roles in the administration,” Buttigieg said. “The Controller is responsible not only for the finances of the city, but also oversees HR [human resources] and technology. So, it’s a broad portfolio, which means he already understands what we’re doing as an administration in a cross-cutting way.”

Buttigieg said Neal’s experience within his administration strengthened his ability to serve as deputy mayor. 

“I think [Neal] is completely in tune with the overall vision of my administration, that’s one of the reasons I asked him to serve,” Buttigieg said. “He’s been with us from day one, so he understands and in many ways helped to shape the priorities of this administration.”

The relationships Neal developed during his work in the current administration also will help him as he begins work as deputy mayor, Buttigieg said.

“I think he has the right kind of perspective on how to get things done … he understands complexity and he understands people,” Buttigieg said. “So much of his job [as Controller] is working with people to get stuff done and he has built great working relationships with members of the Common Council, with the business community and with employees of the city.”

When he returns to office next fall, Buttigieg said he will be excited to return to working for the people of South Bend. Neal likely will return to the private sector, Buttigieg said.

“I think before, during and after my deployment we will have the same vision and the same goals for our city,” Buttigieg said. “Mark will be ready to move on, and will have richly deserved our thanks at that point, because he’s not somebody who is interested in publicity or ego, he just wants to serve the city. 

“He’s agreed to do this at considerable sacrifice, and I’m sure that once this tour of duty is over for him he’ll resume his private sector life – which he’s been eager to do – but South Bend will owe him a big debt of gratitude.”