Elissa Slotkin represents Michigan’s 8th district. She has also served her country in Iraq as a CIA officer and as an advisor to both President Bush and President Obama. Representative Slotkin truly understands the power of team work and putting service first.
Announcer: The views and opinions of the guests of the “Me You Us” podcast do not represent the views and opinions of Consumers Energy.
Bill Krieger: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Me You Us, a wellbeing podcast. It’s another wellbeing Wednesday here at Consumers Energy. I’m your host, Bill Krieger. Today, my guest is Representative Elissa Slotkin. She is from Michigan’s 7th Congressional District. Representative Slotkin, if you’d introduce yourself, we’ll get the conversation started.
Elissa Slotkin: You bet. Hello, everybody. I am the current representative, since 2019, of Michigan’s 8th District, Lansing to Rochester. I’m a former CIA officer and Pentagon official. I did three tours in Iraq as a CIA officer alongside the military.
Met my husband on my third tour in Iraq. He’s a career army colonel, an Apache pilot, who was working for General Petraeus at the time. I have two stepdaughters, both in service. One is a brand new army officer. She’s with the 101st right now. The other one is a brand-new physician for the VA.
We are service people and were happily doing that, until I decided to run for office and do this crazy thing back in 2018.
Bill: Excellent. I want to talk about service. In looking at all of that, that’s quite a family history there. I did dig a little bit deeper back into family history and found out that your family is responsible probably for the one food that’s my guilty pleasure anytime I go to a ballgame. That’s Ball Park Franks.
Your family is deeply entrenched in Michigan. You’ve been here for a while.
Elissa: I’m a third-generation Michigander. My great-grandfather, when he immigrated to this country, he worked his way up through a slaughterhouse and being a traveling salesman of meat. Then saved up enough money to start his own little company, which became Hygrade Foods, and was headquartered in downtown Detroit from the ’50s on.
We got the first contract to sell hotdogs at Tiger Stadium because we figured out how to make a hot dog that wouldn’t shrivel after three hours in the steam. It was so popular and became such a hit with people who came to the ballpark that we turned it into the Ball Park Frank as a brand. Then ultimately, sold the company years later.
Yes, we are hot dog people. My entire family, my dad, his brothers, and his cousins, everybody was in the family meat business.
Bill: Yes. If you somehow didn’t grow up sometime in the ’70s or ’80s, you’re absolutely right because they do pump when you cook them, is the phrase there.
Bill: I wanted you to come on today because as a military veteran myself, sometimes I have this blind spot when I think about service to the country and service to our fellow man.
I started thinking. I looked at the service that you’ve done, not just in your service for the CIA in your tours of duty, but also, the service that you continue to do as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, the Homeland Security Committee, and something that’s near and dear to my heart is the Veterans Affairs Committee.
I want to talk about this concept of service. I don’t know how much you can talk about what your service was like as a CIA officer. Serving in Iraq in that area with our soldiers and airmen, what was that like for you there?
Elissa: I’m what’s called a 9/11 baby. I was in my early 20s. I was on my second day of grad school in New York City when 9/11 happened. It completely changed my life. I know so many people around my age who that was this existential moment for them, was 9/11, when we were attacked.
I got recruited by the CIA within that year. Then a year after starting at Langley, I was off on my first of three tours in Iraq. I was brought in as a terrorism and militia expert. In particular, had a specialty in Iraqi groups, Iraqi militias, and terrorist groups.
I was sent over originally. Went to weapons training, defensive driving, and combat medicine, and was sent to travel alongside the military, helping them understand the groups that were shooting at US forces and plotting against the Homeland.
I am always reticent to reference Hollywood, but my job was to understand, in detail, these groups. Who are their leaders? How they get their money? How they get their weapons? How they communicate? Where were they based? What was their organizational structure like? We would help the military understand these groups and go after them, basically.
I did that, certainly, as a big part of my work. I, also, on one of my tours, through a coincidence, ended up becoming the intelligence briefer for the ambassador and the commanding general. That was General Casey at the time and Ambassador John Negroponte.
I would wake up at 2: 33 in the morning, walk from one end of the Green Zone to the other. Read all the classified traffic, the top-secret traffic that came in overnight. Then go and see the two senior-most American officials in country in Saddam Hussein’s palace at 6:00, 6:30, and brief them on the classified information that had come in overnight.
I did that and a bunch of other things on different tours. All of it was basically taking an expertise and a deep background on these groups, and helping other agencies, other military units understand these groups.
Bill: I would venture a guess that as a commander in Northern Iraq in 2006, 2007, we probably greatly benefited from some of the work that you did. I remember some of the briefings that we would get. It sounds like some of that information that you were probably putting together. Thank you for that. It was very, very helpful.
Elissa: Look, it was a formative time in my professional career. That’s for sure. One of the things that’s most valuable for me looking back on it…It’s not like it was an easy time. It wasn’t like as Americans, we were there and everything was just hunky dory. It was a very dangerous time. I was there in ’04, ’06, and ’08.
I do think that different government agencies work exceptionally well in the field together. Sometimes they argue and they bicker in Washington, but when you’re in the field and it’s about the mission, it is one team, one fight.
It was very important that as a young adult, I was able to experience that sitting next to the FBI in the hostage working group, sitting next to our uniformed military, understanding their perspective on things, and that camaraderie that comes from teamwork.
That, to me, is a very important lesson that I try to carry with me in Congress, where I tell people all the time, when I was in Iraq, I would work 15 years next to somebody and never know how they voted. Never know their political affiliation. In fact, as you know, it’s taboo to ask. I wouldn’t even think to ask.
That’s extremely important experience that I try to bring into what is obviously a very political environment of the US Congress. Just remember, it is about one team here, whether we feel that way in our country at this moment or not.
Bill: We talk about one team, one fight. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve developed friendships with my entire military career that will last the rest of my life, as I’m sure you have. I know we have a limited amount of time, so I want to ask also, what attracted you to serve in Congress and in politics?
As you alluded to, it’s not that easy these days to do that, and to try and get that one team, one fight idea across. What attracted you to want to serve?
Elissa: I would describe myself as almost apolitical for many, many years. I worked in the Bush White House. I was there the Friday that he left office. I was there the Tuesday that Barack Obama walked in. I did the same job as a civil servant for two very different presidents, proudly. Proudly.
What changed for me was the tone and tenor of the 2016 presidential campaign. Just this feeling like, I’d worked for Republicans, I’d worked for Democrats, and it just felt different. The tone, the divisiveness, and the turning Americans against each other as a strategy felt very different.
I was at the Pentagon at that point. I’d gotten senior enough that I was an assistant secretary of defense. I left the Pentagon when President Trump was sworn in. I was senior enough that I was like it’s normal to leave these positions when a new president comes in.
Came home to Michigan, trying to figure out where to interview and what to do. Just started getting more interested in politics. Googling, “Who represents me here? What are their views?” That was the first time I started to think about things.
That’s why I got in, but why I stay in, is because I think the country is going through something. We’re going through a difficult moment in American history right now. We will get through it. I believe that. I am not a pessimist. I believe in this country.
We have had hard moments in our past. We always get through it. We get through it with engaged citizens and principled leaders. I feel like my job right now is to do the best I can do to be one of those principled leaders in this particularly difficult moment in American history.
Bill: I appreciate that you say that. If you look at American history, I think that we forget that even right from the beginning, we had struggles, especially in the political arena. It’s polarized now, but it’s been polarized in the past as well. We’ve always come through. We’ve always come together and done the right things as a country. I appreciate that thought.
Elissa: I’ve been reading a lot of the historian, Jon Meacham. He has a great podcast called “Hope, Through History.” It’s literally about how right when we look back on things like the Civil War, or the Great Depression, World War II, it seems inevitable that it all worked out and we came through it.
Average person at that time and during those moments felt desperate that maybe the America they knew wasn’t going to be the America for their kids and grandkids. That’s how people feel now, in many ways. I commend reading history in order to feel a little bit better about our country.
Bill: No, absolutely. A turning point for me was reading the book, “Team of Rivals.” How it illustrated that Abraham Lincoln took his rivals and made up his cabinet, essentially. He took all the people he was fighting against and brought them together to help make those decisions. It’s a lesson we could take with us.
I don’t want to leave before we talk a little bit about your work with the Veterans Affairs Committee. I know the PACT Act has just been recently signed. Can you talk a little about the work that’s been done, and maybe some things that are coming up for veterans?
Elissa: Sure. The work that we did was basically a landmark piece of toxic exposure legislation for veterans. It was, for me, a labor of love, because one, my husband, my stepdaughter, my family, but that 9/11 generation veteran.
For the 9/11 era, burn pits are the Agent Orange of our generation. This thing that we all live near in a combat zone, whether you’re in Somalia, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, you live near a burn pit. We burn all of our waste, all of it, when we’re in a combat zone. Now, we have people showing up with these weird cancers and conditions.
We think another 3.5 million veterans are going to get access to veteran care because it presupposes that if you have one of those 23 conditions, that it’s service-connected. You got it through your service to the country.
I encourage anyone listening who’s a veteran who may not have qualified for VA care to just go Google those 23 conditions. If you have one of them, go walk into the VA in Detroit, Ann Arbor, or in Lansing. They are now trained to say, “OK, that’s service-connected. Now, we want to give you some tests. We want to get you into the system.”
That was a labor of love. Took about two years, start to finish, to get that done, but pretty proud of that one. Deeply bipartisan. Then in terms of what’s coming up, we just, last week, sent a new veterans bill that I’ve been working on, again, for two years, called the Solid Start Act, which basically, it’s on its way to the president’s desk to be signed.
It basically says that veterans have no idea what services and things they qualify for. From job placement assistance to health care, to cheaper rates on fun stuff, they have no idea. That first year of separation is a chaotic year. When you leave the military, it’s like your whole life is upended.
What we said is the VA is now mandated to reach out three separate times to every veteran in that first year of separation to introduce them to the family of services they now qualify for. So that you’re not just getting it in the two days before you separate when you’re thinking about, “Where am I moving? How am I packing?” All of that kind of stuff.
We also know that suicide rates for veterans spike in that first year of separation. It’s really dramatic. We know that when you’re not connected to the VA or any of those mental health services, the risk of a successful suicide attempt goes way up.
This is a good, I don’t want to say marketing bill, but it’s a way to tell veterans what they already qualify for. That’s on its way to the president’s desk. He’ll sign it. Then for the millions of veterans who leave, they will get contacted at least three times.
Bill: That’s exciting. I can’t tell you, when I first left the military, how difficult it really was. The way I found out about things was by talking to my peers. They’re like, “Oh, well, did you know this is there?” It’s great that that’s out there to help our veterans. Thank you so much for that and the work that your committee does.
I know we’re coming up on time. Before we go, I would just like to give you the opportunity to, what would you like our audience to take away from our conversation today?
Elissa: It would go back to that comment about getting through this difficult moment in our history. We talked about principled leaders, but it’s also about engaged citizens.
In all of those tough moments, the average person who does not consider themselves political, activist, or who just wants to have things work out for them and their families, they did a little bit more than they were used to doing. They got involved with community service. They ran for city council. They organized their block.
It doesn’t have to be saving the world with one fell swoop. It just has to be doing things that connect us to our communities again so that people see each other as human beings.
I would leave your audience with that challenge, that call to action, of what is that half an inch more that you can do to help our country repair itself? It won’t happen unless we get engaged.
Bill: Thank you so much for that. Engaged citizens, and also, treating each other like human beings. So important. Representative Slotkin, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I know our audience will take a lot away from this. I understand how busy things get, so be careful out there. Good luck.
Elissa: Thanks so much for having me.
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If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. That’s 988. If you’re a veteran or you know a veteran who is in crisis, you can call 988. Press one for the Veterans Crisis Line.
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