His six years as a intelligence officer in the Navy Reserves, along with a six-month deployment to Afghanistan, makes a resplendent, not only shine brighter but with an air of validation.
The 37-year The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is part of the new generation of leaders who came of age after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and volunteered for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He and two other presidential candidates, Democratic Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Seth Moulton are veterans of those wars.
It's a chapter of his life that he calls at almost every campaign stop, a piece of his biography that has become almost as central to his presidential candidacy as his Midwestern roots or his time as mayor He mentions his credentials to distinguish himself from not only the most Democratic rivals, but also President Donald Trump.
"It helps me to demonstrate the difference between how I'm orientated and how the current president is," Buttigieg said in a interview here Thursday about his military service. "We responded to the country's call to serve in very different ways."
But Buttigieg rarely reveals that his path to the military actually came from a presidential race. As a volunteer for Barack Obama's campaign in Iowa 1
"I might have dragged my feet on it forever if I did not have that experience in Iowa and just realizing that some communities were almost emptying out their youth in military, and some were barely serving at all "Buttigieg told CNN. "And I wanted to be on the right side of that gap."
He asked if he was thinking in the time that his military service could help a future political career, he replied: "There have been times when it's been popular. has been unpopular. "
He added:" You never really know when you sign what it's going to be like over the years. "
While spending five years as a part-time intelligence officer, stationed just outside Chicago, He built his political career in Indiana. He was called to Afghanistan in 2014, just as President Barack Obama was outlining a plan to begin withdrawing American troops.
Military records reviewed by CNN show that Buttigieg was part of a unit dedicated to identifying and disrupting terrorist finance networks. While he was partly a desk job at the Bagram Air Base, he also worked as an armed driver for more than 100 trips his commander took to Kabul.
"Look, it's not like I was killed (Osama) Bin Laden, right?" Buttigieg said. "I do not want to overstate what my role was, but it was certainly something that was dangerous."
He said he was often assigned a role as a driver, which they jokingly referred to as "military Uber," because he It was trained to fire a rifle to keep watch for ambushes. But explosive devices along the roads were equally grave danger.
"There was at least two people with rifles in the vehicle, and I was one of those in my unit who was qualified for a rifle," Buttigieg said. "It often fell to me to make sure that the vehicle was either being driven or was being properly guarded."
Jason McRae still remembers the moment he met Buttigieg at the Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center near Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He did not know the man assigned to be his "battle buddy" was also an Indiana mayor.
"One of my early memories was that he had an earbud in and he was learning a language, I think it was Dari," McRae said in an interview, recalling that day five years ago. "Certainly I do not remember other folks who were picking up a language at that point in time."
A dozen people who served alongside Buttigieg in the Navy Reserves and in Afghanistan, who spoke to CNN, described him as mature and, yes, ambitious. But several said he was hardly alone on that front, especially in a reserve unit filled with prosecutors, FBI agents and other hard-charging officers.
McRae, who traveled to Afghanistan and back in the US with Buttigieg in 2014, said his friend not only learned a new language, but took interest in local cultures and studied the proverbs of Afghanistan. He described himself as "middle managers" following the instructions even as they discussed how the overall mission of the war seemed to be filled with uncertainty.
"To go through the deployment in Afghanistan, there are probably less dangerous ways to check box, McRae said when asked about his friend's ambition
"I had no idea at that point in time that he was going to run for president, right? Maybe he did, but I certainly did not," McRae said. "I have never had any reason to believe that he did it for anything other than a sense of duty and obligation to his country."
But Buttigieg spent most of his military service at Navy Reserve Joint Intelligence Operation Center near Lake Michigan, where he would drive from South Bend for a weekend duty once every month. He joined the unit in 2009, eight months after Obama took office, and volunteered for an overseas deployment.
Lt. Charles Murray, one of the leaders of the unit to which Buttigieg was assigned, said the young reservist was out from the beginning as "an engaged and astute critical thinker." He said Buttigieg was mature and upright, but did not seem to be in the reserves for the wrong reasons.
"I've seen folks there for a paycheck and nothing else. I've seen others doing it just because it makes They look better personally or professionally, "Murray said in an interview. "He never struck me as either of those."
Several others serving alongside Buttigieg, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had largely positive assessments of his service. They said he did not stand out, necessarily, until they had conversations with him. After he announced he was gay in the South Bend columnary column, after returning from Afghanistan, people in his unit were surprised, but supportive.
"Nobody had a problem with him," one reservist said. "We knew he was a Democrat and mayor with ambitions. The only negative thing I can say is that we lost him. The unit would have been stronger if he stayed."
Thomas Gary, who now works in Illinois The Treasurer's Office and served alongside Buttigieg, said the reservists have been quietly watching the presidential campaign with great interest. He and others said they were not surprised Buttigieg declared his candidacy, but did not see him as "a young man in a hurry."
"We do not have those individuals who are in uniform at the weekend, punching their tickets," Gary said in an interview. "But it was never my sense that he was one of those guys."
For Buttigieg, his time in Afghanistan is also responsible for another part of his biography. A year after returning home, he announced that he was gay.
"It was the reflection that I did while I was abroad," Buttigieg said. "I think it's kind of push me over the edge when I could've found more excuses to just take my time on coming out."