PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Hank Naughton had been a Massachusetts state lawmaker for 22 years when 9/11 happened. Like many Americans, the horror and tragedy of that day compelled him to try and do something to support the wounded nation he loved. And in his case, even though he was 42 years old, he decided to join the Army Reserve.
“I had a great life to that point — family, political career, law practice — and I thought I needed to step up and do something,” Naughton says. “I joined the Army. It took some effort at 42 years of age. I showed up at basic 17 years older than the next younger guy.”
Since Naughton was a lawyer, the Army naturally put him into the JAG Corps. “I thought I would just do my duty at Fort Devens in Massachusetts doing wills and legal work for ‘Pvt. Snuffy,” he says. “But then things started coming down the pike.”
Naughton wound up deploying multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting the highest levels of the war effort — commands like the 3rd Army, Multinational Force Iraq, and 4th Infantry Division in Kandahar — with legal rulings on rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict. He also started the first women’s shelter during his time in Afghanistan, an effort for which he’s particularly proud.
Following those tours in the Middle East, he served in the Congo, an effort that he sums up as “trying to teach the soldiers there that rape is not a legitimate form of warfare.”
Between deployments, Naughton mounted a bid for Attorney General in Massachusetts, but “it didn’t work out,” as he puts it, so he continued to serve in the House. In 2015, he was sent back to the Middle East as part of Task Force 2010, an anti-corruption effort in Afghanistan, and then as a law of armed conflict advisor to the war effort in Syria.
This week Naughton is in Philadelphia where, among other duties, he’s serving as a Massachusetts delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He brings with him a legal and legislative background combined with years of recent firsthand war experience that give him a unique perspective on American foreign policy, the efficacy of which, he believes, has been convoluted during the current election cycle.
“President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been dealing a hand they were dealt by the Bush Administration,” he says. “There are a series of questions as to whether or not the Iraq War ever should have happened. Without the Iraq War, ISIS — Daesh — would never have come to fruition.”
Referring to the political opposition, Naughton adds, “They can be as critical as they want, but the decisions were made based on actions taken long before Barack Obama became President of the United States. They lose sight of the fact that there are still a significant number of our military brothers and sisters still there and a growing number back in Iraq.”
He’s also concerned that the political arguments between the parties are framing the solutions to the threats in dangerously simplistic ways.
“The Syria operation in the most complicated military/political/diplomatic/personnel operation that we’ve been involved in since World War II,” Naughton says. “There are 1,1oo different militias on the ground all with varying loyalties to each other and to parties outside the country.” He adds that he was in country when the Russians came in last summer, and he says that that “incredibly complicated the situation.”
Beyond the geopolitical realities, on a more personal level as a soldier-statesman, Naughton is worried how the campaign rhetoric is affecting troops’ morale.
“When I was on the Syria mission last year deployed with CENTCOM-Forward, we were not sensing a lot of support from our congressional leaders,” he says. “They can say all they want — ‘thank you for your service’ and pat us on the back — but they need to give us the resources we need and positive suggestions. Don’t just pull down for political profit.”
In spite of those fears, Naughton feels like gains have been made in the fight. “ISIS has lost close to 50 percent of the territory they had because of our efforts in the last year and a half,” he points out. “As we’re seeing, [ISIS] — because they want to have an effect on this election — they will continue to strike out on an international basis. I think we need to be prepared for that.
“And Donald Trump and the rest of his crowd can continue to blame immigrants and everybody else about these lone wolf attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, but the truth is our service members and homeland security have done a tremendous job preventing attacks,” he says. “One attack is one too many, but think of all that we’ve avoided.”
Putting on his Army JAG hat, Naughton takes issue with some of the Republican nominee’s recommendations on how to deal with the enemy. “The suggestion that we go after the families of terrorists is against the law of war, and any officer in the military has to recognize a lawful order,” he says. “What he suggests is counter productive. Breaking up NATO — the most successful alliance in the history of the world? I question the sanity of that.”
Naughton points out that he served with Peshmerga and Turkish officers who’ve questioned Trump’s proposed policy of banning all Muslims from entering the United States until “we figure it out,” as he said on the campaign trail some months ago.
“These are the bravest soldiers I’ve ever seen in my life and they wonder, ‘these are our allies? They’re questioning us because of our faith?'” Naughton says.
Naughton blames a lot of the political dialectic on the fact that none of the candidates have served in the military. “When my father came back from World War II and returned to the little town of Clinton, Massachusetts they’d stop after work for a couple of pops at the local pub,” he explains. “And if you didn’t know the guy sitting on the barstool beside you, the conversation starter wasn’t ‘were you in the war?’ it was ‘where we you in the war?” because everybody served. We don’t have that anymore. That’s not good, bad, or indifferent; it’s just the way it is.
“But when supposedly knowledgeable people say ‘kill the relatives of the terrorist’ or ‘turn the desert to glass’ or ‘carpet bomb them’ they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, and that affects the men and women downrange. It’s obscene, and it’s insulting to the members of the military. Worse, it puts lives at risk.”
Naughton continues to drill as an Army reservist with a civil affairs unit at the Newport Naval Station while serving in the Massachusetts House, representing the 12th District (Worchester) and chairing the Public Safety and Homeland Security committee.
While at the DNC he’s taken on the role of “whip” among the state delegates, making sure they’re on the floor of the convention and “voting appropriately,” as he says.
Overall, Naughton sees this as a crucial time in American history, saying, “I’m 56 years old, served four tours in war zones, I have a son at the Naval Academy who will probably have a career much more stellar than mine, and I honestly think this is the most important election of my life.”