Q&A: Ruben Gallego Thinks the Insurrection Felt Like Iraq

The Arizona congressman has a new Iraq War memoir, isn't ruling out a run against Kyrsten Sinema in 2024, and asks of her, "Who are you compromising for?"

Ruben Gallego has represented Arizona's 7th congressional district since 2015 as a Democrat. In the fall of 2000, while on leave from Harvard University as an undergraduate, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. He served in the Iraq War in a seven-month tour in 2005. With Jim DeFelice, he is the author of a new memoir, "They Called Us 'Lucky,'“ which recounts his experience with his fellow Marines in one of the hardest-hit units in the Iraq War. 46 Marines and two corpsmen were killed in the Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment — the highest of any American service unit in the war. 

The U.S. Congress is still reeling from the January 6 insurrection. Democrats are trying to pass a $1.75 trillion social policy bill with a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives and a 50-50 Senate. Rep. Gallego and I spoke by phone on Friday. Our conversation follows, edited for clarity and length.

Luke Johnson: You join the Marines as a reservist in 2000 before 9/11, when you're on leave from Harvard, where you eventually graduate. But you were sent to Iraq in March 2005, when it had turned into a quagmire. What was going through your mind as you were deployed in quite a different circumstance to when you joined?

Ruben Gallego: I always assumed that I would get activated, and I accepted that was going to happen, because you don't want to join the reserves and  be shocked when you get activated, especially because I was in the infantry. But even by 2005, when it had turned into full quagmire, my thought was that we were probably going to end up doing some fairly safe missions, like guarding bases, or maybe doing one or two things that could be risky, but not the hardcore missions we ended up doing.

LJ: So you write that you escaped death 11 times, all because of luck. Do any of those experiences stand out to you?

RG: Definitely, two of them. One of them was the IED strike that missed me because of a sandstorm. We're in the middle of the desert, and suddenly this sandstorm just comes out of nowhere. We're the lead vehicle, sand circles came out of nowhere, and we have to stop. As we stop, we suddenly hear a huge blast five or ten seconds later. It was an IED blast designed to take out a vehicle like mine. The insurgents couldn't see what was happening with the sandstorm but figured out what our timing was and decided to take a chance. The other one, unfortunately, is the one that took out my best friend. I was in another vehicle. The insurgents had designed a switchblade IED, which is an IED that only activates with contact of certain vehicles in certain ways, which is the vehicle that I was in. I rolled over that switchblade IED, which should have gone off on me. It did not go off on my vehicle, but it went off on my friend's. And then he died. There's no reason why it didn't go off on mine -- it should have got off on mine. That's the war. That's just random luck.

LJ: After your seven-month deployment, you write that you couldn't stay in one spot for too long. What was going on then for you?

RG: You learn from the war, that if you stay too long in one area, the insurgents will try to figure out how to attack you, either through suicide vehicles or through mortars. Coming back, my instinct stuck that way. I couldn't just sit at a restaurant for longer than 30 minutes without getting extremely anxious, or even sit in my house. My instinct had taught me to survive, to not stay around one place for too long.

LJ: You're eventually diagnosed with and treated for PTSD. 

RG: Yes. 

LJ: What was the timeline on that?

RG: Probably around 2016.

LJ: That's after your first term in Congress or so?

RG: Yes, exactly. I started exploring and talking to therapists around 2015-2016. I don't have a full meltdown, but it was really affecting my life. I needed to get the ball rolling and try to deal with what I was dealing with.

On Sinema: “I think the biggest problem is the fact that she doesn't talk to her constituents. We don't know who she's negotiating for. I think that's what makes people unhappy is that she's negotiating, she's compromising -- but who is asking her to compromise?”

LJ: NPR reported that nearly one in five defendants in the Capitol riot served in the military. Many of these rioters are wearing tactical gear, some of them were armed. As a veteran, did the insurrection at all feel like being back on the battlefield in the very place you work?

RG: It felt like it. I wish I had my Marines instead of who I was with. Not that I didn't like who I was with -- they just weren't ready for the situation. Certainly, the fear that I felt in the air was very similar. The fear I saw in the young staffers eyes' was very similar to the fear of the men that I was in combat with, especially men that had seen combat for the first time. A lot of veterans were attacking, I know that. But there were also a lot of veterans inside the Capitol that were there defending it. And we won the day.

LJ: The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed the House last Friday, and it will be signed by President Biden. During the negotiations, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which you are a member of, agreed to a deal with the moderates to split the social policy bill, apart from infrastructure, and vote on it next week, after the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] score comes back. Some members of "The Squad" ultimately voted against the [infrastructure] bill. Should people trust that there'll be a vote on this thing?

RG: I trust there will be a vote on Build. I trust my more moderate colleagues. Once they started talking to us and gave assurances, we decided to move forward. At the same time, should we have voted for the infrastructure deal before the BBB bill? We had no choice. We'd rather get something good than nothing at all. I'm not sure voting against the infrastructure bill would have gotten us the BBB agenda. I think we made the right move; we got the right assurances. We can't control what the Senate does, but at a minimum, we're going to get this out of the House.

LJ: Let's talk about the Senate. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) has been the focus of much of the negotiation on Build Back Better. She's repeatedly used her position in the 50-50 Senate to weaken provisions on taxes. A lot of people are confused about her ideological evolution. She was once very progressive, and she's become more moderate. She's mostly avoided talking with the press and even her own constituents. You served alongside her in the House for two terms. How do you explain her evolution and posturing?

RG: I can't explain it. She doesn't have to explain to me -- I think she has to explain it to her constituents. I think the biggest problem is the fact that she doesn't talk to her constituents. We don't know who she's negotiating for. I think that's what makes people unhappy is that she's negotiating, she's compromising -- but who is asking her to compromise? It's certainly not the constituents of Arizona. Or if it is, I hope she would explain who is encouraging these types of compromises. Why are we watering down the prescription drug benefits? Why are we not taxing corporations at a higher rate and the ultra-wealthy? Who are you compromising for?

LJ: Are you concerned that either she or [West Virginia Democratic senator] Joe Manchin will try to weaken the final bill and make it unpalatable to progressives?

RG: I hope that's not the case. I think that I think that would be a very big mistake on both their parts. Constituents have been very clear -- at least in Arizona -- what they feel is a good bill.

LJ: A progressive group called "Run Ruben Run" has urged you to primary Sinema for the Senate in 2024. A recent headline in The Hill reads, "Ruben Gallego is left's favorite to take on Sinema. " What's your response to these efforts to draft you into a primary challenge?

RG: [Laughs.] It's flattering. It's nothing I'm thinking about right now. I'm focusing on the 2022 election. I've heard from people from more of the moderate wing of the party -- not just the left. They want me to run. But at this time, I'm just focusing on getting the reconciliation bill done and winning in 2022. We'll see what happens in the future.

LJ: Doesn't seem like you're ruling it out at all.

RG: I never close doors in the future. Because once you close, it's always hard to reopen.

LJ: You're in the House of Representatives, and some of your Republican colleagues seem to want to deny or minimize the insurrection, echoing Donald Trump. There's a lot of concern that the House of Representatives could be the focus of an effort to try to subvert the election in 2024, by changing electors from Arizona or other swing states. How concerned are you about that?

RG: I'm very concerned. The 2022 elections are going to be determinative of where we go as a country, because if in 2022 the Republicans get a supermajority, they're going to not certify the election in 2024, should Republicans lose the election. It's a very dangerous set of scenarios. The Republican party is entirely in the pocket of Donald Trump. We should be afraid if the Republicans win.

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