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Commentary: The Colonel and the debt

Colin Chauret grew up in Bay City during World War II, fascinated by the Battle of Britain and dreaming of becoming a Spitfire pilot. When he graduated, he joined the service.

They taught him to fly, but instead of sending him to battle, they used him to train other pilots. The war ended before he could see combat. But Chauret stayed in, and eventually flew a hundred combat missions in Korea. He later was a staff officer in Vietnam.

He spent more than 30 years in what became the U.S. Air Force, rising to full colonel before he retired. He turns 90 in January, and is still military to the core. Two of his sons and one grandson are Air Force lieutenant colonels. He’s deeply religious, and credits God for saving him from one crash that killed a close friend.

Most afternoons, he walks for exercise in a shopping mall near where they now live in San Antonio, and shakes the hands of every wounded veteran he sees. These days, however, he is more interested in government.

He is worried about the fiscal cliff, the health of his native Michigan and the national debt most of all. But his views are not what you might think. “I am a liberal and damn proud of it,“ he told me, adding, that “after all, Jesus was the greatest liberal of all time.”

“This country started to go off the rails with Ronald Reagan,’” he told me yesterday. “Somehow, we became government by the rich and for the rich.” But he adds that being a liberal doesn‘t mean you don‘t have to balance the books.

What worries Chauret most is that the national debt has gone from less than a trillion dollars in 1981 to 16 trillion today. “We can’t keep this up,“ he said, showing me a formidable set of graphs and charts.

He thinks he knows how to fix the problem, and has the guts to say something few politicians even whisper: Raise taxes on the rich. “We used to have a 90 percent, then a 70 percent tax on millionaires. We did fine. They lived very well and didn’t flee the country, and we fought wars mostly on a pay-as-we-go basis,” he said. “You don’t cut taxes on the very rich to the point where it is fiscally irresponsible and start wars at the same time. We have to bite the bullet and turn it around by raising taxes on those who can afford it, me included,” he said, adding, “some of that money ought to be put to work rebuilding our nation.”

Chauret believes in a strong defense, but thinks military spending can be cut. He said, “We are set up to battle armies, not the terrorists we are fighting. You don’t fight them with billion-dollar submarines.”

And he is frustrated with President Obama for not ending the war in Afghanistan sooner. I told the colonel his views weren’t typical of most veterans I’ve met. He said, “I started studying engineering, but thought I’d be too narrow. So I ended up with two degrees, one in psychology and one in sociology. Broadened my outlook on life.”

“You know, my wife says I don’t know when to shut up,” he laughed. Well, frankly, Colonel -- I hope you never do.      

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.