As retired Col. Guy Hollingsworth tells it, during a 400-day deployment in Afghanistan he did the same three things every morning: strapped a 9 mm to his leg, grabbed a bottle of water to brush his teeth and dropped on his knees to pray. 

“Priorities first, I guess,” he shrugs.  

Recently, national media has come to know Hollingsworth as the man who gave now-Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg orders in Afghanistan.

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Often overlooked in interviews with Hollingsworth, however, is how Buttigieg’s warm relationship with his conservative senior officer provides a glimpse into the middle-American appeal of a candidate whose otherwise coastal vitae — Harvard, Rhodes, McKinsey — belies a midwestern ethos that has become both an asset and a liability heading into the Iowa caucuses on Monday. 

The most recent polling in Iowa shows an ascendant Bernie Sanders with Buttigieg sitting in third behind Joe Biden; but not too long ago Buttigieg was polling ahead of the pack, and Buttigieg supporters still point to his strong appeal among older voters in the Hawkeye State who tend to turn out in higher percentages to caucus. 

“He reminds every one of their favorite grandson,” Sean Bagniewski, the Democratic chairman in Polk County, Iowa, told The New York Times. John Grennan, the Democratic chairman in Poweshiek County, Iowa, called Buttigieg the son Iowa voters “want to have.”

That Buttigieg quickly won Col. Hollingsworth’s trust in Afghanistan offers insight into what has become one of the more intriguing non-Trump-related storylines of this election cycle — the rise of a less-than-wealthy, 38-year-old mayor from a modestly sized city in Indiana. The fact that he’s a serious contender against seasoned U.S. senators, a billionaire and the former vice president calls for an explanation. 

Pete Buttigieg stands with U.S. Army Col. Guy Hollingsworth. | Courtesy of Guy Hollingsworth.

While sharing stories over fast food this week, Hollingsworth, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a vice president of LDS Business College in Salt Lake City, chatted about why, despite some significant policy differences, he respects Buttigieg’s run.

“When I first met him, I could tell he was articulate, and he was extremely bright,” says Hollingsworth. After getting acquainted with the then-mayor of South Bend for a few weeks, Hollingsworth says he assigned Buttigieg to Kabul where the young mayor proved to be a vital intelligence gatherer, liaison, counselor and even one of his main security drivers when they ventured outside the wire.

You might be forgiven for skepticism about whether Hollingsworth, a man whose life seems defined by scaling military ladders (battery commander, battalion commander, brigade commander, etc.) would click so quickly with a fresh-faced soldier whose political ambitions and background were largely built scaling ivy-league towers. 

Hollingsworth is a native Idahoan. His adolescence — which included enlisting as an Army reservist on his 17th birthday — was filled more with slinging siblings in family wrestling matches than stints at Harvard or Oxford. And even in retirement, Hollingsworth doesn’t look too much different than a Hasbro prototype of a life-sized G.I. Joe figure. But, if Buttigieg was intimidated or felt out of place on the base, Hollingsworth didn’t detect it.

Nor did he ever observe Buttigieg flaunting (or even mentioning) his many “civilian” achievements. This work-a-day modesty, rare in any field, won Hollingsworth over. 

“Despite the notoriety of what he had done in the civilian world, and in the academic world,” Hollingsworth observes, “he never — not even once — brought any of that up. I knew what he had accomplished, and if I asked he’d talk about some of it, but he never spoke of it on his own. He never tried to make himself out to be someone special. I admired that about him.”

As trust and admiration grew, so did the assignments. 

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign event Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Ankeny, Iowa. | Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

“Candidly, I liked being around him,” Hollingsworth says. The two discussed their respective faiths, though never at length.

Sometimes they jawed a bit about football. Hollingsworth’s alma mater, Brigham Young University, happened to have played Buttigieg’s hometown team, Notre Dame, in the lead-up to his deployment (spoiler: Notre Dame won 23-13, but according to Hollingsworth, Buttigieg didn’t rub it in). Most importantly for the kinds of classified counterterrorism intelligence-gathering efforts and target planning work in which they were engaged, the colonel found in Buttigieg not just a good solider but a trusted sounding board and surrogate. 

“We started to take him with us when we’d fly a fixed-wing asset to places like Kandahar, Mazār-i-Sharīf or Herat on sensitive assignments,” he says. “I didn’t have a problem saying to Pete ‘I need you to go contact these folks, or these folks,’ and I knew he’d represent us like we needed him to and he could negotiate some of the things we needed from our allies. It was a trust factor as well as the fact that he was really good at it.”

During their time together — which concluded in September 2014 — Buttigieg was still in the closet regarding his sexual identity. It wasn’t until almost a year after returning home that Buttigieg would come out publicly. In 2017, Buttigieg married his partner, Chasten Glezman.

“He never tried to make himself out to be someone special. I admired that about him.” — Col. Guy Hollingsworth

When asked if this news changed any of his impressions of Buttigieg, Hollingsworth was unequivocal: “not in the least.” Mayor Pete’s constituents appear to have had a similar reaction, and he was reelected as mayor of South Bend with 80% of the vote in 2015. His term expired earlier this month. 

Of course, not everything has come up roses for Buttigieg on the campaign trail. He’s often dismissed as “inexperienced,” and, although others have made the case that this is part of his appeal, there’s no hiding the fact that he’s four years younger than even the nation’s youngest U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt. Conversely, that Hillary Clinton was one of the most experienced presidential candidates in modern history and still lost twice — once to Barack Obama, whose only experience in government was limited to being a state and then U.S. senator, and again to Donald Trump who had no formal government experience — might provide some hope for team Buttigieg.

Apart from his age or inexperience, the progressive wing of the Democratic party has taken issue with his more centrist appeal. One meme depicts Buttigieg as Sen. Mitt Romney in disguise — online epithets have also included “Mayo Pete,” “Pete Romney” or “Mayor McKinsey,” a reference to his management consulting experience that some anti-capitalists view negatively. The narrative that he’s in the bag for big corporations, of course, comes despite the fact that Buttigieg remains far and away the least wealthy of the major presidential candidates. 

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at a campaign stop at Chickasaw Event Center, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, in New Hampton, Iowa. | Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Voters in Iowa are also increasingly concerned about  Buttigieg’s struggles to win over African American voters. Buttigieg was heavily criticized last June when Eric Logan, a black resident of South Bend, was fatally shot by a white police officer. As mayor, he left the campaign trail to try and quell tensions. This week, in addition to continued lackluster polling among black voters, reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal detail the grievances of former and current Buttigieg campaign staffers of color who say they were not sufficiently heard or valued within his campaign.

Perhaps a silver lining for Buttigeg is at this same point in his own presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s future among African American voters was also unsure. As Astead Herndon wrote this week for The New York Times, “black voters were uncertain about Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy until he won the Iowa caucuses, after which they rallied around him over the onetime frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.” Additionally, the former mayor is the only candidate to have been named by CNN as a “winner” of six of the first seven debates. (Amy Klobuchar comes in second at four.)

A win on Monday, supporters believe, would help build significant national momentum.

If Buttigieg somehow pulls out a victory in Iowa, it will likely be for many of the same reasons Buttigieg won the respect and trust of Hollingsworth in the throes of conflict: his seemingly pedestrian, small-town connections over football and faith (he’s said that he supports the tax-exempt status of churches and once said of Chick-fil-A: “I do not approve of their politics, but I kind of approve of their chicken”). For supporters, Buttigieg’s slingshot candidacy has already defied a few Goliaths, and if the level of bumper sticker support is any indication, he may yet have a chance in a place where steeples and football stadiums still sprout up from the state’s sprawling cornfields.

Whether he can sustain any momentum coming out of Iowa, or whether what helps him in the Midwest might also hurt him elsewhere, are questions that voters will soon help answer.

Hollingsworth says Buttigieg once gave him a standing offer to attend a Notre Dame football game in South Bend. The retired colonel says the offer goes both ways and that he has BYU tickets available for Buttigieg anytime he plans to visit in Provo.

Of course, if Buttigieg gets his way, he’ll need a few extra accommodations for security detail.

Hal Boyd is a fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University. His views are his own. Daryl Austin is a Utah-based writer.