In a time of crisis for veterans—not to mention a time of war—and given their dire needs, this election should have featured serious debates about how best to fix the VA and reduce vets unemployment.
It’s turned out to be the year from hell.
For vets advocacy groups and vets themselves, there’s been a sense of dread falling over them as Donald Trump’s insults of a Gold Star Family and prisoners of war have become the two most widely-covered veterans stories of the election cycle.
“There’s not going to be a substantial policy conversation for the next 100 days. That’s the sad reality we live in,” said the executive director of a veterans advocacy group who wanted to stay anonymous, so as to spare his organization the abuse that comes with publicly criticizing Trump.
“It’s devolved into who is the least shittiest person. That’s all this race is,” the veterans organization executive director bemoaned.
In a sense, Trump has hijacked the vets agenda—drowning out their concerns and ambitions with his own slew of personal attacks.
“Why can’t we turn away from this?” said Donald Guter, a retired Navy officer who was formerly the service’s top uniformed lawyer. “It’s a story because he won’t let it rest, and he won’t make his peace with anyone. I would much rather see the attention on the issues. But I think this has become an issue… because of the way he handles conflict.”
It started Trump’s attack on John McCain—“I like people who weren’t captured”—not only failed to halt the businessman’s campaign, but Trump seemed almost to thrive on the ensuing controversy, eventually winning the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
Then there are the more recent attacks on the family of Humayun Khan, an Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004. His father, Khzir Khan, drew Trump’s ire after he spoke out against Trump’s racist remarks against Muslims at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last week. Pair that with his initial promise to fund-raise $6 million for veterans groups, and his months-long refusal to account for the money, and it seems that when the campaign has veered into veterans issues it has always been because of some scandal.
It didn’t have to be this way. The earlier segment of the 2016 campaign heavily featured veterans issues. Candidates scrambled to speak to vets town halls in New Hampshire, in the earliest primary of the season—believing that if they could win over vets there they’d have a significant advantage. It seems all so quaint now.
“In an age of tweeting and Trumpian soundbites, complicated discussions get pushed to the back,” said retired Navy Rear Admiral John Hutson, who spoke in support of Clinton at the DNC. “Every day or two, Trump will say something stupid, untrue, irrelevant, or vicious—or likely, all [of the above]—so he doesn’t have to try to think of anything smart, honest, important, or kind.”
For the time being, veterans are united in an extraordinary way against Donald Trump’s behavior this week with regards to the Khan family.
On Monday, a coalition of military support and advocacy groups released a joint letter calling on all candidates to respect both fallen veterans and their families. And a group of family members related to 23 fallen military service members signed a letter organized by progressive group VoteVets demanding an apology for the Khan family.
In fact, it’s hard to find an issue that has so broadly united America’s veterans community.
“We just have to have a unified voice. We, the veterans community—we, the United States of America, simply find his behavior unacceptable,” said Paul Eaton, a retired Army major general who is a senior adviser to Vote Vets.
Veterans organizations and their advocates would, of course, prefer candidates to be talking about VA reform, vets suicide rates, the GI bill.
“Should veterans’ health care [reform] be another attempt to beef up the VA—should it be completely privatized or completely public? There’s a lot of considerations here: the mental health issues, the employment issue, veterans courts. I’d like to see a lot more on the substance for veterans,” Guter said.
Instead they’re talking about personal attacks against the Muslim-American parents of a fallen soldier. And the VFW weighed in Monday—an unusual move for the nonpartisan organization.
“There are certain sacrosanct subjects that no amount of wordsmithing can repair once crossed,” said Brian Duffy, the national commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Giving one’s life to nation is the greatest sacrifice, followed closely by all Gold Star families, who have a right to make their voices heard.”
Paul Rieckhoff, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is trying to make lemonade out of these lemons, praising the unified response among vets groups who are disgusted with how Trump has responded to simple criticism from a political opponent.
“We’re trying to add light to a conversation that is dominated by heat. There’s so much bomb throwing that the larger interests get lost,” Rieckhoff told The Daily Beast.
The election cycle occurs at a time while vets are shrinking as a proportion of the general population. With older vets and the legacies of the 20th century draft dying off, fewer and fewer individuals have experienced military life. According to the VA, the number of vets in America will fall from approximately 22 million in 2013 to under 15 million in 2043.
Over time, the veterans could lose their voice—the community’s sway over government is in the population’s respect for their work and understanding of their sacrifice.
“This is a unique time for unity—and for public education… this incident shows how much people don’t understand the sacrifices of Gold Star Families. This cuts to the core of the civil-military divide,” Rieckhoff said.
The question is whether, in a time of emergency for many vets, they can break through the noise.