In a bid to recover from a disastrous campaign week, Republican nominee for president Donald Trump made a brief stop on Monday to address veterans at a town hall in Herndon, Virginia.
But while answering a question about veteran health care, he made an offhand comment saying that “strong” veterans don’t deal with PTSD.
“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in the room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” he said.
Trump’s cavalier assumption quickly drew widespread scorn. Many veterans, in particular, were incensed — saying that Trump’s comments are just the latest in a long line of disrespectful comments toward America’s military and military families, and only serve to show how out of touch he is with their community’s needs, despite his outward professions of support.
— Kevin (@kevin_cracknell) October 3, 2016
— Dr. Melissa Bird (@birdgirl1001) October 3, 2016
“When I first saw those comments, I was shocked and yet not surprised at the same time,” Will Fischer, the executive director of the Union Veteran’s Council (AFL-CIO), told ThinkProgress over the phone.
Fischer, who said he had “the impeccable timing of graduating boot camp August the 17th of 2001,” is a Marine and Purple Heart recipient who served in the Iraq War, and is now an outspoken advocate for veterans.
“It shows a remarkably high level of disengagement with veterans and military families to say something like that,” said Fischer. “But at the same time I was not surprised at all. You have to realize, this is Donald Trump we’re talking about… someone who seems to spend all of their time when talking about veterans, military families, and foreign policy attacking our military, insulting veterans, and alienating our allies.”
Fischer isn’t alone in his ire at Trump’s comments. Joe Biden, whose late son Beau served in Iraq, went off on Trump in a fiery speech at a Hillary Clinton rally in Florida. And Ricardo Gutierrez, a U.S. Navy veteran who has written an open letter decrying Trump’s rhetoric, said in a statement: “Not only is it incredibly arrogant for a man who has never seen combat to make statements like this, but it’s also incredibly damaging and inaccurate as well. Thousands of veterans end up not seeking the help they need because of stereotypes and societal pressures like this.”
Yeah, this part is not helpful. "Being strong" and/or "being able to handle it" is the wrong message on PTSD/suicide and perpetuates stigma. https://t.co/Ev3rUuueeA
— Paul (PJ) Rieckhoff (@PaulRieckhoff) October 3, 2016
Paul Rieckoff, the CEO and founder of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), told The Hollywood Reporter that Trump’s comments perpetuate a dangerous stigma.
“When people in power use terms like ‘killing yourself’ and ‘mental problems,’ it perpetuates the stigma, it compounds the impression that these veterans are broken, and it can discourage them from seeking help,” said Rieckhoff. “And also, he assumed that no one in the audience has PTSD, which is a really unlikely assumption in a room full of war veterans.”
In response to the backlash, the Trump campaign argued that his comments had been taken out of context, and were being twisted as part of a “propaganda arm.” The campaign has sought to defend his comments by pointing to the policy recommendations he made in the speech — which largely called for vouchers and the privatization of veteran’s mental health care.
Trump camp issues a statement responding to simmering controversy over Trump's PTSD remarks earlier in the day: pic.twitter.com/awzq9gU5IE
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) October 3, 2016
Fischer, however, was unconvinced by the rebuttal. He argues that not only do Trump’s comments reveal his deep-seated and misguided stigmas about mental illness, but also that Trump’s policy proposals are just as bad for veterans as his careless words.
“This is someone who embraces very little policy when it comes to veterans and military families — but when he actually does embrace specific policies, it’s things like doing away with the GI bill, destroying and privatizing the VA,” he said. “What we need to be working towards is having a fully funded and fully staffed VA, not a privatized VA, not sending veterans off to fend for themselves and line the pockets of millionaire and billionaire hospital executives.”
Despite reaching out to veterans and claiming to have “tremendous” support, Trump has a long history of making offensive and out-of-touch statements about veterans and military families.
Last July, Trump — who received five deferments from the draft to avoid service in Vietnam — attacked Vietnam POW Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), saying that he didn’t deserve his status as a war hero because he was captured. After the Democratic Convention, Trump and his campaign went on a week-long smear campaign against the Khans, a Gold Star family that lost their son to the war in Iraq. And, in August, Trump again drew ire from veterans for flaunting a Purple Heart given to him by a veteran, saying it was “much easier” than actually serving in a war.
“Today’s comments are just one chapter in the long story of Donald Trump’s disrespect towards veterans and military families,” said Fischer. “This wasn’t a one-off.”
I guess my buddy who I deployed with, who suffered from PTSD, and who took his own life wasn't as strong as a roomful of Trump's supporters. https://t.co/iLb5V4PYs8
— Corbin Reiff (@CorbinReiff) October 3, 2016
Another point likely to drive a wedge between Trump and veterans is a key implication of the New York Times’ discovery of Trump’s 1995 tax returns, which show that Trump could have avoided paying federal taxes for nearly the last 20 years. While the campaign hasn’t directly responded to the allegations, Trump said during the first presidential debate that not paying taxes makes him “smart.”
However, the two decades during which Trump may not have paid taxes also encompasses the time after 9/11, when America was fighting two costly wars.
“Not one cent towards our defense, towards equipment like body armor for active duty combat troops, nothing for veterans health care and the VA. He has contributed nothing but calls for more war,” said Fischer.
Trump could, of course, disprove this allegation by releasing his tax returns.