He Uses Us As Political Props: How Veterans Feel About Donald Trump

I interviewed veterans to see how they feel they’ve been treated by the Trump administration

Veterans listen as President Donald Trump speaks before signing an Executive Order at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Veterans listen as President Donald Trump speaks before signing an Executive Order at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

When I think of veterans I think of strength, courage, and resilience. I think of men, women, and transgenders alike who have made extraordinary sacrifices to protect and preserve our freedom. I think of a special breed of people who deserve the best treatment the government can provide and the utmost respect a group can receive.

But it’s not clear that the President feels the same way. We’ve all seen Trump’s actions over the last year, but in order to get a pulse on how veterans feel, I spoke with a number of them to get their take on how veterans’ issues are being handled in the Trump era.

Before we dive into their interviews, we have to put their responses in context. The Trump administration’s messaging is very pro-military, but Trump’s actions are not:

Now that we’ve gotten that out the way, let’s hear the voices of the veterans.

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The first woman veteran I spoke with is named Aida Gray, and she is 46 years old. Aida lives in the Southwest part of the state of Missouri. Ms. Gray is of Mexican descent. Aida served in the Marines for 9 years ending her active duty in 1998. Aida shared how she felt when she discovered that Trump was running.

Aida was dumfounded and really concerned about his “better than” aura, as she put it. After he won, she realized right away that he was going to go back on his campaign promises. Aida told me she had never been more disgusted than she was with the disrespect Trump showed veterans. She was particularly infuriated when she saw how the Gold Star Khan Family was treated by Trump. Aida was sure that the treatment was due to the family being Muslim.

Aida was at her wit’s end when she witnessed how Trump treated Carryn Owens after her husband?—?U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens?—?died in the botched Yemen raid. Aida felt as if Trump had used the widow as a prop for press. Many people felt that Trump’s lack of military experience led to the Special Op’s death.

Aida also had great disdain for the way Trump treated Mrs. Johnson, the widow of the slain soldier, Sergeant La David Johnson, who died in Niger. The worst part in her opinion was that Trump lied about Mrs. Johnson. When the The New York Times covered the story, they wrote “The back-and-forth made a furious spectacle of what is, at the best of times, one of the most emotionally wrenching contacts between the commander in chief and a bereaved citizen.” Aida’s exact words were:

“It breaks my heart that he’s degenerating these people who put their lives on the line in combat.”

Aida went on to say that to not receive comfort from the Commander-in-Chief for the loss of loved ones, is disrespectful and inexcusable.

Aida’s biggest fear for the future of the military branches and veterans is that good people will no longer sign up for service, and if they do, they will be full of hate or doing it for all the wrong reasons. Aida said that she feels Trump has not kept one promise, and that the military should represent our government in the best kind of way. Unfortunately, she worries the military is now a reflection of Trump so, the mission is destroyed.

As for future legislation and what Aida feels the administration needs to focus on to take the best care of our nation’s veterans, Aida feels that less government control should be given. She feels that the care should be taken out of the hands of the executive branch and more control should go to states?—?That way each state could address their own sets of issues.

The next interviewee, Marie, served in the USMC during the 1970–1980’s. She’s currently inactive and lives on the west coast. Marie did not wish to disclose her age. She herself does not use VA medical services but is concerned about talk of privatization of these services to veterans. As a female veteran, she continues to be alarmed at the levels of sexual assault and harassment that female service members are forced to deal with.

Marie said there was little recourse 40 years ago when she was in the military, and there seems to be little improvement. Marie cited Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) report on sexual assault in the military, which stated:

“Despite years of incremental reforms passed by Congress (beginning nearly five years ago in December 2012), continued high-profile media reporting on the issue, and repeated claims by military leadership of zero tolerance for sexual assault, sexual assault in the military is still pervasive.”

Marie said that women’s military experience is often different from men’s. Marie has always been proud of her service to her country but disappointed in how women have been treated by their commanders. It can be difficult for women to make a career from the military and even afterward with civilian contractors for the Department of Defense. In Marie’s view, the culture of sexual discrimination seems to pass on, at least it used to.

Marie also feels that Trump’s attempted ban on transgender service members and rumors that he intended to limit women in combat roles reveals his belief that not all people are deserving of equal and fair treatment. Marie does not think Trump understands the role of our military. It is Marie’s opinion that Trump likes the proximity of service members for photo ops and to prop up his image as a strongman. The fact his cabinet is comprised of so many generals is concerning to Marie, in that any advice he may get on international problems are military solutions and not diplomatic solutions?—?as he’s gutted the State Department.

Like many Americans, Marie worries about Trump’s pounding of war drums whenever it strikes his fancy. What most Americans do not have to think about, at this time, are the small % of citizens who will be on the front line. As Marie sees it, this will change if Trump wages war on multiple fronts.

This past year, Marie has become much more active in the defense of our democracy and institutions. Marie started by protesting the electoral college to uphold the will of the majority in our election, then attended the Women’s March, as well as the March for Science, Labor, Immigrants, Dreamers and travel ban protests. She and her husband have also had to push back multiple white supremacist rallies in their region.

Marie has organized letter-writing campaigns to her elected officials, phone banked, and written postcards for progressive candidates in red states. “I now know my congressman, senators and their staff on a more personal basis as we have visited and spoken with them often.” Marie said, in the beginning it was difficult to get them to commit to town halls and meetings but it has gotten better. 2018 will find Marie and her husband spending more time registering new voters and helping red states get out the vote.

Marie feels that because of Trumps’ authoritarian tendencies she thinks it is imperative that war powers should be returned to Congress. Marie supports Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-CA-13) amendment to restore war powers to the Congress. She has had little hope that this admin and the GOP will scale back on this push toward war, for their own political purposes, so she is now using her energy to support and build a Congress that will put a check on this president. There are many progressive veterans that are running for office across the country. Marie supports and promotes their candidacies.

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John, who is in his late 50’s and lives in Arkansas, was in the Army straight out of college. John went into the Army Reserve after 10 years, due to government cutbacks and stayed for 20 years. John served on active duty in Afghanistan as a reservist then was called back to active duty for 10 months. John is currently retired as of four years ago, as he maxed out after 30 years of active service and is a full colonel.

When Trump campaign for President began it didn't phase John, and he didn't take it seriously. “I thought he would lose, that he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.” When he realized he had won, he was flabbergasted, disappointed, shocked, and worried?—?especially given the fact John went to bed thinking Clinton had it tied up. John was worried that the Trump presidency would be a repeat of Hitler. John mentioned how in the beginning he didn't take Trump seriously but that a lot of people also didn't take Hitler seriously, and look what happened.

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Living in Arkansas, the Clintons and Hillary herself weren’t all that popular according to John. Despite her unpopularity, John and his wife still voted for Hillary?—?his wife was a Republican at the time. John’s wife is now an active Democrat while he remains an Independent. John doesn’t feel like Trump kept the promises he made while on the campaign trail. The VA was put on a hiring freeze thanks to Trump, which has now been lifted. But the damage was done and the VA Hospital in Arkansas is being investigated as a result of what happened due to the hiring freeze. Many doctors, nurses, and skilled staff left or were laid off, and the hospital is still not back up and running the way it was before Trump.

The veterans in Arkansas have suffered greatly since Trump was put in office. John is very disappointed in family programs being taken away too, such as daycare for base families. John’s biggest concern under Trump is that a lot of quality people will not sign up for a Military career and if they do it, it will be for the wrong reasons, like a G.I. Bill or some ulterior motive.

John also wonders how the military will be used in this administration because to him it seems as if there is no clear direction. As for future legislative priorities for better care for the nation’s veterans, John’s biggest concerns are the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the folks that come home after it. Fewer soldiers are dying, but more are coming home maimed and with lifelong permeant disabilities. John feels that the care plan for them needs to be laid out extensively for the rest of their lives, not in a temporary way. John feels the Trump administration needs to determine the cost of care for veterans, approve the funds to do it, and implement the programs.

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Thea Rowan is a 60 year old that has been living in New Mexico since 2015. She was on active duty in the Navy for 4.5 yrs (1976–1980) & Air Force Reserve for 5 yrs (1980–1985 ). Her feelings about Trump’s treatment of veterans are pretty hard-hitting:

“He’s an abomination to this country & mocks veterans on the regular. He’s a draft dodging coward who says avoiding STDs was equivalent to serving in Vietnam.”

When she first heard Trump was running, she thought it was funny. Considering the other GOP candidates, she thought he was fairly benign. Thereafter, Thea became more concerned when he turned up the hate rhetoric and alarmed at the way he treated women. She then became increasingly disturbed. As old as she is, she said she’s been hearing about Trump’s antics for decades, “but had no idea how dangerous he could be once elected.”

When he finally did get elected, she was absolutely stunned. Thea said she cried, cursed, and got on Twitter. She finds herself still doing those things on a daily basis .

Thea does not feel that Trump has kept his promises to anyone, let alone veterans. She stated she has had “far too much experience with toxic narcissists and politicians. I know that pathological lying and refusal to accept responsibility are hallmarks of both.”

Thea doesn’t feel that Trump has respect for anyone?—?veterans or women alike. What he said about McCain just solidified what was already evident in her opinion about Trump’s level of disrespect to veterans.

The way that Thea copes with her frustration over the Trump administration is her plethora of personal experience. For decades she herself has been coping with her own mental health issues (MDD, Bipolar II, PTSD) and has learned a lot of constructive ways to deal with her anger. She also has a graduate education and work experience that has helped. In addition, she meditates and journals which has helped her immensely. Thea has also been able to utilize medical marijuana. That has enabled her to get off all psych meds and also control her frustration and anxiety better.

Thea’s concerns for the future of the military under this administration is the continued emphasis on the U.S.’s involvement in more wars around the globe. She fears another draft and that the children of our lawmakers, who send our kids to war, will be able to dodge the draft like Trump and so many other elitist one percenters have done before. Thea is very concerned about the rampant sexual assaults against women and men in the military. “It was bad when I was in, and it has gotten magnitudes worse since then.” Thea said she herself provides free mental health counsel to women veterans.

Thea is of the opinion that there will not be any legislative measures for better treatment of veterans under Trump. “It simply won’t happen under Trump or any other Republican administration.” She feels that they want wars, but don’t want to care for vets in the aftermath of those wars when they come home. “They’ve proven time, and again they don’t care about veterans. The VA is a nightmare of pathological corruption that Republicans have no interest in fixing.” Thea feels the state of veterans continues to get worse. Previously, she was a “Long-Term Care Ombudsman at a ‘nice’ state VA nursing home & it was horrifying.”

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Kathy, who is 61 years old and resides in South Carolina, is the next Veteran I spoke with. She had previously been in the United States Army as a military police officer for 3 years. She is now a Veteran.

When she heard that Trump was running she felt like it was a joke at first. Kathy is a native New Yorker and was aware of his shady character. She told me she “blew it off as no one would take him seriously.” When it finally sunk in for her that he had won, she was very depressed and scared for the country. She actually went into a deep depression and laid in bed for a month.

Kathy does not think Trump kept any of the promises he made while on the campaign trail, and further states Trump has shown by his actions that he doesn’t care about our veterans. “He never acknowledges their deaths and sacrifices to our country. It’s all for show when he does address the military. It makes me sick to see the marines salute him when he gets on AF1.”

Kathy does not think Trump is respectful to the military and that he’s a joke. She pointed out that he doesn’t even try to learn the difference in services. When he sees a sailor he calls them a soldier.

“Tweets about BS while marines died in helicopter crash, Navy lost several sailors and searching and the way he handled the soldiers that were killed in Africa… No words!”

Kathy feels Trump has no clue what he’s doing. She does, however, believe the Secretary of Defense James Mattis is doing a good job. Kathy worries about how long Trump has remained in office and hopes we can undo what he has managed to destroy. Kathy also believes when the forefathers penned the Constitution, they never could imagine two branches of government being this corrupt. Kathy is very concerned that Trump wants to privatize military services and cut benefits. “No telling what he could do with a stroke of a pen.”

To cope with the frustration she feels, she tweets and tries to help others understand that America will never be a dictatorship. She tries to explain to folks that we are governed by the Constitution and he is not above the law. It helps knowing the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and that Trump and his base could never take away our democracy. She believes that Mattis and the joint chiefs swear allegiance to the Constitution and will safeguard our democracy if worse comes to worse. Kathy feels Trump would have to be forcibly indicted while in office (unprecedented) instead of impeached due to the Republicans in Congress’ being so corrupt. She believes Mueller is working with several agencies behind the scenes and the result will be unprecedented.

In Kathy’s mind, legislative priorities for the country should be that Trump should have everyone in a state of 24/7 readiness in preparation for a ground war with North Korea. She’s afraid that Trump will kill soldier morale by his unconstitutional actions, and that no one would want to serve under this “lunatic.” She feels our military is our beacon in the night, they serve and die so America can be free, and should always be a top priority.

Other priorities Kathy feels for veterans would be to properly staff VA facilities with more qualified people. The VA is so understaffed, and the quality of medical care is a crapshoot depending on what facility you go to. Instead of staffing, Trump froze hiring. Everything is slow and cumbersome and veterans literally die waiting to be treated. More qualified medical help is essential. Kathy herself has had good and bad treatment depending on what facility she goes to. Another priority is to get all VA on an electronic health records system like the DOD uses. Trump promised veterans he would do these things, but nothing is changing.

“He talks a good talk but he hires incompetent idiots to oversee it. I could do a much better job.”

The consensus among veterans with regard to whether or not Trump keeps his campaign promises is a resounding no. The veterans I spoke to see the fact Trump went out of his way to make promises to veterans on the campaign trail and then did the complete opposite, is a slap in the face to all Americans, but mostly the veterans themselves. These veterans believe there has never been a more offensive, disrespectful POTUS towards veterans in the history of the office.

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