The relationship between President Trump and the nation’s veterans has become more strained in recent months.
President Donald Trump confirmed this week that he has never confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin over intelligence reports finding that Russia offered the Taliban bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan.
During an interview with Axios’ Jonathan Swan, which is set to air in full on HBO Monday, Trump said that a July 23 phone call with Putin was a “phone call to discuss other things” and admitted he has never brought up the bounty scandal with Putin—a response that has infuriated veterans.
Trump called the credibility of the intelligence into question: “That’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” the president said. “A lot of people said it’s a fake issue.”
But America’s own intelligence agencies found evidence that Russia offered Afghan militants money to kill American troops and first shared that information with the White House in 2019, according to the Associated Press. Those bounties are believed to have led to the killings of several U.S. service members, intelligence analysts told the Washington Post.
Trump reportedly received an intelligence briefing on the bounty program in February, though he told Axios that the issue “never reached my desk” because intelligence officials “didn’t think it was real.”
“If it reached my desk I would have done something about it,” he said, adding, “I comprehend extraordinarily well.”
In a stark contrast to Trump, the U.S. State Department has issued warnings to Russia regarding the program, the Daily Beast reported Wednesday.
Still, Trump’s dismissal of the existence of the bounty program—not to mention the way he’s handled the protests that have taken the country by storm in the wake of George Floyd’s death—has angered many of the nation’s 18 million veterans, a once-reliable Republican voting bloc. In fact, many are now coming out in support of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“Veterans Remember That Shit”
Indeed, the relationship between the president and the nation’s veterans has become more strained in recent months.
According to exit polls, about 60% of veterans voted for Trump in 2016, and a 2019 Pew survey found that a similar percentage (57%) approved of Trump’s job as president. But those figures obscure the increasing number of veterans who are running for and winning elected office as Democrats, the rise of progressive advocacy groups like VoteVets, and the growing dissatisfaction with Trump among this group.
Shelly Goode, a former U.S. Army officer and combat veteran, said Trump’s response to the Russia bounty scandal was “unacceptable.”
“A U.S. president might not be able to do anything about it, but they are able to to say something about it and to make a statement about it and let the the Russian government know that ‘This isn’t going to be tolerated and we’ll do everything we can to stop it,’” Goode said.
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Jerry Green, a 60-year-old U.S. Army veteran who lives in Tampa Bay, Florida, was also critical of the president and his handling of the bounty scandal. “There was no response, and that bothers me to no end,” Green told COURIER. “It just made me want to throw up.”
Green, who serves as the Florida outreach director for VoteVets, said he has friends with children serving in the armed forces, and the idea of something happening to them because of the bounties and Trump’s failure to act was “unthinkable” and tears him up inside.
Goode, now a military wife and mother of two living in Tucson, Arizona, lamented that the bounty story didn’t seem to register on a national level the way she felt it should have. But, she added, one very important demographic was still keenly attuned to it.
“Things don’t get lost on veterans—things that have to do with the military and have to do with soldiers, they don’t get lost on veterans,” she said. “Veterans remember that shit. Active duty military people remember it.”
The common wisdom is that veterans skew Republican, and for years, the data has backed it up. But even within Goode’s own bipartisan network of veterans, she’s seeing signs that more and more of them may abandon Trump over his “toxic leadership.”
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“Even soldiers that voted for him know it. They know he’s a toxic piece of garbage,” Goode said. “He’s going through these gates that are unacceptable to soldiers, where they just go ‘Oh my God, I can’t accept that. That seems awful to me.’”
‘I Can’t Be in America’
In the days and weeks after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, suffocating him to death, protests erupted across the country. Tens of millions of Americans flooded the streets to demand justice and proclaim that Black Lives Matter.
President Trump responded to the unrest in controversial fashion by demanding governors “dominate protests” and threatening to deploy military forces into American cities to crack down on largely non-violent demonstrators. While Trump did not follow through with that option, the mere possibility of American soldiers being pitted against civilians angered Goode, Green, and many other veterans.
“You’re pitting American service members against basically their own people,” Green said. “Who knows who has relatives in that town, who knows who has friends in that town, who knows if troops are even from that city. That’s not their job. That’s the job of the police.”
Goode strongly agreed that active duty military personnel had no business patrolling U.S. cities and facing off against American citizens.
“Military officers have a deep understanding who their boss is and it is the U.S. civilian population. In other words, we serve them and they get to decide what we do and what we don’t do,” she said. “And what we don’t do is go into our own country and stand as a sort of figure against our fellow civilians. They are us. They are us and we are them. If that breaks down, then we’re like a separate warrior class and that’s very dangerous to have in a society.”
That idea was similarly horrifying to Green, who likened the armed forces occupying American cities to what happens under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. “Where am I? Am I in a former communist country?” Green wondered. “I can’t be in America.”
Trump’s threat was so off-putting to the military community writ large that many former officials also condemned the president’s actions. Former defense secretary and retired four-star Marine general James Mattis issued a sharp rebuke of Trump last month, calling him a divisive and immature leader whose response to the protests and exploitation of the military left Mattis “angry and appalled.”
Goode found Trump’s actions particularly insidious because the protests were focused on racial injustice, an issue that resonates with the armed forces, given the growing diversity of their ranks. In 2017, 43% of U.S. active duty service members were people of color, including 16% who were Black and 16% who were Hispanic, according to the Pew Research Center.
This, Goode said, is lost on Trump and other Republicans when they talk about the military.
“There are people from all over the world that are serving in our army—all genders, straight, gay, everybody, and they underestimate that diversity and they sort of think we’re like these certain kinds of people and we’re really not,” she said. “I think that [Trump] doesn’t have a clue what people in the military do, who they are, who their families are, and why they’re serving.”
Even though Trump backed down from the idea of sending armed forces into American cities, both Goode and Green said it underscores his broad willingness to exploit the military for his own political purposes.
“I think he uses the military as pawns when he needs a picture or when he needs something to help a campaign of his.”
“I think he uses the military as pawns when he needs a picture or when he needs something to help a campaign of his,” Green said. “He’ll use the military as pawns. He’ll travel to a base, he’ll get his pictures taken, bring the military onto the stage with him to talk about whatever it is, but I see him as a guy who only uses the military for his own purposes.”
Voting for Biden
When Goode began serving in the military, she considered herself a Republican. But her views evolved during her two tours in Iraq, she said, after seeing what Republican politicians stood for.
“As a … woman serving in the military, some things became very clear to me in terms of how women and minorities in general are treated in this country,” Goode said. “I was pretty politically naive when I joined the military, and over time, I sort of figured out that I was on the wrong side and that the people really fighting for my rights and for my equality weren’t Republicans. That’s sort of where my journey began. I’m now a Democrat.”
In 2020, she counts herself among the many veterans across the country supporting Joe Biden for president.
“I think he has my best interest [in mind] as a woman in this country, as a veteran, as a mom, as a military spouse,” Goode said. “He will try to repair the damage that’s been done.”
Green also plans to vote for Biden. He believes the former senator and vice president will prioritize veterans’ issues because of his familiarity with the community—his son Beau served in Iraq—and Biden spent time as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“He knows what he’s talking about when he talks about foreign relations,” Green said. “He knows what America’s role is and should be on the global stage.”
Green also said that while countless politicians have promised (and failed) to fix issues at the Department of Veteran Affairs, he believes Biden might be different. The agency has long suffered from allegations of sub-standard care, staffing shortages, outdated technology, and other systemic issues, and Biden has released a comprehensive proposal to address the VA’s shortcomings.
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“He wants to improve management and accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Green said.
While Biden’s record on the military is far from perfect—he voted for the Iraq War, which he later admitted was a mistake—he also co-sponsored legislation as a senator that would have increased access to mental health care and medical care for active-duty service members; strengthened regulations on mammograms at VA facilities to ensure they met quality standards; and expedited payment of hospital benefits for disabled veterans.
During Biden’s time as vice president, the Obama administration also oversaw a dramatic decrease in veterans’ homelessness, reduced an enormous backlog of veterans’ disability claims by more than 80% in just over three years, and significantly increased funding for the VA.
Biden has also released a wide-ranging plan to address veterans’ issues. Hyper focused on this community, the proposal focuses on improving health care; eliminating homelessness and reducing suicide rates; creating employment and educational opportunities; and improving the VA’s management and accountability.
Green also supports Biden for other reasons, particularly his role in shepherding the Affordable Care Act through Congress. The 2010 healthcare law—which Trump is now trying to repeal amid a pandemic—helped 20 million Americans get health coverage and provided tens of millions more with protections for pre-existing conditions.
“To me, that’s a big deal because so many people did not have health care, so many people could not afford to have health care, and getting that legislation passed was huge,” Green said. While he personally did not get insurance under the ACA, he has friends and family members who obtained coverage under the law and so has seen its impact firsthand.
Ultimately though, as much as they both support Biden, what it comes down to for Green and Goode is ensuring Trump doesn’t do any more damage to the country.
“We have to do everything we can to not allow him to serve another term,” Goode said.