As President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden vie for the role of commander-in-chief ahead of the election, some veterans are questioning not only the seriousness of the president’s expressed commitment to end the long-winded wars of his predecessors, but also his support for the very troops he has said he wants to bring home.
Both Trump and Biden officially advocate for the end of 21st century so-called “forever wars” launched by the two previous administrations—the latest of which Biden served as vice president—but the issue received little to no air time during Tuesday’s first presidential debate.
That omission frustrated a number of veterans watching from home.
“We’ve been at war for two decades,” Nick Palmisciano, a former Army infantry officer who today is the CEO of Diesel Jack Media/Ranger Up, told Newsweek. “No one mentioned finding an end to those wars.”
He said he felt betrayed not only for himself but for those who sacrificed for conflicts with no end in sight.
“This week I had a friend with no arms because she lost them to an IED and a friend whose wheelchair literally lost its tire from use, who can no longer speak due to a TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury], get told by the VA that they can’t be helped,” Palmisciano said.
For him, it’s all about the warriors, not the wars.
“I’d like someone to care as much about taking care of our troops as they do about keeping them at a perpetual state of war,” Palmisciano said.
Trump has continually targeted Biden and his fellow Democrats for overseeing interventions in countries like Syria and Libya, and for failing to end the still-ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the Pentagon’s involvement in Libya after the overthrow of longtime leader Muammar el-Qaddafi remains relatively limited, Trump has vowed to reduce U.S. troop presence in the other three warzones, even in the absence of a comprehensive diplomatic solution.
But the only reference in the presidential debate to Afghanistan, the longest-running war in U.S. history, was Biden’s criticism of Trump’s apparent dismissal of reports that Russia had provided assistance to Taliban militants as they targeted and killed U.S. troops.
Army veteran Asha Castleberry Hernandez told Newsweek she was “deeply disappointed that the debate did not cover our current wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.”
She focused her criticism on the administration’s handling of Afghanistan.
“President Trump’s current strategy in Afghanistan needs to be debated,” Hernandez said. “We cannot continue to carry out negotiations with the Taliban without a ceasefire, and Russia offering bounties for killing Americans. This is a grave concern, and I was pleased that Biden mentioned this point during the debate.”
There was no mention in the debate, however, about Trump’s plans to withdraw up to 2,200 troops from Iraq, where tensions with Iran have festered since the U.S. exit from the Iran nuclear deal, and Trump’s subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic.
Reports that the State Department was threatening to also withdraw diplomats from Baghdad amid Iran-aligned militia attacks on Washington’s embassy there have also raised fears of a larger escalation with Tehran in the future, should the Trump administration follow through with the pullout. Such a conflict would likely have devastating consequences for U.S. soldiers.
Naveed Shah, who formerly served the U.S. Army in Iraq and now acts as a government affairs associate for the anti-Trump veteran’s group Common Defense, told Newsweek that this kind of exit was “a dangerous and irresponsible political move, not a military one.”
Shah accused Trump of playing politics with the lives of the troops.
“His administration is rolling out all types of unconstitutional and unenforceable executive orders and policy positions right now,” Shah added. “He’s throwing the troops and ordinary people under his campaign bus.”
When Iraq did come up in the debate it was in relation to the service of Biden’s late son, Beau, an Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer, who died of a brain tumor in 2015.
Trump took the opportunity, about halfway through the heated debate, to lash out at Biden’s other son, Hunter, for getting “thrown out of the military” due to cocaine use in 2013. The then-43-year-old newly commissioned Navy officer was administratively discharged after failing a drug test. Trump’s critics say he should have sympathy for Hunter Biden, given his efforts to battle the opioid crisis he declared a national emergency in 2017.
The president also conflated the terms dishonorable discharge and administrative discharge, falsely asserting that Hunter Biden was subject to the former, when in fact it was the latter.
“Beau and Hunter, that part made me angry,” Elana Duffy, a Purple Heart-awarded Army veteran who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, told Newsweek.
“Administrative discharge is not dishonorable, first,” she said. “Many people are discharged for administrative reasons, including addiction, and when that addiction is potentially connected to time in service, more so. These are veterans who need support and treatment, not derision and dragged in as an attack on the parent.”
Will Goodwin, director of government relations for progressive political action committee (PAC) VoteVets, expressed dismay over Trump’s choice of military topics that he brought up in the debate.
“We always want to hear a direct conversation about national security, foreign policy and military issues,” Goodwin, who served in the Army, told Newsweek. “That includes putting an end to our endless wars as a country.”
But what he saw on Tuesday, a cacophony of interruptions and attacks, including against Biden’s son, did not inspire confidence in the president’s capabilities, he said.
“Donald Trump does not have the discipline or the character to actually talk and tackle and make the military and diplomatic decisions that are necessary to do that,” Goodwin argued, calling the president “unfit to be commander-in-chief.”
In fact, Trump’s combative antics appeared to make far more headline news than any substantive arguments put forward by either candidate.
“It just shows Donald Trump has no respect for service,” said Fred Wellman, senior adviser for veterans affairs at The Lincoln Project, a PAC formed last year by current and former Republicans seeking to block Trump’s reelection.
“He has no honor, and doesn’t even want to pretend to be commander in chief,” Wellman told Newsweek. “He doesn’t respect those who have volunteered for service. All he wants to do is tear people down.”
But Trump’s decision not to criticize some people during the debate also caused an uproar among some veterans. Asked by moderator Chris Wallace to condemn white supremacy and right-wing militias, the president simply and somewhat cryptically called on the violent, male-only, “Western values”-oriented Proud Boys group to “stand down and stand by.”
Trump tried to walk back his comments the following day, claiming not to know who the Proud Boys were, but the moment stood out starkly in the debate.
Duffy said she “gasped at the screen” at the sound of those words. She said they evoked her Army experience of a commanding officer about to issue orders, and she “knew exactly how those paramilitary pseudo-militias would take the statement.”
Marine Corps veteran Peter Lucier, who also served in Afghanistan, found what he understood as a call to arms among fringe groups as incompatible with the very fabric of the U.S. military and the values it represents.
“As a veteran who swore to uphold and defend the Constitution,” Lucier told Newsweek, “the President calling upon violent gangs to rally to his side is despicable.”
The above graphic was provided by Statista
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