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What veterans are expecting from President Trump

November 11, 2016 at 6:35 PM EST
In Tuesday’s presidential contest, veterans preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton at a rate of nearly 2 to 1, according to exit poll data. So on this Veterans Day, what are former military service members expecting from the new president? Judy Woodruff interviews Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, about hopes for the new administration.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: On this Veterans Day, we turn to what a Trump administration might mean for those who have served our country.

On Election Day, 61 percent of veterans voted for Mr. Trump, 34 percent for Secretary Clinton. Of non-veterans, 45 percent voted Trump, while half voted for Clinton.

So, what do vets expect a President Trump to do?

William Brangham has more.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Candidate Trump repeatedly expressed support for those who served in the U.S. armed forces, and it showed in the results on Election Day. But he also angered many with his denigration of Senator John McCain and of the Khan family, whose son died fighting in Iraq.

For more on what veterans might want from a Trump administration, I’m joined by Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Paul Rieckhoff, as you saw, Trump was chosen by veterans 2-1 over Clinton. Why do you think that is?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: Well, I think we have got to start by being careful about overgeneralizing veterans.

There are 22 million in America, and they represent a very large group, but they’re really not a bloc. If you look at the older veterans, about 18 million or so that haven’t served since 9/11, they tend to be mostly male. They tend to be more white than the general population.

So, really, what some of that is just a reflection of the demographics that supported Trump vs. Clinton. And the younger generation, they’re about 20 percent female. They’re much more ethnically diverse. So I think we see some more political diversity there.

But I think what you do see is a frustration with the status quo. You see some frustration with the bureaucracy in Washington. You see a certain group of folks who just don’t like Hillary Clinton. I think that’s a very real problem, just not in the veterans community, but more broadly. And you see folks that respond to rhetoric.

Donald Trump talked a big game on veterans. He said it over and over again: I’m going to take care of the vets, I’m going to take care of the vets.

Their policies at times were not that different, but his rhetoric was much more aggressive. And it’s a populist issue. People responded to that and many people believe that’s what he’s going to do.

It’s been a campaign platform that he’s really focused on. Now we’re going to try to hold him accountable as he becomes president. If it’s going to be a capstone of his presidency, it is going to be a very hard series of things to accomplish.

Every president says he is going to fix the VA, and most of them leave without it getting done.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, let’s say you’re pulled into the room and you’re asked to counsel him on policy with regards to veterans. What’s priority one for you?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: I think priority one is to establish a real strong leadership group within Washington that is going to make veterans at the hub, and not just the VA at the hub.

Our conversation over the last two years, especially after the VA scandal, has been only really framed around the VA. I think there is an epic opportunity to be able to open this conversation to involve philanthropy, involve the private sector, the medical community, universities.

Government can’t be the only solution here. We see it in some of the members who come to us in most urgent need; 70 percent are not enrolled in the VA. Now, we do need to improve the VA, but we have got to have a true veteran strategy that expands beyond government.

President Obama has never really laid that out. We attacked the VA problem after the scandal and we heard a lot of good talk from Congress, but there was never comprehensive strategy, after we engaged in multiple wars, to actually care for people coming home.

So we have got to clear goals. We have got to have a strategy. And we need to have the right team in place. This is an opportunity to bring together a bipartisan coalition. It might be the only political issue we can get Republicans and Democrats behind together. And I think, for any president, it would be a smart issue to come out in the first year in such a divisive time.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Another issue that’s obviously very, very troubling is the rate of suicide among veterans, something like 20 a day, I believe.

What can a president, what can a presidential administration do to address that horrendous issue?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Well, I think we have seen President Obama make tremendous progress on this in simply talking about it.

Veterans advocacy groups like IAVA and others have been really screaming for years for help to try to explain that we’re losing our brothers and sisters to our left and right tragically to suicide on a daily basis.

We had a day last year we had seven suicide calls to IAVA in one day alone. So, I think it does start with prioritizing it. It also starts with understanding that it’s not just a veterans issue or a government issue. It’s a national health priority.

And we have got to rally resources around that. But when veterans do come forward and they overcome the stigma and they respond to that rhetoric, the help has got to be there. And we have seen wait times. We have seen bureaucracies. Even the Veterans Crisis Line, which has been great, struggled at times to keep up with the demand.

So, if those veterans are brave and are courageous and are encouraged to come forward, the resources have got to be there. And we have got a critical shortage of quality mental health care workers.

One thing IAVA has called on President Obama to do and will call on President Trump to do is to issue a national call to service for people who are qualified mental health to serve, to serve in the VA, at the DOD, in private nonprofits. We need an army of mental health care workers to support this flood of need that is coming home, not just after our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but after decades and decades of veterans who have underserved.

Many are the veterans that we’re losing to suicide are Vietnam veterans who were never properly cared for.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Paul Rieckhoff, thank you.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Thank you, sir.

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