Washington Week

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Trump vs. Clinton: Veterans

By Jenna Goff and Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellows


With the general election less than a month away, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are honing in on critical battleground states that will determine the outcome on November 8. Veterans make up a vital constituency in nearly every swing state, so the presidential nominees have fought ardently over their votes.

As the 2016 election enters its final weeks, we looked into each candidate’s policy proposals for veterans.

Department of Veterans Affairs

Reforming the Department of Veteran Affairs, which has recently been riddled with scandal, is central to both nominees’ policy proposals. Trump has suggested creating a “commission to investigate all the fraud, cover-ups, and wrong-doing” at the VA, which has captured many headlines since the 2014 resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki.

On top of the investigating commission, Trump has also promised to nominate a VA secretary “whose sole purpose will be to serve veterans.” The secretary would also, pending the approval of Congress, be able to withhold bonuses from and even terminate those employees who do not meet this “sole purpose” standard. 

Clinton has been attacked by Trump for going too easy on the VA, stemming from an October 2015 interview when she said that the VA scandal has "not been as widespread as it has been made out to be." But her platform, like Trump's, calls for large bureaucratic overhauls of the government agency. She has proposed regular joint meetings with the VA secretary and Defense secretary to ensure coordination between their services and communications to veterans. This will happen in conjunction with the development of a new electronic health record (EHR) system that can be easily accessed by both government agencies, limiting logistical delays between the two.

Veterans’ Health Care

The two presidential nominees have repeatedly sparred over the best way to ensure the best delivery and quality of health care to veterans, an issue that came to light during the 2014 VA scandal. The agency was charged with falsifying documents to obscure the long waits that veterans experienced for medical appointments, an average of 115 days at one Arizona clinic. 

Trump has promised to shorten vets’ wait times, most notably by offering former service members the option to seek medical assistance from a private provider. Trump has also assured that veterans would be able to access a private medical provider for mental health services if they so chose. Some of Trump’s opponents, including Democratic VP nominee Tim Kaine, have written the plan off as a privatization of the VA, but Trump’s campaign insists that it would simply allow vets the option to seek outside assistance.

Clinton thoroughly opposes any attempt to privatize the VA, claiming that it would “undermine our veterans’ ability to get the unique care that only the VA can provide.” The Democratic nominee’s plan to shorten wait times focuses on integrating the VA’s medical services to serve as equal parts “health care provider, partner, and payer for veteran-directed care.” This would include coordination between the VA and other coverage that veterans may have, such as Medicare, and possibly purchasing certain private-sector services for specific procedures or treatments. Clinton has also called for convening an oversight board of the VA’s health services, with representation from former service members.

Post-9/11 G.I. Bill

Clinton has made an extension of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill a core tenet of her veterans plan and a repeated attack against Trump. The bill, which provides vets who served after the September 11 attacks educational and job training benefits, would become “a lasting part of our social contract with those who serve,” Clinton’s campaign promises. The Democratic nominee has also proposed congressional legislation that would reaffirm the benefits, extend family transferability of them and outline new acceptable uses of them, such as coding academies.

Trump’s position on the bill has been far murkier, a cause for criticism from the Clinton camp. During a “hostile interview” with CNN’s Chris Cuomo in May, Trump repeatedly dodged the question of whether he would endorse a continuation of the G.I. Bill. Cuomo then restated his question, “So is that a yes, I do support the current G.I. bill?” To that, Trump replied, “No, I want to bring jobs back to our country. I want to make our country go again.”

Veteran Suicide

A large part of Clinton’s platform on veterans addresses supporting them once they return home from the battlefield. She has proposed reforming veteran’s mental health care to ensure “timely and high quality care” that will help combat the issue of veteran suicide. In general, she will also increase federal funding and support for suicide prevention and create a cross-government national initiative centered around suicide prevention.

When asked how he would prevent “20 veterans a day from killing themselves” at the NBC Commander-in-Chief forum in September, Trump responded wrongly: “actually it’s 22.” But despite this incorrect statistic, his plan also focuses on reforming veteran health care. At the forum, he cited poor veteran health care as a cause of suicides, saying that veterans are not getting the care they need. "We're going to speed up the process,” he said. “We're going to create a big mental health division. They need help. They need help. They need tremendous help, and we're doing nothing for them. The VA is really almost you could say a corrupt enterprise.”

However, Trump found himself in deep water earlier this month when he suggested that military veterans suffer with PTSD and suicide because they are not strong enough to “handle” the “horror stories” of war. His campaign later blasted the media for taking Trump’s words “out of context” and pointed to his continuing pledge to provide support to veterans struggling with PTSD and depression upon returning home.

Military Sexual Assault

When asked about military sexual assault at the NBC forum in September, Trump stood behind his 2013 tweet that claimed it was inevitable when “they put men and women together” in the armed forces. He clarified that addressing the issue did not mean kicking women out of the military, but enforcing the prosecution of rapists. Trump pushed victims to report rapes, and also suggested the creation of a “court system within the military.” Such a court has existed in some form since 1774, but lawmakers have critiqued its ineffectuality in addressing sexual assaults.

Clinton has proposed measures to work with victims of military sexual assault and has a track record of backing legislation to curb the issue. In a briefing, she pledged to ensure that Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is treated as a valid form of PTS, allowing victims to be “uniformly eligible for disability compensation and treatment.” She also suggested strengthening protections in the military so that victims can serve “without fear of sexual assault or harassment, and without fear of retaliation for reporting.”

In 2014, Clinton backed the Gillibrand Bill, a measure that sought to combat military sexual assault by taking the cases outside the military chain of command. While the bill failed in the Senate, it suggests that Clinton may work to prosecute military sexual assaults in courts outside of the military.