Donald Trump spoke to an evangelical group of retired veterans; many news outlets reported his remarks on veteran suicide. I listened to and read his full comments (transcript), and I found lots of troubling statements.
He denounced “political correctness” and spoke positively of “profiling” by Israelis. Hen he said, “And we may have to do that, and we may have to do other things.” We may have to do profiling? In context, that means racial profiling. With his support of “Stop and Frisk,” it shows a disregard for Constitutional limitations on police.
My friend, CH (COL) Ron Crews, US Army, ret., then asked a question about religion in the military. I disagree with Ron on details of the specific cases he cited, and the general trend. I disagree when he says, “The Obama administration has deliberately set out to take the Christian religion out of the military.” Chaplains of all faiths continue to do their job of providing Religious Support to service members of all faiths (and none). But Trump didn’t respond to Ron’s question. He got sidetracked into discussing other issues and said, “we’re going to get rid of the Johnson Amendment that is very, very unfair, OK?”
Then he turned to the question that had everyone talking, from a former Marine Staff Sgt., Chad Robichaux, who runs the Might Oaks Warrior Program, which provides a conservative evangelical approach to PTSD.
I was troubled by the question. Robichaux claimed the government isn’t taking advantage of “spiritual fitness” programs (which I interpreted to mean simply that he can’t get government funding for his). He asked if Trump would “restore the historic role of our chaplains” and the importance of spiritual fitness programs. The chaplain’s role hasn’t changed. And the VA and military know well that PTSD and moral injury require a wholistic approach. That’s why the Army has Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. It’s why we have chaplains working with behavioral health and medical providers. We do that.
And Trump responded,
“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over and you’re strong and you can handle it. But a lot of people can’t handle it. And they see horror stories. They see events that you couldn’t see in a movie, nobody would believe it.
“Now we need a mental health help and medical. And it’s one of the things that I think is least addressed and is one of the things that — like your question — one of the things that I hear the most about when I go around and talk to the veterans. So we’re going to have a very, very robust, level of performance having to do with mental health. We are losing so many great people that can be taken care of if they have proper care.
“You know when you hear the 22 suicides a day it’s a big part of your question. But when you hear the 22 suicides a day that should never be. That should never be. So we’re going to be addressing that very strongly and the whole mental health issue is going to be a very important issue when I take over and the V.A. is going to be fixed in so many ways but that’s going to be one of the ways we’re going to help.
“And that’s in many respects going to be the number one thing we have to do. Because I think it’s really been left behind.”
His supporters are saying his remarks were distorted. But I think his remarks are still problematic. He buys into the stereotype that if you succumb to trauma, you aren’t “strong.” That is a major element in the stigma that keeps service members and veterans from seeking help. His remarks show that, like most civilians, he doesn’t understand combat stress, or the many different reasons veterans of all ages are committing suicide. His response is simply “If we fix the VA, we’ll fix the problem.” How does that help those currently serving? How does it help those veterans who are not eligible for VA health benefits?
He then returned to the theme of “political correctness,” and claimed generals were not permitted to fight ISIS the way they want. What’s he suggesting? We should have no Rules of Engagement? Is he suggesting US forces commit actions International Law regards as war crimes? This is how he usually speaks. He dangles issues that sound provocative, saying he’s going to be “tough,” but his meaning is ambiguous.
He’s said things before on the topic of military actions that are frightening and insulting–about torture, about POWs, about nuclear weapons, about the Purple Heart, about Gold Star parents, about US service members who are Muslim. Reporters need to push him to explain his meaning. He needs to be held accountable.
His ignorance of veterans, and his contempt for civil liberties protections and the Law of Land Warfare should cause America to stop and think about what kind of America we want.