I served in the Navy Reserves for 19 years and on active duty in Kuwait during Operation Enduring Freedom for one year. Nothing compares to serving in the United States military. Every time my unit stood at attention for the national anthem I felt an overwhelming sense of pride that sometimes brought me to tears. There is also an incredible level of camaraderie. You train together and have each other’s backs because you know that at any time you could be put in harm’s way together.
Service members are trained to take orders from their leaders and to carry out those orders. They trust their leaders. I learned that the best leaders are those who lead by example and are willing to serve alongside those they lead. I once watched my captain help moor a ship to a pier in Egypt. That was in 2005, and I have never forgotten that lesson.
Shortly before I retired, a policy lifting a ban on transgender individuals was being implemented. As with every policy in the military it was meticulously and expertly planned and executed. We received mandatory training on every aspect of the new policy.
President Trump threw the entire military into chaos via Twitter: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
It was appalling. Decisions in the military are not made by tweets and it showed an alarming lack of regard for those who were serving and the military as a whole. Raymond Mabus Jr., former Navy Secretary, stated, “So much careful thought had gone into development of the policy, with consensus at the highest levels of military leadership. I cannot recall another instance in United States military history of such a stark and unfounded reversal of policy.”
I often wonder how Vietnam veterans feel about Trump. Many were drafted, exposed to unspeakable horrors, and sickened by Agent Orange. They returned physically wounded and mentally traumatized with no welcome home and often hostile receptions. Their GI benefits were almost nonexistent and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not officially recognized until 1980. Trump received four draft deferments for college and one for bone spurs in his heel. When asked, he could not remember which heel was affected and added, “Over a period of time, it healed up.” In the 1990s he stated, “Dating is like being in Vietnam. It’s the equivalent of a soldier going over to Vietnam.”
The late John McCain served in Vietnam. He was a Navy pilot and was captured when his plane was shot down in 1967. He was a prisoner of war for five-and-a-half years and was beaten and tortured. His captors offered to release him because his father was an admiral. He refused and the beatings continued. Yet, of John McCain, Trump has said, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Recent reports have shed more light on Trump’s total and incomprehensible disrespect for those who have served. He did not visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the World War I armistice because, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” He referred to the Marines who died at the Battle of Belleau Wood as “suckers.” He said he did not understand why the United States got involved to help the Allies and asked, “Who were the good guys in this war?”
While at Robert Kelly’s grave with his father, John Kelly, on Memorial Day 2017 at Arlington National Cemetery, Trump said to John Kelly, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” A retired four-star general and friend of John Kelly explained, “He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself. He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker.”
And what about the bounties? As far back as February 2020, President Trump learned that Russia offered to pay the Taliban to assassinate United States service members. The death of several service members has been attributed to this Russian-led scheme. No other president has so thoroughly shrugged off their responsibilities by saying “I didn’t know” after being briefed by their intelligence agencies about something so dire and despicable. No other president has called the information given to them by their own intelligence agencies “a hoax,” choosing instead to believe an adversary such as Vladimir Putin. No other president has been so derelict in their duties and shown such contempt for our military service members. Trump has yet to condemn the Russian-led assassination of our troops nor has he stated what action the United States will take in response.
While trying to win the vote of service members, Trump has repeatedly taken credit for the Veterans Choice Act: “We passed VA Choice ... They’ve been trying to get that passed also for about 44 years.” President Obama signed that bill in 2014. President Trump did sign the VA Mission Act, and there are already problems. Officials administering the plan said they were unable to guarantee a network large enough to accommodate all the veterans who may seek care.
Trump has made false claims about raises for the military. In 2019, he told service members, “You also got very nice pay raises for the last couple of years … First time in 10 years.” In fact, service members have received a pay raise every year for decades. He also claimed military pay raises were higher under his administration; however, several raises in the last decade have been larger than service members are getting under Trump.
The president of the United States is the commander in chief of the greatest military in the history of the world. Veterans and current service members deserve a president who not only understands and respects their service, but who truly supports every member of the military in words and also in their actions.
Sharon Laffey is secretary of the Washington County Democratic Committee.