Trump doesn't need to apologize to veterans, but Obama, Biden should
© Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE, while speaking to a veterans’ group in Virginia this week, landed again in the media’s crosshairs. The Republican presidential nominee was accused of suggesting military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are “weak”.

As an Afghanistan combat veteran diagnosed with PTSD after my service, I was initially concerned by this news. But looking past the sensationalistic headlines, there’s far less to this supposed “gaffe” than meets the eye. 

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As with most reporting on this year’s presidential election, which goes to great lengths to twist facts to suit a vehemently anti-Trump narrative, one should check the exact wording of what was actually said before making a conclusion. Here’s the precise quote from a transcript of Trump’s remarks:

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.

Trump then spoke of the need to improve mental health care for veterans. His phrasing was slightly awkward, but it’s clear from the context he was speaking extemporaneously with understanding and sympathy about a serious problem. Based on the full transcript, it appears to have been a perfectly hospitable audience, with no evidence of offense on the part of the attendees.

But in this bitterly fought presidential race, controversy must be manufactured. Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBudget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide READ: Foreign service officer Jennifer Williams' closed-door testimony from the House impeachment inquiry MORE took on that dirty job, blasting the Republican nominee for these supposedly “insensitive” remarks. He accused Trump of being “out of touch” and “ignorant” on veterans’ issues.

There’s a certain irony that Biden would go after Trump for his perfectly innocent, if somewhat awkward, phrasing, given the vice president’s well-earned reputation for embarrassing gaffes and sloppy expression. The Trump campaign hit back hard against the Democrat for taking his comments out of context, and rightly so.

But the more important point is that the manufactured frenzy over Trump’s alleged slight is much ado about nothing, when compared to the catastrophic collapse of veterans services under the Obama administration these last eight years.

If Biden is concerned about how well veterans are served, he might review a few recent headlines culled from a news search about the Obama administration’s Department of Veterans Affairs:

That sampling of dire VA reports is just from the last two weeks. Sounds like Biden is the one who’s “out of touch” with veterans’ needs. After all, he’s spent the last eight years serving in an administration that has failed veterans by virtually every performance measure that matters.

President Obama and his supporters point out that the VA budget has grown substantially under his administration. That’s true — in fact, over the last decade, VA spending has roughly doubled.

But that spending has not led to improved results. While many veterans report positive VA experiences (myself included), it’s clear that the department’s performance is wildly inconsistent. Far too many of our brothers and sisters who have worn the uniform are subject to long waits, poor service, and delayed and denied health care and benefits. 

So the real question is, who is more likely to bring positive change and accountability to the VA’s dysfunctional bureaucracy? Not Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Resistance or unhinged behavior? Partisan hatred reaches Trump's family MORE. Her first instinct was to downplay the VA’s scandals, suggesting “it’s not been as widespread as it’s made out to be.” After veterans’ organizations objected, she walked it back and has spoken about reforming the VA. 

The problem is that Clinton, like Obama before her, will not be an agent of change at the VA. Why? Because she, like Obama, is beholden to the government labor unions that have paralyzed VA reform by fending off every attempt to bring real accountability to the troubled department.

On this issue, as on so many others, Clinton will be a slave to the status quo. Trump, as an outsider, is far more likely to bring fresh thinking to bear on VA reform. (And to be clear, if he were to be elected and fail to deliver, I and the rest of the veterans community should be unsparing in holding him to account).

Trump will endure a day or two of overcooked and hostile media coverage based on this latest twisting of his words. But the real story is that veterans have endured a very bad eight years of mismanagement, corruption and drift at the VA. It’s the Obama administration that owes them an apology.

Parnell is a retired U.S. Army Infantry Captain who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He is the author of the national bestseller, "Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan."


 

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