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Why many veterans are sticking with Trump, even after he insulted a Gold Star family

The Washington Post spoke to veterans in the battleground state of North Carolina about the upcoming election and their choice for the next commander-in-chief. (Video: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Evan McAllister was 23 years old when he fought in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in 2006. He killed men and buried friends. Eight years later, he watched the same city fall to the Islamic State.

To McAllister, a former Marine staff sergeant and scout sniper instructor, the war he fought was a harebrained mission planned by Republicans, rubber-stamped by Democrats and, in the end, lost to al-Qaeda’s brutal successor. The foreign policy establishment of both parties got his friends killed for no reason, he said, so come Election Day, he is voting for the man he believes answers to neither Democrats nor Republicans: Donald Trump.

“Most veterans . . . they see their country lost to the corrupt,” he said. “And Trump comes along all of a sudden and calls out the corrupt on both sides of the aisle.”

Trump can seem an unlikely candidate to be embraced by veterans. He received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War. Last summer, he attacked Sen. John McCain, saying the Arizona Republican was “not a war hero” because he had been captured in Vietnam. More recently, Trump attacked the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, a U.S. soldier and Muslim who was killed in Iraq, after Khan’s father spoke at the Democratic National Convention with his wife standing by his side at the lectern.

And he has drawn almost universal condemnation from national security experts who have served under Republican and Democratic administrations and who say Trump is unfit to be commander in chief of U.S. armed forces.

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But among many of the people who have actually fought in this country’s wars, particularly on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump offers a refreshing alternative to 15 years of seemingly endless conflict marked by uncertain goals, fleeting victories and constant personal sacrifice, according to interviews with dozens of veterans who remain unfazed by the Republican candidate’s recent behavior or falling poll numbers.

Last week, Trump vowed in a speech to end “our current strategy of nation-building and regime change,” a reference to policies pursued by the Bush and Obama administrations in the Middle East.

“I think there’s a pretty sour taste in a lot of guys’ mouths about Iraq and about what happened there,” said Jim Webb Jr., a Marine veteran, Trump supporter, son of former U.S. senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) and one of McAllister’s platoon mates. “You pour time and effort and blood into something, and you see it pissed away, and you think, ‘How did I spend my twenties?’ ”

“There’s a mentality that they don’t want to see more of that,” he said, adding that he worried that a Hillary Clinton presidency would result in “continued adventurism,” given her record supporting interventions in Iraq and Libya.

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Two recent national polls since the Democratic convention show Trump leading Clinton among military veterans — by 14 points in a Fox News poll and 11 points in a McClatchy-Marist poll. By comparison, Clinton shows a 10-point to 15-point margin among all registered voters in both surveys. The demographics of veterans align closely with Trump’s strongest sources of support: More than 9 in 10 are men, and about 8 in 10 are white.

His fans in the military community could prove critical in November in swing states with large military populations, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. In these three states, veterans represented at least 8 percent of the population in 2014, according to data collected by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Trump’s foreign policy ideas can be difficult to pin down. He insists that he opposed the war in Iraq, but audio clips from interviews show that he supported the invasion. He has questioned U.S. participation in NATO but on Monday pledged to support the alliance because it had recently formed a counterterrorism division. He has vowed to work with anyone to defeat the Islamic State, stating that the United States would have to fight aggressively to win. At the same time, he has rejected the idea of nation-building, a hallmark of past strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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At a recent Trump rally in Wilmington, N.C., just 30 minutes from the back gate of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, David Buzzard, a 26-year-old former Army specialist, said the Republican real estate magnate was not his “ideal candidate.”

But he is also wary of Clinton, who he says too readily backs military intervention as a solution in the Middle East and seems untrustworthy, based on her handling of emails while she was secretary of state and possible conflicts of interest between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department.

“I’d rather have an a–hole in the office who doesn’t have a filter than a pandering, corrupt hawk who has special interests in mind rather than the American public,” said Buzzard, who has the light outline of a scar under his left eye, the faint evidence of a roadside bomb that hit his patrol in 2011 in Afghanistan’s Wardak province.

Earlier this month, Trump made a quip about how he had “always wanted” to get a Purple Heart after an Army veteran offered him his. With two of those medals to his name, Buzzard shrugged off Trump’s comments, sayings his words had been taken out of context.

Former Marine Andrew Delrossi said he recoiled when he heard that Trump “always wanted” the Purple Heart.

“There was probably some Marine sitting there in Walter Reed missing his legs and his testicles watching that on the news,” Delrossi said. “And that’s the first time I got mad at Donald Trump. For him to say a comment like that put a bad taste in my mouth.”

A former infantryman with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Delrossi started a wounded-veterans nonprofit called New England’s Wounded Veterans, which received $75,000 from the candidate this year but only after some delay.

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In lieu of participating in one of the Republican primary debates this year, Trump opted to raise money for veterans organizations and claimed that he had contributed $1 million of $6 million he said was raised. The majority of Trump’s personal donations to the fundraiser were not distributed until he was pressured by reporters.

Still, Delrossi said, he is voting for Trump and sees him as the “average Joe.”

“Donald Trump is the father at the end of the table. He is the guy at the Christmas party saying we gotta do more for our vets and screw ISIS,” said Delrossi, who now works as a Boston-area police officer. “He’s like our own dad almost.”

Delrossi admits that his affection for Trump is not entirely rational. “It’s almost one of those things where it’s like where your heart says Donald Trump and your brain says Hillary Clinton,” he said.

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Trump’s frequent calls to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs have resonated with veterans, although several said they are waiting to hear more specifics. The candidate in July released a 10-point plan to improve the department, calling for changes that include firing “corrupt and incompetent VA executives who let our veterans down,” boosting funding for job-placement services and improving mental health-care services, but details are slim.

“Vets aren’t being taken care of like they should be no matter which way you try to twist it,” said Kaylea Schneider, a former Marine staff sergeant, who said she does not agree with everything Trump says but appreciates his views on the military and foreign policy.

Trump’s perceived patriotism and calls for a fiercer response to the Islamic State and other insurgent groups have drawn support from veterans frustrated with the rules of engagement under which the U.S. military operates, several veterans said. The specifics of those rules are classified but are broadly understood to outline circumstances under which U.S. troops can attack enemy fighters in an effort to prevent civilian casualties.

“When you send our guys — my brothers-in-arms, my sisters-in-arms — into a combat zone, we need to go to win, not to play nice with the populace,” said former Army Pfc. Chris Richardson, who drove convoys in Iraq’s Diyala province in 2008 and 2009 and attended Trump’s recent rally in Fayetteville, N.C., in a leather vest adorned with an Iraq War veteran patch. “If they shoot at us, we need to be able to shoot back and trust that we’re not going to be charged with a crime when we get back stateside.”

But Trump’s rhetoric has not won over everyone. Brandon Friedman, a former Army captain who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and later served in the Obama administration, pointed to a litany of remarks made by the Republican presidential candidate that disparaged the military and veterans. He also pointed to Trump’s lack of support for the post-9/11 GI Bill, a piece of legislation that has helped thousands of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan receive a higher education, and Trump’s claims that the U.S. military “doesn’t win anymore.”

“When I see veterans saying things like, ‘He’s proud of the military,’ I don’t think they’re paying attention to the words coming out of his mouth,” said Friedman, who plans to vote for Clinton. “It’s amazing to me that he’s been actively hostile to the veterans community and still retains so much support.”

Some veterans have decided that neither candidate suits them.

Former Marine Gunnery Sgt. Emir Hadzic said he used to back Trump, but his support waned after he heard the candidate’s comments about Mexicans and Muslims. Hadzic, who just left the Marines after spending eight deployments overseas, said he plans to write in a name or vote for a third-party candidate in November.

“My friends say, ‘You gotta pick Hillary or Trump, man; you need to pick the lesser of two evils,’” Hadzic said. “And I say, ‘I’m not voting for either, because I don’t vote for evil.’ ”

For Webb, writing in a candidate or voting “out of protest,” is not an option. For all of Trump’s perceived flaws, Webb said, he thinks he is the strongest candidate.

“He is bringing a comprehensive re-examination of how we conduct business,” Webb said. “Whether it’s on taxes or it’s how we’re involved in the world, it’s very sorely needed.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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