At an event hosted by the Retired American Warriors PAC, Oct. 3, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked about approaches to preventing suicide among veterans. Here's his response. (The Washington Post)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments Monday about veterans’ mental health set off a fiery debate about how post-traumatic stress should be discussed. But many veterans, including some who have suffered from the condition, say they continue to support him.

Trump, speaking to a group of veterans in Reston, Va., was asked whether he would support boosting the roles of chaplains and faith-based programs to promote mental resiliency among service members and veterans. He indicated he would, and then shifted quickly to opine on problems he sees in the care veterans receive.

“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,” Trump said. “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.”

The comments were greeted by critics as clumsy at best, and offensive at worst. Phillip Carter, an Army veteran who previously served in the Obama administration, tweeted that they were “uncaring, unprofessional and unpresidential.” Carter also pointed to previous instances in which Trump’s commentary has angered some veterans, including his criticism of the Gold Star parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim soldier who was killed in Iraq.

Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Michael Adams, a Special Forces veteran with numerous combat deployments, said part of the culture in his world was not seeking help, even as stress mounted and service members carried out numerous classified operations of unclear lengths.

“PTSD remains a huge problem across the military and in Special Operations forces and bulls— comments like the one Trump made today — intentional or not — just make it worse,” Adams said. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the military “need to make a sincere effort to try to help troops and stop crunching numbers,” he added.

But Trump’s supporters who have served quickly said his remarks were being exaggerated for effect in the media. Former Marine Staff Sgt. Chad Robichaux, a combat veteran who served in Force Reconnaissance units and asked Trump the question, defended him in a statement released to news organizations.

“I think it’s sickening that anyone would twist Mr. Trump’s comments to me in order to pursue a political agenda,” said Robichaux, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. “I took his comments to be thoughtful and understanding of the struggles many veterans have, and I believe he is committed to helping them.”

Others defended him online, saying he was drawing attention to veterans issues that need to be discussed. Trump, who has polled well with veterans, has often said that 22 veterans commit suicide each day, and did so again Monday. That’s based on 2013 data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but new statistics released in July show that 20 veterans are still lost to suicide daily.

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Thomas Brennan, a Marine combat veteran who has written about his own post-traumatic stress and has misgivings about both candidates, said in a Facebook post that he thought Trump was well-intentioned but used some words that show evidence of “ongoing, far-reaching failures” in discussing mental health.

“When you’re struggling you do need support. You don’t feel strong. You feel your weakest,” Brennan wrote. “On the flip side, the moment you ask for help is when you’re at your strongest despite feeling as though you’re at your weakest. It just takes time to see that. And because it’s incredibly embarrassing most survivors won’t talk about it.”

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a Trump adviser, released a statement through the campaign that blamed the media for taking Trump’s words out of context “in order to deceive voters and veterans.” He suggested Trump was simply “highlighting the challenges veterans face when returning home after serving their country.”

Numerous groups supporting veterans challenge the concept that those who seek treatment “can’t handle” trauma they have experienced. In fact, it’s often now described as an injury that must be treated rather than as a mental disorder, to the point that the “D” in “PTSD” often is dropped.

“PTS, long thought to be a mental disorder is now increasingly looked on as an injury to be treated,” the American Legion states in its brochure on the condition. “The American Legion feels that this change in focus will more effectively assist veterans and service members who are suffering from the effects of traumatic experiences.”

The veterans website Task & Purpose has labeled post-traumatic stress being a sign of weakness as its No. 1 myth about the condition. The Department of Veterans Affairs suggests that seeking help for post-traumatic stress is “a sign of problem solving, not a sign of weakness,” and notes that many people recover fully from it with treatment.

Paul Rieckhoff, the chief executive officer of the non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called in a series of tweets Monday for an educated dialogue about the subject, urging media organizations to add “light rather than just heat” and for people to be careful with the words they choose.

“Every national leader has a responsibility to use accurate and appropriate language when talking about mental health and suicide especially,” Rieckhoff said.

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