Democrats on Tuesday seized on comments Donald Trump made suggesting that military members and veterans with mental health issues are not “strong” and “can’t handle it,” remarks they said render him out of touch and unfit to be commander in chief.
The Republican presidential nominee, speaking to a group of veterans in Virginia on Monday, said that some troops see things in combat that “a lot of folks in the room” have seen many times.
“And you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” Trump said.
The backlash to his remarks was swift and harsh, with Democrats and veterans groups assailing him as insensitive to an issue that mental health advocates have spent decades working to destigmatize and raise awareness of among veterans.
At a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa., Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said Trump’s remarks showed his “insensitivity and ignorance” about a condition that affects many veterans.
“Donald Trump’s comments are not just ignorant, they are harmful because they give voice to a stigma that has led generations of veterans to hide their struggles instead of getting lifesaving help,” Clinton said.
A visibly angry Vice President Biden also denounced Trump. “This is an ignorant man,” he said on CNN on Tuesday.
Biden recounted going to Iraq and pinning a Silver Star on a young soldier. The soldier told Biden that he didn’t want the Silver Star because the fellow soldier he had pulled out of a burning Humvee had died.
“That kid probably goes to sleep every night with a nightmare, and this guy doesn’t understand any of that? How can he not understand that? How can he be so out of touch?” said an emotional Biden, whose late son served in the military. “He’s not a bad guy, but how can he be so out of touch and ask to lead this country?”
Trump’s campaign pushed back against the criticism of his comments about post-traumatic stress disorder, saying that the news media took his words out of context “to deceive voters and veterans” about what he said.
“He has always respected the service and sacrifice of our military men and women — proposing reforms to Veterans Affairs to adequately address the various issues veterans face when they return home,” retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a Trump surrogate, said in a statement.
Trump’s website says the candidate wants to increase the number of mental health professionals at the Department of Veterans Affairs and allow veterans to access mental health care outside the agency.
Trump’s comments Monday are the latest in a long line of questionable remarks about the military that Democrats said illustrate that the Republican nominee is not fit to serve as president. In July, Trump got into a feud with the Muslim American parents of a soldier killed in Iraq after they spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Days later, a service member gave Trump a Purple Heart at a campaign stop in Virginia. The real estate executive said that it was something he “always wanted” and that having one gifted to him was “much easier” than participating in combat.
When asked a question about what he had sacrificed, referring to military parents’ sacrifices, Trump pointed to his business successes. And last year, Trump said he doesn’t consider Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, to be a war hero.
“He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said in Ames, Iowa, in July 2015. “I like people that weren’t captured.”
In January, Trump held a fundraiser for veterans where he said he raised about $6 million, including $1 million of his own money. His campaign said later that he had given $1 million, but that wasn’t true. Trump donated the money later, after news reports brought the issue to light. He also waited months to give away more than $1 million that other donors had entrusted to his Donald J. Trump Foundation.
In a statement put out by the campaign, the man who asked Trump the question in Virginia that prompted Trump’s remarks about PTSD said he took Trump to mean that the health-care system for veterans is broken. Marine Staff Sgt. Chad Robichaux, the president and founder of Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs in Temecula, Calif., said he has struggled with PTSD and has helped nearly 1,100 veterans who also suffer from the condition.
“I think it’s sickening that anyone would twist Mr. Trump’s comments to me in order to pursue a political agenda,” Robichaux said in a statement. “I took his comments to be thoughtful and understanding of the struggles many veterans have, and I believe he is committed to helping them.”
According to VA, 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2002 suffer from PTSD in a given year. Of those who served in the Persian Gulf War, 12 percent have PTSD in a given year, as do 15 percent of Vietnam War veterans.
“PTSD can happen to anyone. It is not a sign of weakness,” the department’s website reads.
Angela Kimball, the national director for advocacy and public policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that she can see how Trump’s comments may have been taken out of context but that they also may illustrate a lack of understanding about PTSD.
“It’s really a rewiring of the brain in response to trauma. To talk about somebody being strong in handling something is to, in a sense, dismiss the legitimacy of a mental health condition,” she said. It implies that someone ought to or should be able to get over something, she said, and “that does a disservice to all of our men and women in uniform who are battling PTSD, depression, anxiety and other conditions.”
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, urged Americans to educate themselves about PTSD.
“Every national leader has a responsibility to use accurate and appropriate language when talking about mental health and suicide especially. The wrong messages on PTSD and suicide can perpetuate stigma and complicate an already complicated problem,” he said in a statement. “Getting help for a mental health injury is not a sign of weakness, it’s a demonstration of strength.”
David A. Fahrenthold and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.