At 23 million strong, America’s veterans make up one of the largest voting blocs in the nation.
And as troubles continue to surface at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), each of the 2016 presidential candidates is wooing this coveted, if far-from-monolithic, constituency.
The seven remaining top contenders have each vowed to address the problems that have plagued the VA since 2014.
But along with the promises, each candidate, too, carries some heavy baggage on veterans’ health issues.
Clinton introduced multiple bills while in the Senate that supported veterans, including the Heroes at Home Act of 2006.
The former first lady, senator, and secretary of state also worked frequently with Republicans on a variety of legislation and helped establish new services for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), the signature wounds of the wars Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, more recently, the Democratic presidential candidate has made some missteps, including her recent assertion that the ongoing scandal at the VA is not “as widespread as it has been made out to be.”
Critics say the comment, for which Clinton later apologized, suggests a fundamental and troubling misunderstanding on her part of what is actually still occurring at the VA.
The remark will likely be repeated by her opponents from now until November.
Sanders has done plenty of things for veterans while in the Senate, sponsoring dozens of bills that addressed veteran issues.
But the Vermont Democrat has his share of critics among veterans and veteran advocates, who insist he was too soft on the VA during congressional hearings in 2014.
In May 2014, just after the scandal broke at Phoenix, Arizona, veterans’ facility, Sanders said “there is, right now, as we speak, a concerted effort to undermine the VA. You have folks out there now — Koch brothers and others — who want to radically change the nature of society, and either make major cuts in all of these institutions, or maybe do away with them entirely.”
True or not, the VA didn’t need the Koch brothers’ help. The Phoenix scandal quickly grew into a national nightmare.
Reporters, congressional sources, and VA investigators eventually discovered corruption and mismanagement at more than 50 VA facilities.
Paul Rieckhoff, the chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the nation’s largest organization for veterans of the post-9/11 wars, criticized Sanders for what Rieckhoff described as apologizing for the VA during the hearings and refusing to acknowledge the severity of the problem.
Trump, the current Republican frontrunner, says he cares deeply about veterans’ health and would fix the broken VA system.
"The current state of the Department of Veterans Affairs is absolutely unacceptable," Trump said at a rally in November in front of the battleship USS Wisconsin. "Over 300,000 — and this is hard to believe, and it’s actually much more than that now — over 300,000 veterans died waiting for care."
While Politifiact said Trump’s assertion “takes liberty with the facts,” Trump has nonetheless generated strong support from veterans.
But over the course of his high-profile adult life, the billionaire businessman has done little for the group.
Between 2009 and 2013, his foundation reportedly only gave $57,000 of $5.5 million in donations to veterans.
Trump’s real history with veterans is not exactly warm and fuzzy, according to the Daily News in New York.
In a story last August, the New York Daily News said Trump for years urged New York City officials to remove veterans who were peddling goods on Fifth Avenue. Veterans are allowed to get special vendor licenses from the Department of Consumer Affairs in thanks for their service.
“While disabled veterans should be given every opportunity to earn a living, is it fair to do so to the detriment of the city as a whole or its tax-paying citizens and businesses?” Trump reportedly wrote in a 1991 letter to John Dearie, then-chairman of the state Assembly’s Committee on Cities.
“Do we allow Fifth Ave., one of the world’s finest and most luxurious shopping districts, to be turned into an outdoor flea market, clogging, and seriously downgrading the area?” Trump reportedly said.
Trump complained again in a 2004 letter to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the atmosphere of Fifth Avenue was being destroyed by peddlers, including some who he insisted were just posing as veterans.
In a speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just before the caucus began a few weeks ago, Trump discussed how 2,300 up-armored Humvees were stolen by the Islamic State (ISIS) when the terrorist group overran the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014.
“I talk about it all the time: 2,300 brand new up-armored Humvees, I talk about it all the time … the best in the world,” Trump said. “Armor plated, top, bottom, all over, if a bomb goes off our wounded warriors — instead of losing their legs, their arms, worse, they’re OK. They go for a little ride upward and they come down. The best stuff, all gone; taken by the enemy."
Trump's comments enraged many veterans, who noted that numerous American soldiers have died or been maimed in IED explosions while driving or riding in a Humvee.
They include Marissa Strock, who was featured in Newsweek’s “Failing Our Wounded” story in 2007. Strock lost both legs but survived while patrolling in a Humvee in Iraq.
Some veterans groups pushed back against Trump's veteran benefit held on the night of a Republican debate.
IAVA’s Rieckhoff tweeted, "If offered, @IAVA will decline donations from Trump’s [veteran benefit] event. We need strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts.”
Trump also criticized the war record of Vietnam veteran John McCain, the Arizona Senator who spent more than five years in a North Vietnam prison.
“I like people who weren’t captured, OK?” Trump said.
Cruz is a staunch proponent of privatizing veterans care and cutting spending on various veteran healthcare programs.
In fact, the Republican Texas senator doesn’t even have a veterans section on his website, which focuses more on what he would do as commander-in-chief.
Cruz does promise on his website that if elected he would work to “expand options for our service members’ health care so they have more choices and more immediate service.”
The site also states that a Cruz administration will “bring more accountability to the VA and provide greater options for our veterans.”
During his time in the Senate, Cruz has been reluctant to spend tax dollars on health programs for veterans.
In 2014, he helped lead the fight among Senate Republicans to kill a $21 billion bill that would have added 20 more VA medical facilities and bolstered health care benefits for veterans with PTSD and other ailments.
Cruz and his Senate Republican colleagues stalled the bill, insisting it was too expensive. It eventually died.
Cruz has been dogged by an untrue story that was posted on a fake news site last spring that stated he told a crowd that veterans should sell Girl Scout cookies to raise funds.
The story was picked up by numerous sites, but it has been confirmed that Cruz never made such a statement.
Rubio, who has brought his brother Mario Rubio, an Army veteran, on the campaign trail, has said that if elected he will fight to “privatize veterans health care.”
But many veteran organizations, including the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and the American Legion do not support the privatization of veterans’ health care.
Other Republican candidates, including Cruz and Trump, generally support the idea of privatizing the VA entirely or at least partially, despite the fact that when presidential candidate Mitt Romney raised the issue four years ago, the idea was harshly criticized. Romney quickly dropped the idea.
On the Democratic side, both Clinton and Sanders say that privatization of the agency would simply not work, while acknowledging the VA still has problems.
Rubio has introduced legislation with House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller allowing secretaries of the VA to fire senior executives who are not doing their jobs.
But critics say Rubio’s overall record on veterans’ issues while in the Senate is sketchy.
Congressional Quarterly reported that in early 2013, for example, the Florida Republican voted against providing $27 million for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), as part of a $50 billion Superstorm Sandy recovery package.
The Senate eventually passed that bill by a 62-to-36 vote and President Obama signed it into law.
Rubio also joined Cruz and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the 2014 fight to kill a $21 billion piece of legislation that was widely described as the best piece of legislation for veterans’ health in the history of the VA.
Kasich, the Ohio governor and a former member of Congress, recently stated at a campaign event that the VA is totally broken.
“A veteran should be able to get health care where it's closest to them. They should have a choice,” the Republican presidential candidate said.
Kasich's record on veterans is mixed.
There is no section on his campaign website dedicated to veterans. But he has said on the campaign trail that he would expand the voucher program for veterans so that they can get health care they need at any medical facility.
At a Veterans Day town hall event in South Carolina last November, Kasich shared his plan to make veteran health care services available at a wider range of clinics in addition to the VA.
Speaking to CNN recently on the problems at the VA, Kasich said “this is a case I believe where we’ve got to get the smartest business minds together to create a model. We need to expand the voucher program so a veteran can get the health care they need as soon as they can possibly get it, and [they] should not be just limited to the VA hospitals.”
Veterans, Kasich said, “are our golden employees. They're our golden citizens. What they do for our country, this is — this is a terrible, terrible situation and they ought to be our highest priority.”
Dr. Ben Carson
Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, has expressed his respect for veterans on numerous occasions.
“It has been my honor to serve veterans in the operating room and it will be my solemn duty to care for them as Commander-in-Chief,” he said in a statement released last month.
But Carson has also ruffled some veterans’ feathers since he stepped into the national spotlight.
In 2014, the Republican presidential candidate said on Fox News that the VA’s wait times scandal is a “a gift from God” because, he suggested, it demonstrates that government efforts to provide health care for veterans doesn’t work.
Then on a national radio show last month, Carson said, “We don’t need a Department of Veterans Affairs. [It] should be folded in under the Department of Defense.”
That remark prompted an angry rebuke from veterans’ organizations such as the VFW.
In a statement released to the media, VFW National Commander John Biedrzycki said, “to suggest that disabled veterans could be sent out into the economy with a health savings account card overlooks the fact that civilian health care has waiting lists of their own … and presupposes that civilian doctors have the same skill sets as VA doctors, who see veterans of every age and malady every day.”
Biedrzycki added that the VA “provides an irreplaceable service to the nation’s wounded, ill, and injured veterans and my organization will not let any candidate for any office suggest anything otherwise.”
Two weeks ago, Carson released a more measured plan to fix and reform the VA and “give veterans the choice to seek military, VA or civilian sources for care."
What Veterans Think
A retired Army Special Forces Officer and board member for two veteran charities, Such told Healthline that “looking at the tea leaves, we're down to Trump and Clinton as the nominees. In full disclosure, I support neither as a preferred candidate.”
Such’s biggest concern with Trump is who his advisors will be.
“[My concern is] who he is using as advisors and who he brings in. The indicator of this is based on his statements on foreign affairs, diplomacy, use of military affairs, etc,” Such said. “It is very naive and concerning. Rather than traditional partisanship, he will find easy wins that pit establishment versus change and reform agents. While there will be no real institutional reform, he will succeed in forcing visible but not sustainable solutions.”
As for Clinton, Such said she is “very establishment” and predicted that she will not focus much on VA.
“She’ll install risk-averse leadership and let the issues just continue to fester while managing perception through shifting the narrative and counting on the traditional fatigue of the population,” he said. “She's more focused on partisan and legacy branding than solutions, particularly when it comes to veteran issues. She’s branding herself as the ‘pragmatic progressive’ which translates to nothing more than ‘I'll placate the base of the party, but support larger, more established agendas, organizations, and individuals.’”
Bandzul is a veteran and attorney who’s frequently spoken on veterans’ health issues before Congress and is legislative counsel for Veterans and Military Families for Progress.
Bandzul said that Sanders has been a “staunch and dedicated person concerned with veterans’ health care. I don’t believe he would compromise this value, or his previous stance, for any reason. I have doubts about the [others].”
Bandul noted that Sanders “sponsored 29 bills this session with over half having something to do with VA. He co-sponsored 159-12 dealing with Veterans Affairs and several others having something to do with VA. In the previous congressional session he co-sponsored two bills but was responsible [as chair] to merge several bills into an omnibus bill passed under the Defense Authorization Act and he was the sponsor for 24 bills all related to Veterans Affairs.”
During all of Clinton’s time in office, Bandzul said, “there were 14 veterans bills she was a part of. I worked with her staff on the Wounded Warrior bill [PL 110-389] and it was tough slogging. I’ve worked with Bernie’s staff on many bills, speeches, statements, and memos of support for legislation for veterans. He’s always been accessible and he’s always been helpful.
As for Cruz, Bandzul said, “he has never done anything with VA or Veterans Affairs. And the rest [Trump and Rubio] have all done less than Cruz.”
The veteran came to Washington, D.C., last week to testify at the House Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing on the health of Persian Gulf War veterans on the 25th anniversary of that ground invasion.
Winnett isn’t optimistic that any of the candidates will solve the problems veterans face at VA.
“Sure, they all have their well-rehearsed sound bites about how they're going to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs, but where the rubber meets the road my gut tells me that not a one of them will be able to bust up the status quo,” Winnett said. “Hell, even Congress's recent actions weren't successful in firing those high-level VA executives who committed massive financial fraud.”
A former Marine and conservative Republican who works as an IT business analyst at a manufacturing company in Pennsylvania, Stauffer said that Sanders and Trump, the “two most extreme candidates,” would probably get the most done for veterans.
“I think on the Democrat side, Bernie would be the best because he’s the only one who has shown any validated interest and concern on the issue that I am aware of,” Stauffer said. “I believe Hillary is only concerned about what will get and keep her in power. Her interest is and will always be simply, ‘What does this issue have to do with me winning the White House?’”
On the Republican side, Stauffer said he’s heard no one other than Trump speak with any passion for veterans.
“And that brings me to the position that I know many will find revolting because they hate Trump,” he said. “But the fact is I do believe he would aggressively fix the mess. He is not a politician. He is a businessman, a builder, a project leader.
He and he alone could target a complete overhaul of the VA hospital system. He would fire all the incompetent crusty vanilla/grey blasé bureaucrats who currently run the VA. He would do it fast. He would bring in experts at change management and oversee the overhaul ruthlessly, quickly firing any bureaucrats who show any sign of ineptitude.”
‘It Ain’t Rocket Science’
Stauffer concluded that regardless who wins the nomination, the candidates and the media both need to talk more about America’s veterans in this election year.
“The silence of the debate moderators from all the major television channels on veterans’ issues has been deafening,” Stauffer said. “Rather than putting the issue out there and giving each candidate a chance to speak on it, they favor pulling each candidate into trap questions designed to simply get them bickering back and forth directly and making personal attacks.’
“Why can't they simply say ‘The V.A. is broke, everyone agrees with this, so what would each of your plans be to fix the situation? Broad general statements not allowed. Please give us the first three specific actions items you would take for fixing the VA,’” Stauffer added. “Then we sit back and let each candidate respond uninterrupted. It ain't rocket science.”