Shouts of “liar” for Hillary Clinton gave way to claps and hoots for Donald Trump when veterans gathered Wednesday at Amherst VFW Post 1662.
T-shirts and ball caps supporting the Republican presidential nominee dominated the hall during a watch party of the “Commander-in-Chief Forum” aired on NBC, during which the candidates were interviewed 30 minutes each on issues impacting veterans and service members.
“This is about veterans trying to find out where each candidate stands,” Arthur Davis of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America, which organized the event.
He warned about 50 people who gathered in Amherst to avoid partisan outbursts during the watch party.
That only stretched so far. There were angry shouts, head-shakes, and refutations as Clinton spoke first. While some veterans at tables toward the front of the VFW hall watched intently, many at the rear of the room ignored and talked over the former first lady and secretary of state.
Clinton told interviewer Matt Lauer she believes steadiness is the most important quality the president can possess and America needs a leader who can listen, sort out difficult options, and exercise cool judgment.
She also defended her assertion that sending troops to Iraq was a mistake despite casting a vote in 2002 as a New York senator in support of the war. “We must learn what led us down that path so it never happens again,” Clinton said.
The Democratic candidate said she has worked to raise the death benefit for families of veterans, get health coverage for National Guard members who are not deployed, address post-traumatic stress disorder among servicemen and women, and slow the tide of suicides among veterans.
Clinton said the Veterans Administration must be moved into the 21st century and improved but should not be privatized, saying such a move would be disastrous for those who deserve benefits.
Virgnia Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, accused Trump in July of advocating privatization. However, Trump’s campaign has never publicly put forward such a plan, calling instead for plans that would give veterans private sector alternatives to the VA they could choose.
“I didn’t appreciate (Clinton’s) blatant miscarriage of the idea,” said Jason Beardsley of Columbus, a 22-year veteran of overseas Army and Navy operations who attended the Amherst watch party. “No one I know of has proposed VA privatization. It’s a way they can have a bit of a straw man to argue against.”
Beardsley, who wore a Trump sticker on his lapel, said he didn’t feel the hour-long format of the forum lent itself to in-depth answers on veterans issues. But he did feel Clinton came off as stiff and formal while Trump was relaxed and casual and won on “style points.”
The VFW crowd was clearly in favor of the Republican nominee, clapping throughout his interview segment and listening as he spoke.
That’s hardly a surprise. Trump leads Clinton by 19 points among voters both actively serving in the U.S. military and veterans, according to an NBC tracking poll conducted online and released hours before the forum.
Trump used his time to tout his international business experience, praise Russian president Vladimir Putin, and criticize President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
He also argued he opposed the Iraq War from its start, saying it’s had a destabilizing effect on the Middle East.
Trump voiced his support for the war in a 2002 interview with shock jock Howard Stern but changed his position the following year, telling the Washington Post that U.S. military action there was “a mess.” His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, was a strong supporter; as a member of the House of Representatives he co-sponsored the bill authorizing the war.
The biggest reaction from veterans at Post 1662 came when Trump rebuffed Lauer’s questions about plans to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terror group more commonly referred to as ISIS. Trump said he didn’t want to broadcast his plans to the terrorists.
He also stood by comments made in August that he knows more about ISIS than the generals running the military, who he said “have been reduced to rubble” under Obama’s leadership. It would likely be new generals who would — if he were elected president — help Trump develop a plan to combat ISIS, he said, while also insisting he already had a secret plan to do so.
It’s worth noting that 88 retired military leaders endorsed Trump the day prior to the forum, while 95 retired military leaders endorsed Clinton the day of the event.
Veterans gathered in Amherst didn’t seem swayed by the candidates’ arguments.
Michael Moats of Eaton Township said he was confident in his decision to vote for Trump, saying he doesn’t believe anything can change his mind at this stage of the election cycle.
He said he was listening for “something explosive” that would have shifted his views but found nothing of that caliber in the forum.
Three months ago, Moats was far more reluctant to embrace Trump as the Republican candidate. Grudging support has since strengthened, he said.
“But I do understand the tightrope Hillary has to walk. She’s been in politics so long and brings a lot of the past and all those decisions with her,” he said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Veterans gather for a “Commander-in-Chief Forum” watch party at Amherst VFW Post 1662.