Whether on the street or watching the “Commander-in-Chief Forum," many veterans say they are torn between two evils — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — but lean toward the former secretary of state as the lesser.
NEW YORK — The city sidewalk under Mark Ruane’s camouflage cap was sticky. Endless suit pant legs, heels, jeans, and rolling bags flooded by, but few stopped to read the Veterans Affairs card he held above his sign. It asked for work, diapers and baby food for his 18-month-old son, Emerald Michael.
Ruane enlisted in the Army in May of 2001 and trained as an automatic rifleman, but received an honorable discharge for hardship in 2003, just before his team’s deployment to Iraq, because his mother was dying. Days after the invasion began, a car pulled up to the checkpoint his small team of four was guarding near Najaf, Iraq. An IED in the trunk killed them all.
“I still have a lot of survivor’s guilt,” Ruane said Wednesday from his post on the sidewalk, where he now begs for money to make ends meet as he waits for his perpetually late GI Bill check.
An older woman approached and handed him a dollar.
“How are you doing, Barbara?” he asked her. She came by every day.
“I’m tired of this election season; I’m tired of this humidity,” she deadpanned.
Blocks away at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, NBC News and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America were setting up the “Commander-in-Chief Forum” between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican rival Donald Trump. The two candidates spoke separately in a warm up for the first debate on Sept. 26.
In recent days, they’ve given dueling national security speeches and trotted out senior military surrogates, looking to one-up the other with who has more endorsements from the brass as Trump appears to have cut into Clinton’s lead nationwide.
With Election Day 60 days away, national security offers one of the starkest contrasts in style and substance between the candidates. The key issue could swing votes in battleground states with large veterans populations as Trump faces an increasingly difficult electoral map.
Clinton touts her foreign policy experience as a secretary of state and New York senator and slams Trump as “dangerously incoherent” and unfit for the job. The Manhattan real estate magnate, meanwhile, touts his self-purported business acumen and targets the former secretary of state’s judgment.
Voters broadly trust Clinton more than Trump to handle issues of terrorism and national security. And yet Trump consistently leads Clinton in a handful of surveys of the U.S. military community: An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll Wednesday showed Trump leading Clinton 55 percent to 36 percent among current or former troops. The same poll says these voters don’t have confidence in either to be an effective commander in chief, but Trump has a slight edge.
Asked about 2016, Ruane shook his head.
“Hillary’s a crook; I don’t believe her,” he said, pointing to the FBI’s inquiry into the use of her private email server. “Trump is over the top — saying things like, ‘Let’s deport all the Muslims’ and all that, he’s ruining his chance of winning.”
“Hillary is pretty much a lock at this point, unfortunately,” he said. “It’s the lesser of two evils,” he continued, but quickly reversed: “Actually, it’s not. This is a horrible election.”
He doesn’t believe either Clinton or Trump will make things better for veterans like him: “They use us as a front.”
The sentiment was similar to that expressed by the half-dozen veterans interviewed at an official forum watch party at IAVA’s headquarters. As a gauge of Trump’s seemingly consistent advantage over Clinton among the military community — despite his controversial statements, and her deeper experience and string of high-profile national security endorsements — the balance of the small sample of veterans favored Clinton. But all were disillusioned.
Some were gleeful the moderator and veterans in the audience pressed Clinton as she continued to struggle to explain her use of the private email server, and whether or not she put classified information at risk.
At the televised forum, a retired Navy flight officer who said he had top secret clearance told Clinton he would’ve been “prosecuted and imprisoned” if he hadn’t followed protocol. He said she “clearly corrupted our national security.”
“I did exactly what I should have done and I take it very seriously,” Clinton answered. “Always have. Always will.”
She later defended her support for the U.S.-backed intervention in Libya as necessary to have prevented another Syria. The Pentagon recently announced a stiff reduction in Islamic State militants there.
Yet while stating that defeating ISIS is her “highest counterterrorism goal,” Clinton pledged, “We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we’re not putting ground troops into Syria.”
There are currently an estimated 5,000 American troops deployed to Iraq, and U.S. special operators in Syria — although the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge their boots on the ground as combat soldiers.
Yet at the watch party, the group of assembled veterans saved much of their groaning and guffawing for Trump.
Trump again denied he’d supported intervention in Iraq and Libya, but clear evidence to the contrary has undermined his use of those examples to go after Clinton’s foreign policy judgment.
He presents his neo-isolationist “America First” foreign policy as the opposite of Clinton’s and the Obama administration’s military interventionism, saying the removal of dictators in Iraq and Libya has unleashed instability and he won’t engage in nation building.
Yet in a speech earlier Wednesday, he seemed to contradict his aversion to intervention with a “more is more” plan to beef up of the U.S. military that would add more than 60,000 troops, 75 surface ships and submarines, 100 aircraft, and up to $100 billion to the Pentagon’s budget.
Given the opportunity to back off of several of his controversial national security statements during Wednesday’s forum, he instead doubled down.
He said if elected he’d give military leaders 30 days to draft a plan to defeat ISIS — though he says he has his own secret plan — but he also implied he’d purge the ranks. “They’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you,” he said.
Asked about his compliments toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government has engaged in crackdowns on political opposition and meddling in the Middle East and potentially even the American presidential election, Trump said: “He’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
Later, he said a past tweet suggesting sexual assaults in the military were the inevitable result of male and female troops working together was “correct,” citing “many people.”
Back at the watch party, Suzanne Parker watched the screen from under a baseball cap. She joined the Navy in 1990 because she wanted to pilot helicopters and later flew in Central America, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan before retiring in 2014.
A self-described independent voter, Parker said she remains undecided between the candidates so far — but told FP she’s concerned Trump intentionally inflames different demographics against each other to drum up votes.
“I don’t want rhetoric, I want realism,” she said, critiquing Clinton’s vow to never again to deploy U.S. ground troops in the Middle East and predicting she will reverse it.
Both sides use veterans as “chips in the poker game,” Parker said, but Trump’s foreign policy is a “kaleidoscope of black holes.”
“I can’t make hide or hair of what his policy is,” she said, “because tomorrow it could change.”
Augustine Cabrera said he left Caracas, Venezuela, when he was 11, to pursue the “American dream.” From 2001 to 2004, he served as an Army engineer mechanic. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007, years after he served in Iraq.
As a Democrat, he’s voting for Clinton. “I think she’s got the right experience to make the right choices,” he said. “They will be level-headed, not delusional. Her temperament is controllable.”
He doesn’t trust Trump because of his rhetoric toward immigrants, though the nominee said Wednesday those who serve in the U.S. military are a “special situation.”
“I think if you serve in the Armed Services,” Cabrera said, “you should be given a chance to become a citizen of the country you served.”
To Ruane, the most important issue is finding work for veterans like him.
“They need to think back to what they put us through over the last 10 to 12 years, and help us get set up with the kind of programs they didn’t do after Vietnam, after Korea,” he said. “They need to learn their lessons.”
Photo Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / Molly O’Toole