Donald Trump’s comments Monday on mental health care for troops ignited yet another firestorm of controversy around the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign, even if advocates within the veterans community were divided over whether the remarks were offensive.
During a town hall event with veteran supporters in Virginia on Monday, Trump responded to a question from an audience member about mental health options for veterans by saying that more services are desperately needed.
“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see maybe what the people in this room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” he said.
“And they see horror stories, they see events that you’d see in a movie and nobody would believe it. We need mental health help, and medical. It’s one of the things that’s least addressed, and it’s one of the things I hear the most about when I go around and talk to veterans.”
Numerous critics and media outlets seized on the quote, saying the often controversial business mogul had implied that veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress are weak.
But other advocates say the issue is more complicated than that.
“If we want to destigmatize PTSD, we need to get beyond strength and weakness,” said Sean Foertsch, an Afghanistan War veteran who works with wounded troops. “In context, it wasn’t a terrible comment … but it’s bad vocabulary.”
Trump campaign staffers described the event as an informal conversation with veterans from a range of ranks and eras, and said they were confident the crowd took his remarks as an attempt to relate to their experiences.
Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said that “every national leader has responsibility to use accurate and appropriate language when talking about mental health” or related issues.
“Terms like ‘killing yourself’ or ‘mental problems’ and any suggestion that suicide only impacts the weak perpetuates stigma, can promote contagion and may discourage people from getting help,” he said.
But on social media, he also chastised reporters to “please check the real quote” from Trump “and try to add light rather than just heat” to the story.
Bill Rausch, Executive Director at Got Your Six, said he saw the media backlash as evidence that most Americans still view PTSD and suicide as a military problem, not a national challenge.
“We’re not really talking about the issue here, we’re just seeing folks using this to take shots at one candidate,” he said. “That’s disappointing.
“I don’t think either candidate has malice towards veterans who struggle with mental health. But I think there are a lot of folks who see this as a veteran problem, not a national problem.”
The comments aren’t the first time Trump has courted controversy in the veterans community.
Last year, he drew criticism from numerous veterans groups for ridiculing Republican Sen. John McCain for his capture during the Vietnam war. In a memoir, he compared his time in boarding school to being in the military, even though he received multiple medical deferments to avoid service.
In August, he publicly sparred with the family of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq over their support for Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. When a veteran support gave him his Purple Heart, Trump quipped that getting the medal as a donation was "easier" than earning one. And last month, he incorrectly corrected a veteran on national TV for using the wrong veteran suicide statistics (VA estimates have it at 20 a day now, not 22), a mistake he made again on Monday.
Phillip Carter, an Iraq War veteran and Clinton supporter, called Trump’s comments Monday just the latest in a series of remarks that are “uncaring, uninformed and unpresidential.”
Later in the day, the servicemember who asked the question which prompted Trump's comments -- Marine Staff Sgt. Chad Robichaux -- released a statement calling the coverage of Trump's remarks "sickening."
“I took his comments to be thoughtful and understanding of the struggles many veterans have, and I believe he is committed to helping them," he said. "The nature of my question focused on a broken system that’s failing so many of our veterans and, as president, would Mr. Trump take a more holistic approach to health care for veterans. I interpreted his answer to affirm that the system is broken and he would take the necessary steps to address it."
Trump also promised at Monday’s event that “the VA is going to be fixed in so many ways” and that mental health care for veterans “is going to have to be the number one thing we do, because it has been left behind.”
Trump and Clinton will square off in the next presidential debate on Sunday, Oct. 9.