The roster of retired military officers endorsing Hillary Clinton in September glittered with decoration and rank. One former general led the American surge in Anbar, one of the most violent provinces in Iraq. Another commanded U.S.-led allied forces battling the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet another trained the first Iraqis to combat Islamic insurgents in their own country.
But as Election Day approaches, many veterans are instead turning to Donald Trump, a businessman who avoided the Vietnam draft and has boasted of gathering foreign policy wisdom by watching television shows.
Even as other voters abandon Trump, veterans remain among his most loyal supporters, an unlikely connection forged by the widening gulf they feel from other Americans.
After 15 years at war, many who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are proud of their service but exhausted by its burdens. They distrust the political class that reshaped their lives and are frustrated by how little their fellow citizens seem to understand about their experience.
Perhaps most strikingly, they welcome Trump’s blunt attacks on America’s entanglements overseas.
“When we jump into wars without having a real plan, things like Vietnam and things like Iraq and Afghanistan happen,” said William Hansen, a former Marine who served two National Guard tours in Iraq. “This is 16 years. This is longer than Vietnam.”
In small military towns in California and North Carolina, veterans of all eras cheer Trump’s promises to fire officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs. His attacks on political correctness evoke their frustrations with tortured rules of engagement crafted to serve political, not military, ends. In Trump’s forceful assertion of strength, they find a balm for wounds that left them broken and torn.
“He calls it out,” said Joshua Macias, a former Navy petty officer and fifth-generation veteran who lives in the Tidewater region of Virginia, where he organized a “Veterans for Trump” group last year. “We have intense emotion connected to these wars. The way it was politicized, the way they changed the way we fight in a war setting — it’s horrible how they did that.”
Now, as battlegrounds in the Middle East smoke and rumble once more, as VA wait times creep up instead of down, Trump’s candidacy — and its resonance among veterans — is helping expose the gulf of culture and class between many Americans and those who fight wars in their name.
There are 22 million living veterans in the United States, and many love or loathe Trump for the same reasons other Americans do. But polling, interviews with dozens of veterans and those who study their political views indicate a strong preference for Trump over Clinton. He now leads Clinton by 19 points among veterans registered to vote, while trailing her among all voters by three points, according to a Fox News poll released Oct. 18.
Veterans are more likely than other Americans to view Trump favorably, and less likely to rate Clinton positively. In mid-October, 43 percent of veterans expressed a favorable view of him in a Gallup tracking poll, while just 30 percent saw Clinton positively.
In interviews with more than three dozen veterans, many praised Trump for candidly criticizing the costs of war, an issue they see few politicians in either party taking on. And they are unconcerned with how or when he arrived at his positions.
“The Iraq War was a disaster,” said Dustin Stewart, a former Army captain and Iraq veteran. “He is at least not trying to tiptoe around it. And I think some of the other Republicans were afraid of it.”
Growing Military Caste
For decades, Americans who serve in the armed forces have been growing more segregated from their fellow countrymen. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans now serve in the military. Those who join are likely to have parents, uncles or aunts who served before them, forming a kind of military caste. And on the post-9/11 battlefields, lower-income and less-educated communities have shouldered a greater share of American casualties than in past wars — even Vietnam.
In the depths of the recession, veterans suffered higher than average unemployment. Career military retirees faced cuts to pensions after the sequester deal between President Barack Obama and Congress, while other veterans endured long waits for the health care promised to them by the federal government.
Medical advances reduced battlefield deaths but also, paradoxically, made veterans’ sacrifice less visible to the public. They came home not in body bags but with missing limbs and traumatic brain injuries, leaving Americans less sensitive to the costs of further war, according to Douglas L. Kriner, a political scientist at Boston University who has studied post-9/11 veterans.
Nonfatal casualties seem “not have the political punch that fatal casualties do,” Kriner said.
By the middle of Obama’s first term, the majority of post-9/11 veterans said they believed Americans did not understand military life, according to the Pew Research Center. Sixty percent said that the United States should pay less attention to problems overseas.
Some former and current military personnel have embraced libertarian candidates, such as Ron Paul, a former U.S. representative from Texas, who criticized American interventions abroad. In 2012, Paul raised more money from active-duty service members during the early phase of the campaign than all other Republican candidates combined, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Stewart grew up in a conservative family in Texas, where Rush Limbaugh’s show often played on the radio. In 2000, he cast a proud vote for George W. Bush. But six years later, he was leading an infantry platoon outside Ramadi, a hotbed of the insurgency then enveloping parts of Iraq. Stewart returned home alive but disillusioned. He supported Paul in the 2008 Republican primary race and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, in the 2012 election.
“I don’t want pity. I just want people to care,” said Stewart, adding, “Do you know what your politicians are sending us to do?”
‘A Breath of Fresh Air’
In mid-February, boos rang from the rafters of a performing arts center in Greenville, South Carolina. Trump, onstage with remaining rivals for the Republican nomination, had just committed what seemed like a major apostasy, assailing the Iraq War and attacking Bush with gusto. “They lied,” Trump said. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction — there were none and they knew there were none.”
His words startled the Republican establishment. But in the front row, Daniel Cortez nodded along. Cortez, a 65-year-old Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, did not like everything about Trump. Yet he seemed to be speaking a different language, Cortez said in a recent interview, more like the one veterans themselves spoke. Trump argued for a military that was bigger and better equipped but also used more sparingly.
“Mr. Trump is a breath of fresh air because he is promoting peace through strength,” Cortez said.
For some conservative veterans, Trump’s criticisms of the Iraq War have allowed them to vent a stew of emotions: Relief and regret, bitterness and pride. They were repelled by liberal anti-war politics and felt little in common with the war’s most prominent critics. So they held back their misgivings for years, unable to admit to their friends and sometimes themselves that so much had been wasted.
“Nobody likes to say that George W. Bush was a bad president,” said David Fuqua, who spent four years in the Marines and served in Afghanistan in 2011. “Having to defend the rationale for the Iraq War for so long, and then to have someone on the stage talk about how it was a mistake, touched a real nerve.”
Trump’s national security proposals, some veterans supporting him acknowledged, are often vague or contradictory. But many heard in Trump’s voice a return to the days of big military budgets and boundless manpower. His sweeping denunciation of Washington elites echoed their own grumbling.
“They look at Clinton as a continuance of what we’ve had for the last 16 years through two administrations,” said Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general who led the U.S. Central Command in the late 1990s.
Where Bush acted rashly in sending troops into Iraq, some veterans said, the Obama administration had acted politically in pulling them out. When the black flags of the Islamic State rose over Fallujah and Mosul two years ago, they recalled the sweat or blood they or their friends had shed there. Politicians had started the war, they felt, and politicians had lost it.
“This war became so politicized, so PC,” Hansen said. Trump might take them to war again, he had concluded, but Trump would not hold them back.
“Under George, all we could do was straight right hooks and a couple of uppercuts,” Hansen said. “When Obama took over, we could only do straight lefts — and we had to say ‘we’re going to punch you’ first.”
‘I Think He’s Genuine’
In 2010, in a bloodily contested river valley in southern Afghanistan, Michael Verardo stepped on an old Russian-made land mine wired to two jugs packed with explosives, rocks and nails. He lost most of his leg immediately. To save his left arm, medics sewed it temporarily onto his back.
Three years ago, Verardo and his wife, Sarah, moved to North Carolina, where the winters are easier. Though he has two Purple Hearts, it sometimes takes months for him to get an appointment with a neurologist at the VA.
This summer, at Trump’s invitation, the family flew to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. On the first night, Verardo and his wife sat in the VIP box with Trump’s family. Trump seemed to understand, Verardo recalled. Maybe he would be different.
“I think he’s genuine,” Verardo said.
One of Trump’s earliest policy speeches, last October, offered a plan that would allow federal officials to more freely fire and discipline VA employees. After the VA scandal two years ago, when investigations revealed widespread delays and the deaths of some veterans while waiting for care, public employee unions fiercely oppose such measures.
Clinton, who has her own plan for improving VA care, said last year that the scandal had “not been as widespread as it has been made out to be.”
“Trump was the first guy to recognize the populist appeal of this problem,” said Paul J. Rieckhoff, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Trump’s veterans notice how often he professes his love for them on the stump. They take note when decorated ex-soldiers introduce him at events. When Trump decided to skip a Republican debate last winter in Iowa, he substituted a telethon to raise money for veterans organizations. So what if Trump took months to disgorge the money: Name another candidate in the race, they said, who had bothered to raise millions of dollars for veterans.
Trump has “an empathy and a sentiment about what the military has been through, the low morale,” said Howie R. Lind, a Republican activist and former Navy commander who lives in Northern Virginia.
Lind began hosting weekly Trump dinners for local veterans last spring, promoting them on Facebook, booking back rooms in diners. A few dozen people turned into 80, then 100.
When Trump talks about veterans, Lind said, “it’s not like it’s a ‘them,’ or a special interest group. It’s America.”