FAYETTEVILLE - Donald Trump never has apologized for the comments he made last week about a Muslim Gold Star family whose son died in Iraq, and he didn’t do so Tuesday when he marched into a rally of mostly active duty men and women in Fayetteville, N.C., home of Fort Bragg.
What he did do was offer promises of a stronger military, a better Veterans Affairs department, more secure borders and a Department of Defense with a bigger budget.
“You know what, I love the military. We’re going to take care of the military,” he proclaimed, as he segued from a lengthy tirade on Russia and NATO to his plan for military families.
The Fayetteville crowd clearly liked what they were hearing, and seemed unfazed by the media firestorm touched off by an ambiguous comment Trump made at a Wilmington, N.C., rally earlier in the day about “the Second Amendment people” taking care of Hillary Clinton if she gets to pick Supreme Court justices. Some people, especially Democrats, quoted in news stories interpreted the comment as suggesting violence against Clinton.
The latest polls show that Trump needs all the support he get from all voter groups, the military included. He is trailing Clinton by 7 points in the most recent Economist and YouGov poll. And his support among military personnel is tenuous, according to a recent Military Times survey. Although the survey showed members of the military favor Trump 2-to-1 over Clinton, it also show that 61 percent are "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with Trump as the Republican nominee, including 28 percent of those who intend to vote for him.
The results raise the question of whether veterans and their families will continue to support Trump — and making sure that’s the case has become a team effort. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, spent time in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Va., last Thursday campaigning in those military-heavy communities.
“I know where I am,” Pence said in a ballroom at a spa in Virginia Beach. “Donald Trump will rebuild our military, he will stand with our soldiers,” he said, to cheers.
Tuesday evening it was Trump’s turn.
North Carolina is an important swing state. Current polls put Clinton up by 1 point there and service members make up a significant portion of its population. As of 2014 there were 775,020 veterans living in North Carolina, and the DOD says there are currently around 129,049 active duty members of the military in the state.
Trump started off his Fayetteville speech by once again expressing his disdain for NATO, which he said he wants to pull out of --and boasted that NATO’s new “terrorism division” was created following his comments on border security, saying “they could have given me a little more credit.”
Though his speech lacked specifics, he got the crowd cheering when he said, “We’re going to take care of the military,” before asking military members in attendance to raise their hands. Many did, but seemed reluctant, possibly out of concern for showing a political preference while serving.
Then the business man, who got two passes from serving in the Vietnam War, moved onto the Department of Veterans Affairs: “How badly run is the VA?” he asked the crowd to heavy boos.
Finally he provided the perfect pivot to his favorite topic, telling the crowd in an almost falsetto, “Our veterans are not being treated as well as a lot of people coming into our country illegally.”
It was his most well-received line of the night.
Speaking to attendees afterwards, it was almost like the events that seized the news throughout last week never happened. Many military members interviewed either didn’t know about Trump’s statements about Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who lost their son Humayn, in Iraq, or didn’t consider it in forming their opinion of Trump. And they didn’t seem to give much thought to the lighthearted manner in which Trump talked about getting a Purple Heart during a Virginia rally last week, or about Trump’s frequent assertion that the American military is weak. In fact, some agreed it is weak.
“Oh definitely the military is definitely way underfunded. Nine times out of 10, unless you’re special operations, you get the hand me down stuff from generation after generation. You never really get the new funding for new stuff—that’s the stuff that keeps you alive,” said Blayke McCoure, 22, an active duty soldier from Missouri stationed at Fort Bragg.
McCoure said Trump was the obvious choice for him. “I’ve always followed Trump. I wanted to be a business major when I was in college. Now I’m active duty, so I got to be a Trump fan. You gotta be. It goes hand in hand. Veterans before refugees. He supports the military,” he said.
Some were not firm Trump followers, but they seemed to think he is better than the alternative -- Hillary Clinton.
“It was amazing, he’s a really powerful character. I think of the candidates offered as the viable options for president, yah I think he’s the best one,” said an active duty member of the Army who asked his name not be used. “He wasn’t my first choice, Bernie Sanders was my first choice. Of what’s offered, I give you Trump, he’s the best. I was a big Bernie Sanders fan because I thought he cares about the people, where as I felt that Hillary panders towards the voters.”
To many of the attendees interviewed, Clinton’s negatives could be boiled down into two terms: liar and Benghazi.
“I experienced what the Clintons did back in the 90s and I lost everything because of their draconian cuts to the military,” said an Army sergeant, who also asked that his name not be published.
“I don’t trust her at all, I don’t think that she should be able to run for president; I think that she should probably be prosecuted for what she’s done,” said Kaitlin Lee, 26, whose husband is stationed in Fayetteville. “She has already shown herself, with Benghazi; I wouldn’t trust that again.”
There were some undecided attendees, too—many hoping that seeing Trump in person would give them a different impression from what they’ve seen on TV.
“I’m not so much a supporter of his positions, I do like his self-confidence and his ego,” said Briden Akins, 32, who is from Los Angeles and works for the American Legion. Veteran’s services are the issue he said he’ll be voting on.
“Clinton, I think her qualifications on paper are pretty much there; integrity-wise I think that’s a whole different story. If you can’t trust her, that’s a big deal. … I would say I’m 51-49 percent Donald Trump. I mean I still have three months to decide.”