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What Can Presidential Candidates Do To Reach PA Veterans?


Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made headlines this week after a public war of words with the parents of a Muslim-American Army Captain killed while serving in Iraq in 2004. It wasn’t the first time Trump stirred controversy with comments that seemed to dismiss the sacrifice of U.S. military service members. 

But Trump also often boasts of support from U.S. servicemen and women and military veterans.

90.5 WESA’s Josh Raulerson talked about how well Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are addressing veterans issues with Benjamin Stahl of the Veterans Leadership Program of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


RAULERSON: I’d like to start off by asking you about Donald Trump. He's boasted often about support from active-duty military and veterans alike, and up until pretty recently, the polling has supported that.

But more recently, as you know, he's made some fairly inflammatory statements taking some shots, it would seem, at the parents of Humayan Khan who died in combat in Iraq back in 2004.

You're a veteran yourself. You live in southwestern Pennsylvania, which, again, has a pretty large population of veterans. How do you think those comments play among former military personnel living in the state (and with) people you work with?

STAHL: Captain Khan selflessly gave his life for his country. He's just as much an American as anyone else who's ever put on the uniform to defend the United States. He grew up in Silver Springs, Md. That's a few metro stops from the White House. I've got a cousin who lives in Silver Springs; that's as American as apple pie and baseball. The Khans are a Gold Star family.

The title of veteran is something that should be considered earned and sacred due to the personal sacrifice. It's apolitical and it should transcend politics. And I'm fairly confident that the overwhelming majority of veterans in Western Pennsylvania, regardless of which side of the aisle they lean towards would agree that it needs to stop being used as political leverage.

RAULERSON: Most political analysts would say at this point that if there is a path to the White House for Donald Trump, it certainly runs through Pennsylvania and particularly our part of the state. But what do you see as being the main issues facing specifically vets in this area and how well are those being addressed by both candidates in this campaign?

STAHL: Veterans typically have the same issues that, you know, non-veterans are faced with, but they're exacerbated sometimes by their time in service. These could be good and bad, stemming from homeless veterans who are too prideful or hard-headed to ask for help to recently separated veterans who are living in isolation to veterans who are just looking for a way to fit in. So when you get down to the root of the problem, I think it's essentially assuring that are veterans are able to live productive, healthy lives and that they're unencumbered by their time in service.

I think this is well within the scope of the president to, at a minimum, ensure that this is done adequately. So, I guess in terms of this election, it would have to be how either candidate proposes to address these issues legislatively. The practicality of getting agreement and consensus from the other side of the aisle.

Last year, the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) had to cut $1.4 billion from their budget. This is drastically impacting the services that are available to our veterans and the number of veterans who are able to receive those services.

RAULERSON: I noticed that we had in both political conventions a big effort to politicize military issues and veterans issues. What would it take for you and the population that you work with in southwestern Pennsylvania? What would it take for either of these candidates to convince you that Pennsylvania's military veterans would be best served by their presidency?

STAHL: To demonstrate that they're being thoughtful and considerate (to) veterans when they put forward their proposals for any veteran care reform. Don't just give us the same soapbox speech. Veterans are smarter than that.

Let's see actual thought out, comprehensive plans for policy reform to facilitate interagency collaboration and funding increases at the federal, state and local levels to expand access to veterans care. Talk about everyday issues that are affecting veterans. It's a very diverse group. Stop the exploitation of the sacrifices the brave men and women that died in the service to our country.

With the race being neck-and-neck and Pennsylvania being a swing state, it's worth pointing out that there's just shy of one million veterans in the state of Pennsylvania, and in the 2012 election, 70 percent of veterans showed up at the ballot box. It goes without saying that the Pennsylvania veteran vote is going to hold some significant sway in the outcome of this election.

So I'd ask all the candidates -- Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson -- to come to Pittsburgh, come to southwestern Pennsylvania and hold a veterans town hall and let's talk about some real issues and get together to begin to start a plan to make real solutions at the national level.

Josh Raulerson is the local host for Morning Edition weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on 90.5 WESA.