Veterans' Issues Nearly Ignored In Previous Presidential Debates

Oct 19, 2016
Originally published on October 19, 2016 7:44 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Some of the biggest issues that will face the next president have barely been mentioned in prior debates. There has been little discussion of the longest war in American history, Afghanistan. And as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, even less has been said about veterans.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Check the transcripts. The presidential candidates have spoken about 28,500 words in two debates. Veterans have been mentioned exactly twice, and that's only because Hillary Clinton said it to criticize Donald Trump's tax record.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: People like Donald who paid zero in taxes, zero for our vets...

LAWRENCE: Donald Trump hasn't said the word veteran in either debate. The candidates for vice president, Mike Pence and Tim Kaine - about the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: Donald Trump supports our veterans.

TIM KAINE: He won't pay taxes.

PENCE: Donald Trump has paid all the taxes that he's - do you not take deductions? How does that work?

ELAINE QUIJANO: Gentlemen, this is about Syria.

PENCE: No, I...

LAWRENCE: It's odd because both VP candidates have skin in the game, says Iraq vet Paul Rieckhoff.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: I think it was especially shocking to see that two Blue Star fathers - Pence and Kaine - they both have sons serving in the Marine Corps - didn't talk about it at all except to kind of use it as a bludgeon or as a pander line.

LAWRENCE: Rieckhoff heads the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He wants to know which candidate will fix the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has the second largest budget after the Pentagon. Rieckhoff wants to hear plans to stop the rise of suicide among veterans, not to mention the ongoing wars.

RIECKHOFF: Every time we have a national discussion, I think folks forget that there are men and women watching from Iraq and Afghanistan, and it directly impacts their lives and their families. They want to know; are you going to keep my butt in Afghanistan, or are going to bring me home?

LAWRENCE: On the day of the vice presidential debate just hours beforehand, Staff Sergeant Adam Thomas, 31 years old, died in Afghanistan. Pence and Kaine didn't mention it. This morning as I was writing this story, two Americans were killed in Kabul, but it's not on the list of topics for the final debate.

Kael Weston, who spent seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan with the State Department, says the candidates should bring it up themselves.

KAEL WESTON: We may get a commander in chief elected in three weeks who hasn't said the word Afghanistan on a debate stage.

LAWRENCE: Actually Clinton did say the word Afghanistan once in passing. Weston gets it. He knows the wars and the VA are tough problems with no soundbite answer. He says it's easier to forget them unless you've been there or you're there right now and you can't. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.