President Donald Trump on Wednesday bolstered his nationalist agenda before a group of admiring veterans gathered for the American Legion’s national convention and promised a stronger military to “win” the war in Afghanistan.
But days after he announced the U.S. would send 4,000 more American troops to the country, many veterans supportive of Trump questioned the broader strategy to retain a strong military presence in the Middle East.
“He’s been supportive of our military, and that’s something we haven’t had the last eight years,” said JD Bennett, a veteran from Fresno who served in the Marines from 1979 to 1985 and later retired from the Air Force.
Still, Bennett cast doubt on the mission in Afghanistan, and sending more soldiers to fight the wars in the Middle East.
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“Do I think we’re going to make a difference?” he asked. “No.”
“I hope we get the heck out of there as soon as possible,” said Gil Desmeules, 63, of Carson. “Get our boys home.”
In his speech, Trump sought to strike a tone of unity, one day after riling his base with a more combative tone at a campaign-style rally in Arizona.
“It is time to heal the wounds that have divided us, and to seek a new unity based on the common values that unite us,” Trump said. “We are one people, with one home, and one flag.”
He added: “We are not defined by the color of our skin, the figure on our paycheck or the party of our politics,” Trump continued.
His comments came more than a week after violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., left one person dead. Trump didn’t immediately rebuke far-right extremist groups at the rally, further propelling the feeling of some that he is emboldening the actions of white supremacists.
Outside, hundreds of protesters denounced Trump’s divisive rhetoric many said fanned the flames of hatred, giving white supremacists a platform to spread their message of white nationalism.
“I grew up in Germany. I was taught in German schools about Hitler. I’ve read Mein Kampf … so many of the things he does are right out of the Hitler text book,” said Insel Angus, 60, an Army veteran who lives in Reno. “Denouncing the media, inciting hatred, dividing people.”
Anti-Trump protesters held signs that read “alt-right is all wrong,” “quit using our veterans as props,” and “No Nazis, no KKK.”
Sam Palomares, 22, and Everett George, 25, both of Fallon, Nev., carried signs protesting neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers. They said they were disturbed by the violence in Charlottesville.
“We want Trump to know that racism is not OK,” Palomares said.
Inside the convention hall, Trump faced a more friendly crowd, with many veterans saying they support the president despite his announcement on Afghanistan this week.
“Being a veteran, he’s still commander in chief … still I would like to know what the plan is. What’s the end game?” asked Wayne Crockett, a Vietnam War veteran from Atlanta, Ga.
Crockett, 73, denounced Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric following the violence that erupted nearly two weeks ago in Charlottesville.
“I was kinda of shocked … he needs to change that,” Crockett said. “That hurts the country, and it hurts the military.”
The American Legion this year reaffirmed a 1923 resolution against hate groups, a signal that racially charged divisions are still alive in America.
“Look at the history of the U.S. – we saw the KKK in 1921 marching openly down Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Joe Plenzler, an American Legion spokesman. “This was important because of what happened in Charlottesville … denouncing people who were raising Nazi flags on American soil and who were furthering causes of bigotry and hatred. We just absolutely don’t tolerate that.”
But for many veterans and their supporters, that didn’t matter on Wednesday. Instead, they sought to hold the president accountable for advancing health care access for veterans and fast-tracking disability claims. Trump signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, aimed at speeding the review and approvals process for disability claims.
“That is really important … the backlog can still be up to six years,” said Jerry Samuelson, a veterans services officer from North Dakota who helps veterans apply for disability benefits.
Samuelson said Trump should be given “a break,” despite the turmoil that has surrounded his early presidency.
“He’s trying to be president,” Samuelson said. “There’s already so much hatred right now.”
Jeff Sterling, a veteran from Arcata, said he strongly supports Trump.
“I hope the American people realize that he has a job to do,” said Sterling, 33.
George Woodman, 62, a veteran from Idaho, said he believes Trump is not to blame for the slow progress he’s made in advancing his policy agenda. Instead, he cast blame on Congress.
“I think Trump’s performance is fantastic,” Woodman said. “I think Congress is really to blame – Republicans and Democrats. If they don’t come around, they’re not going to be around.”
He expressed support for the Trump administration’s decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan.
“If that’s what we need to to be safe, that’s what we need to do,” Woodman said.