More than any other person in public life, the president sets the tone for how the military and veterans are perceived. Our current president’s relationship with the military and veterans has been quixotic at best.
His first experience with the military led him to later joke that bone spurs allowed him to avoid the shooting war in Vietnam only to fight what he described as his own “personal Vietnam” navigating the New York dating scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It is wishful thinking that Trump will take George Washington’s wisdom to heart. But for the sake of our military, the nation and our standing in the world, Trump might consider a few simple but perhaps useful steps.
Then there’s the contrast between his view and that of President George Washington on how those who sacrifice for our country should be treated.
“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation,” Washington famously noted.
“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” President Donald J. Trump said, referring to Capt. USN (retired) and U.S. Sen. John McCain.
As Trump marks his first Veterans Day weekend as president, it is in our collective long-term interest that he heeds our first commander-in-chief’s admonition about how we treat our veterans and its impact on sustaining an effective military force.
Trump has a lot of work to do.
He made clear in the 2016 presidential campaign that he believed the military and veterans were as incompetent as those who allowed him to avoid the military many years before. The generals, he said then, “have been reduced to rubble, reduced to a point where it is embarrassing for our country.”
In fact, “[He] knew more about ISIS than the generals.” Less than 18 months ago Trump said: “Our military is a disaster.” He assumed that some veterans groups could be duped into being campaign props if merely promised a contribution.
The parents of a young Army captain killed in Iraq were belittled as pawns of the Democratic Party. Then, upon being sworn in as president, those who were promoted to general during the Obama administration instantly were smarter as they became “my generals,” “my military.” Nearly overnight the military was transformed from a “disaster” to a force capable of inflicting “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Although he may think them naive, veterans and those on active duty today seem to remember what candidate Trump has said about them. A recent Military Times poll found that 53 percent of Army officers – typically a conservative group – held an unfavorable view of the president.
Regardless of what military officers think of Trump, he will be president and commander-in-chief for the foreseeable future. It is wishful thinking that Trump will take George Washington’s wisdom to heart. We have witnessed that honoring our military and veterans does not come intuitively for him.
But for the sake of our military, the nation and our standing in the world, Trump might consider a few simple but perhaps useful steps:
First, apologize to McCain. There is not a single member of the U.S. military, past or present – regardless of party affiliation – who does not think that John McCain was a hero for enduring five-plus years of torture and refusing an early release from captivity.
Don’t criticize another Gold Star parent or spouse – even those who may be critical of you. Simply recognize their sacrifice and don’t engage in a war of words, particularly in their time of greatest pain.
Do not lie to veterans or their loved ones. If you promise a contribution or a donation to some relative or veterans’ charity, do not wait until you are caught to make good on your commitment before fulfilling your promise.
Do not insult the professionalism or morals of the military. Stop suggesting that soldiers will murder innocent civilians if you order them to do so.
Do not undermine the military justice system. Don’t attack, for example, the Army colonel/Iraq veteran/military judge whose sentence of former Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl you did not like.
Treat veterans with respect. Not pity.
Finally, stop referring to the services as “my military” or the leadership as “my generals.” Those in uniform swore an oath to “support and defend the Constitution” – not any person or even president. The last army that swore an oath to “the leader” was defeated by the Allies in 1945.
Fortunately, we are blessed with young people who are willing to serve no matter who sits in the Oval Office. The first commander in chief understood that this “willingness” is “directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated.” Are you listening, Mr. President?
Robin Umberg is a retired Army brigadier general and formerly the undersecretary at the California Department of Veterans Affairs. Attorney Thomas Umberg is a former Assembly member and retired Army colonel who served in Afghanistan. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.