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Texas Veterans Sharply Divided Over Trump Heading Into 2020 Election

Veterans speak with guests at the Richard A. Anderson Veterans Home grand opening in Houston in February.
Veterans speak with guests at the Richard A. Anderson Veterans Home grand opening in Houston in February.

Military veterans are a group that traditionally leans Republican. But early this month,  The Atlantic published an article alleging President Donald Trump had referred to people who joined the military as "losers" and "suckers," something the president denies.

Houston Public Media asked Texas veterans what they're thinking as we head toward the 2020 election.

Marylyn Harris said she was disheartened by Trump's alleged remarks.

"As a person that served in the Army for 11 years and went to war – I am a Gulf War veteran – for this country, I believe in service," she said. "I believe in serving this country, and I want my president and the people of America to appreciate my service, because it was in fact a sacrifice."

Harris runs a  and stays publicly nonpartisan, so she declined to say who she'll choose for president. Other veterans Houston Public Media interviewed share her views on service, but, as Bryan Escobedo said, that doesn't mean they're a unified voting bloc.

"The veteran community is quite diverse in its political views. You'd be quite surprised to find out that we are just as diverse in our political views as the regular population," he said.

Escobedo is the brother and cousin of U.S. Marines. He watched 9/11 unfold on a TV in his classroom when he was 16 years old, "and I decided that moment I was going to be a Marine. It wasn't any other branch. I said, ‘Not the Army, not the Navy, not the Air Force. I'm going to be a Marine, and I'm going to go fight these guys that did this.'"

Escobedo enlisted a year later and served for five years, deploying to Iraq three times and earning the Purple Heart in 2007.

Asked if he knew how he planned to vote in the presidential election, he didn't answer directly, but said: "The veteran community is pretty split as far as for and against the current sitting president."

Harris and Escobedo are just two of the nearly 1.6 million veterans living in Texas — people who take their civic responsibilities, like voting, seriously. And many of them support President Trump, like Army veteran Sean Ellis, who served in Somalia and Haiti.

Ellis credits Trump with fixing the  VA healthcare system, which saw scandals under presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

"We raise our hands at 17-18 years old, say we will defend the United States from all enemies and that we are going to defend the Constitution," Ellis said. "But one of the things that they tell us, and we don't even know it at the time, is as a result of our acts they're going to make sure that our health benefits are watched over and taken care of, and I think for many years, a lot of that was neglected. I'm just happy to see in the last four years under this current administration that our health care is put back into a priority."

But not all vets look at Trump's health care record strictly through the lens of the VA system.

Will Spencer Jr., who retired after 27 years in the Army, blames Trump for the  coronavirus pandemic.

"Back in February, he just chose to ignore it, and to me, as a leader, those are things you just don't do," Spencer said. "We could have dealt with it sooner rather than later. So, that's a no-brainer, and I think the American people, I think they see that, and I think that's what's upsetting to them, that this didn't have to happen."

He plans to vote for Vice President Joe Biden.

So does Brian Wilson, an Iraq War vet and one-time Army combat medic. Wilson voted Libertarian in 2016 and before that voted a straight Republican ticket.

"It's been a long move away from the GOP to the Democrat Party for me," Wilson said, "but I really think that a lot of the values that I have in my life have changed. And I've seen what the GOP has done recently in the past decade has just been more or less reactive to any situation without planning ahead."

Wilson said it's important to him that the president have a well-organized cabinet with well-thought out plans. Right now, he says, it's just chaos.

"One of the things that really bothers me about President Trump is the hubris, that no one else can be smarter than him and that he always has to have the right answer," Wilson said. “And that's not a good sign in leadership.”

Brandon Friedman also said he'll be voting for Biden. He, too, is a former Republican, though in his case, the transition came as a direct result of his military experience. Friedman is a former Army infantry officer and a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

"I voted for Bob Dole in 1996," Friedman said. "I voted for George W. Bush in 2000. And then I went to war twice, and I saw the way that Republicans handled themselves and the war and foreign policy during those years after 9/11 and in the leadup to the Iraq invasion. ... And I blamed the Bush administration for getting us involved in that, in the Iraq War specifically, and I swore at that point that I would never vote for a Republican again, until they had made some sort of amends over how they had gotten us involved in Iraq."

He doesn't believe the Republican Party has improved since then.

For all that, Republicans do retain an edge when it comes to the veterans' vote, according to Jeremy Teigen, a professor of political science at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Even as President Trump made numerous remarks disparaging veterans during the 2016 campaign, particularly regarding the late Senator John McCain,  exit polls that year showed him carrying the veterans' vote by nearly 2-to-1.

"If we sense a bit of a Republican tilt to the veteran population, most of the reason for that is that a veteran is likely to be an older, white male, which is a core element of the Republican electorate," Teigen said.

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From Houston Public Media