San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, remained seated for the playing of the national anthem in the first two preseason National Football League games this year. Perhaps because he was dressed in street clothes due to injury or maybe fewer eyes were on television screens in these preliminary contests, but few media outlets picked up on Kaepernick’s silent protest. Fast forward to the final preseason game of the year played in San Diego, home to nearly 100,000 military personnel and one of the country’s largest naval bases, and Kaepernick’s protest put him front and center on the news.
As a measure of how patriotic or traitorous his actions, US veterans lined up on both sides of the issue. KRON4, a Bay Area news station interviewed numerous veterans condemning Kaepernick including Vietnam War Veteran, Patty O’Day, “As a veteran, I just want him to know that my fellow veterans fought for him so that he had the right to do that but he is disrespecting their service. You don’t attack the very symbol of our unity by refusing to stand and showing disrespect.”
In response to Kaepernick’s protest, numerous veterans supported the football player, defending his right to bring to light important issues regarding racism in the United States. The most notable support came from Army veteran, Richard Allen Smith, who penned an open letter on Medium.com* drawing analogy to baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson’s feelings about the national anthem and including Robinson’s quote, ““I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.” Smith sums up the letter, “Far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their freedom of speech.” The signatories to that letter are an impressive group of veterans from the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marines.
With the impending presidential election, the discussion around Kaepernick has centered less around the racism in our justice system and relations between the African American community and police that the quarterback was trying to highlight and more on whether his actions and the actions of others are patriotic. Republican Presidential Nominee, Donald Trump inserted himself in the conversation calling Kaepernick’s actions bad for the country and talking about how his actions disrespected veterans.
Trump’s use of veterans as a political topic didn’t stop there. Already on record for calling Senator John McCain, Republican from Arizona and Prisoner of War during the Vietnam War, a “dummy,” Trump doubled down at a July 2015 Iowa Family Leadership Summit saying, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured — I like people that weren’t captured, okay? I hate to tell you.”
Nonetheless, Trump continues to present to veterans groups for potential support on the November ballot. This summer, Trump spoke in North Carolina at a Veterans of Foreign Wars conference promising to install a veterans’ hotline in the White House.
Not to be outdone on veterans’ political issues, Democratic Presidential Nominee, Secretary Hillary Clinton, has largely let Trump’s words speak for themselves. A 30-second television ad shows Trump speaking at various events deriding McCain, comparing sacrifices Trump himself has made compared to those of military veterans, and Trump saying he always wanted a Purple Heart award. The reactions of military veterans pictured while Trump is talking shows their dismay and heartbreak. A longer ad featured on social media shows one of those veterans, who lost a leg during military service, talking about earning a Purple Heart and how Trump has no concept of sacrifices veterans have made.
Closer to home, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, in the midst of his re-election campaign has a page on his web site featuring his perspective toward veterans. At heart of much of the discussion regarding veterans in the campaign against Republican nominee, Darryl Glenn, is the issue around the new Veterans Administration (VA) medical center in Aurora and VA mismanagement of the project.
An Air Force Academy graduate and retired Air Force colonel, Darryl Glenn would seem to have the upper hand on veterans’ issues. However, Bennet has demonstrated his ability to work with Republicans in completing the VA hospital. Bennet worked with other elected Coloradans, including Republican Senator, Cory Gardner, and Republican Congressman, Mike Coffman, to obtain full funding of the new VA hospital in Aurora. In May of 2015, they issued the following statement, “...despite the failures of the VA, Colorado veterans deserve to see the completion of the world-class facility they were promised in Denver. They also deserve to see those officials responsible for the delays and cost overruns that have characterized this project held accountable. As members of the Colorado delegation, we are united in our conviction that this hospital must be built, and we will work to bring this project to its long-overdue completion.”
Furthermore, Glenn’s continued support of Trump seems to put into question the strength of his commitment around multiple issues including veterans’ affairs.
In the battle for the 6th Congressional District where the Veterans Administration Hospital is being built, incumbent Mike Coffman has won praise for obtaining funding for completion for the hospital but also criticism for the hospital running $1 billion over budget during his watch. As a Marine Corps veteran and member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, Coffman has the inside track on veterans’ issues in his campaign against Democratic Nominee, Morgan Carroll.
Carroll in turn, has touted similarities between Mike Coffman and Donald Trump in television ads. Though Coffman has called for Trump to step down, merely representing the same party exposes problems for Republicans. Coffman’s candidacy shows how vulnerable some down ballot candidates have become because they have allied with Trump or because their opponents are successful in showing similarities with Trump.
As with every four years during a presidential campaign, competence on veteran’s issues has become synonymous with patriotism. The next four years will likely show how sincere those elected actually were when making campaign promises. The completion of the VA hospital in Aurora, improved medical and mental health services for veterans and their families, and increased employment opportunities are among the issues that require immediate attention.