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‘I don’t believe it’: US military split over whether Trump called fallen soldiers ‘suckers’

President Donald J. Trump, joined by First Lady Melania Trump, addresses his remarks to U.S. troops Wednesday, December 26, 2018, at the Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Theron Martin, a U.S. Army private at Ft. Benning, was immediately skeptical when he first came across a link to a magazine story alleging that President Trump called soldiers killed in action “suckers” and “losers.”

Reading the report in the Atlantic, which led with a claim that Trump skipped a visit to a cemetery in France for fallen Americans because he worried that rain would mess up his hair, the 24-year-old from Montana was put off that the story was based on anonymous sources. He decided the allegations, that Trump repeatedly disparaged U.S. service members, were not to be trusted.

“I don’t believe it,” Martin said. “I think people are trying to throw dirt on him. It’s an election year.” In November, Martin said, he will vote for the president.

“He may have said stupid things; he often does,” said Martin, who serves in the 1st squadron of the 16th Cavalry Regiment. “If he did say that, it is absolutely disrespectful.… Shame on him. But he’s still doing a good job as president. He’s taking care of the economy and the military. He upped our pay.”

Martin shrugged as he contemplated that the commander in chief might have disrespected soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. “What are you going to do?” he said. “It doesn’t affect my life.”

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From the moment the Atlantic story was published online Sept. 3, citing firsthand accounts of Trump associates who declined to be identified, military service members and veterans across the globe have been caught between dueling political responses. Trump and administration officials have scrambled to deny the claims as a “hoax,” while Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has condemned the president, slammed his alleged remarks as “disgusting” and urged him to “humbly apologize.”

Many veterans have vocally taken sides. But active-duty service members have been more reticent, reflecting the military’s traditional avoidance of politics. Some are willing to weigh in, however.

Around Ft. Benning, one of the nation’s largest military installations, some active-duty soldiers see the story as confirmation of Trump’s disdain for those who serve, previously reflected by his boasts of avoiding Vietnam and his mockery of veterans who criticize him. But a significant number of soldiers here in Georgia, an emerging battleground state, echoed Martin in dismissing the report as the latest narrative of a liberal media intent on sinking the president.

“I think that in this era of ‘gotcha’ journalism, this is clearly a move to try to discredit the president,” said a captain who gave only his last name, Smith, because he said he was not allowed to talk about politics while in uniform.

The captain, who described himself as politically independent, said that after reading the magazine story, he read rebuttals from other officials, including Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton. Now a critic of the president, Bolton nonetheless said it was “simply false” that Trump skipped the cemetery visit to protect his hair.

Smith said he figured the claims were likely taken out of context.

“I’m skeptical of almost everything that I read in the papers,” he added.”There seems to be no due process anymore. Accusations are as good as evidence in the court of public opinion.”

Few military service members who spoke on the record seemed to believe the allegations — and those who did said they were not shocked.

“I can believe it came out of his mouth,” said 2nd Lt. Jacoby Evans of the 316th Cavalry. “It’s pretty ignorant, what he said, but he’s always made ignorant comments. It’s nothing new to me.”

Still, Evans said it was “weird” to think he serves under a president who allegedly asked, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.”

“I joined to protect the United States’ values,” Evans said. “We have a commander in chief, the face of the United States, who sets a bad example.” Evans, who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, plans to vote for Biden in November.

Over the last four years, Trump’s standing among active-duty service members has eroded, according to polling by the Military Times. In 2016, a survey indicated they preferred Trump to Clinton by more than a 2-to-1 margin. But in polling this summer, even before the Atlantic story, almost 50% reported holding an “unfavorable view” of Trump. Biden held a lead of 4 points, 41% to 37%.

“Trump has the lowest polling of military service members of any Republican nominee for president since President George W. Bush,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who specializes in civil-military relations. A former White House advisor to Bush, Feaver is an anti-Trump Republican.

He acknowledged that the annual Military Times survey tends to be more reflective of attitudes among career officers than of rank-and-file troops. In 2016, Feaver said, Trump had broad backing in the military because he promised to raise defense spending and allow more permissive rules of engagement. Once Trump was in office, however, many military leaders soon complained about chaos and lack of purpose.

The latest controversy could potentially hurt Trump in closely contested states such as North Carolina — and even Georgia — that have large populations of active-duty troops and veterans.

“This is a toxic story for Trump,” Feaver said. “It gets to the heart of the reelection image that he’s trying to present — that he’s a tough guy, he’s pro-military, he loves the flag, he loves America, and it’s the lefties in the Biden camp who are dishonoring America.”

VoteVets.org, an anti-Trump organization that says it represents 700,000 veterans and their families, last week released a campaign video featuring parents of U.S. soldiers who died on duty. “Donald Trump called our fallen troops ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,'” a caption read. “They can’t speak for themselves, but these 6 Gold Star families speak for our fallen.”

Still, even some Ft. Benning soldiers who are not gung-ho about Trump remain dubious.

“I’m very highly critical of Trump,” said an officer who declined to give his name. “He says a lot of dumb things, but I would never believe such accusations without evidence.”

Many soldiers in Columbus credited Trump with reducing overseas deployments, increasing the military budget and ushering in a 3.1% pay increase, their largest in a decade.

“I’m judging Trump by what he does rather than what somebody says he says,” said Eric Dooling, 46, a retired infantryman who served in countries including Afghanistan and Somalia. “When he gets off Air Force Once, he salutes the honor guard, he shakes hands.”

“If he said something about veterans that died during World War I, so be it,” Dooling said. “You know, there’s a lot of us that are in the military that would say ‘those poor saps’ for the trench warfare that they had to go through.”

Trump’s alleged comments in the magazine article referred to soldiers in wars throughout history, to the present.

Danny Hill, 50, a retired staff sergeant who served in the Army for 23 years, gave Trump credit for pulling U.S. troops out of countries including Afghanistan and Iraq. Hill was blown out of a vehicle in Iraq in 2007, in an incident that killed two soldiers.

Hill said he doesn’t believe Trump made the comments, but he would support the president if he had, on freedom of speech grounds.

“He’s almost just like an American soldier,” Hill said. “We always speak what’s on our mind. We don’t bite our tongues. We stand firm to what we believe in and we stand our ground if we say something. He’s a strong American.”

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© 2020 the Los Angeles Times