Campaign images, sound bites, memes and affronts come and go so quickly that it is sometimes hard to keep focus on those moments that truly illuminate a candidate's character. Trump's comments about veterans, made in Ames, Iowa on July 18, 2015, are such an illuminating moment.
Appearing at the Family Leadership Summit, Donald Trump said, referring to Senator John McCain: "He's not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured." You can put aside every other issue in this campaign. These remarks, standing alone, demonstrate that Trump is unfit to serve as commander-in-chief of the United States military.
Donald Trump avoided military service. Between 1964 and 1968, while the Vietnam War intensified, he sought and received four student deferments. In 1968, during one of the most intense periods of the war, Trump was no longer eligible for student deferments, so he pursued a medical deferment. In Trump's words: "I had student deferments and ultimately had a medical deferment because of my feet. I had a bone spur." When asked by reporters which foot was injured, he could not recall and told reporters to look up his records.
In contrast, John McCain enlisted in the Navy, trained as a pilot, and requested combat assignment during the Vietnam War. In October 1967, during his 23rd bombing mission in Vietnam, his plane was shot down by a missile. He was badly wounded in the attack and then beaten when he was captured on the ground. Captain McCain was repeatedly tortured during his captivity with the worst of the torture beginning in August 1968. In October 1968, McCain was offered early release but refused it unless all of the POWs captured before him were released first. He remained a prisoner of war for over five years, until 1973. Among other honors, he was awarded a Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star Medal, and a Purple Heart for his service.
With this context in mind, it is important to deconstruct Trump's statements. First, he dismissively misstated that McCain is viewed as a war hero because he was captured. McCain and other POWs are not heroes because they were captured; they are heroes because they risked their lives and liberty in service of their country. Second, of those men and women who put their lives on the line in combat, some had the misfortune to be captured. Trump's sarcastic statement, "I like those people who weren't captured," unmistakably implies that those who were captured are entitled to less respect than those who were not. And make no mistake, the corollaries to "I like those people who weren't captured" are "I like those people who weren't wounded" and "I like those people who weren't killed." Trump loves to divide the world into "winners" and "losers." His comments raise the question of whether, in his worldview, soldiers who risked their lives in combat and had the misfortune to be captured, injured, or killed are "losers."
I have a personal stake in this. My father, William A. Cotter, served in the Army Air Corp. during WWII. He flew 17 bombing missions over Germany, missions that were renowned for their danger and high rate of casualties. On his 17th mission, my father's plane sustained a fatal hit. Wounded by flak, he parachuted into the night sky over Germany and was captured on the ground. He was held as a POW under conditions of unimaginable deprivation and brutality until the war's end, almost 18 months later. My father was not a hero because he was captured and he certainly never thought of himself in those terms. But, like millions of other veterans, he repeatedly put his life on the line in combat and, like John McCain and millions of others captured in battle, he made extraordinary sacrifices for his country.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a hero as "a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life." I know of no combat veteran who considers himself or herself a hero, but every one of our veterans who put their life and liberty at risk meets this definition. While Trump later reluctantly conceded that Senator McCain is a war hero, he has refused to apologize or disavow the statement, "I like people who weren't captured."
When Donald Trump made remarks disparaging veterans captured in combat, I thought his campaign was over. Indeed, Democratic and Republican leaders alike condemned his comments. But now Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States. Perhaps our memories are too short. We need to return to that moment in Ames, Iowa. When you disrespect veterans who made the greatest sacrifices for our country, you are unfit to serve as commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces.