Barry Coates got right to the point.
“Because I didn’t get adequate treatment and there were no follow-up examinations, I’m standing in front of you today and am incurably ill,” he said at the beginning of his testimony two years ago in front of U.S. Congress.
The then 44-year-old veteran described in detail how he had to wait almost a year for a colonoscopy because the Veterans Administration (VA), which handles healthcare for former soldiers, was hopelessly overloaded. By the time his test was finally conducted, it was too late: He had a tumor the size of a baseball in his intestine, and the cancer had already spread throughout his body. Mr. Coates, the father of a family from South Carolina, brought several Congressmen to tears with his testimony. He became the public face of a veterans scandal that has still not been resolved.
An investigation by news broadcaster CNN exposed the VA’s miserable state and described Mr. Coates’ situation. It cited internal agency documents showing that 82 veterans died while waiting for medical appointments. Hundreds of thousands of former soldiers had to wait more than 30 days to see a doctor; in many cases, the delay was more than three months. A clinic in Phoenix falsified the official waiting lists and only recorded the actual times on secret lists. In the meantime, similar accusations have been brought against hospitals in Houston and Denver.
Barry Coates died in January. But his fate led to a far-reaching reform of stiffened structures that will hold the new president’s attention for a long time. Barack Obama initiated $15 billion in spending in reaction to the scandal, but there has been scant improvement.
Quite the opposite, actually – there have been new scandals. Since 2014, waiting times have increased. And in August, a mentally ill veteran shot himself in the parking lot of a veterans’ hospital in the state of New York because he had been denied assistance.
“This is a watershed vote. Our military is weaker than ever before. Our veterans don’t receive the help they need.”
Early on, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump began courting veterans, a voting segment of predominantly white males. Already in January, while battling for the nomination, he chose not to take part in a televised debate to instead speak before a group of former soldiers. He himself was never in the army – in fact, questions still linger about the nature of Mr. Trump’s draft deferment during the Vietnam War.
But many veterans are still drawn to his tough guy image, combative attitude and blustering rhetoric. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s former soldiers need help more than ever – but also on the political front. One in five suffers from post-traumatic disorders; almost as many have traumatic brain injuries. Each day, 20 veterans commit suicide, as Mr. Trump emphasized on Thursday in North Carolina.
“The VA can’t cope with the number of veterans who are seeking treatment,” said Heather Ehle, who heads Project Sanctuary, a charity offering old soliders desperately needed help. “Most veterans who come to us have psychological problems, are depressed and prone to suicide. They require immediate help.”
Project Sanctuary pays for six days of therapeutic vacation for veterans after their foreign terms of duty, along with their spouses and children. Afterwards, the family has access for two years to a counselor. In 2012, the project was cited by the White House as one of the best charitable organizations devoted to veterans. But Ms. Ehle can only accept 200 families per year; 1,800 are on the waiting list.
“We need a strong leader who really stands up for us,” demands Trump supporter Tony Marns. He has come to Colorado Christian University in Denver to hear a speech by Eric Trump, the candidate’s son. Mr. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” appeals to the former Air Force captain. He often holds up Trump posters along with his children at a busy intersection on weekends.
“This is a watershed vote. Our military is weaker than ever before. Our veterans don’t receive the help they need,” he added.
The event at the Christian university is aimed especially at veterans such as him. The Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has a three-point lead against Mr. Trump, according to a poll by The New York Times and CBS News. But Mr. Trump clearly has the edge with veterans – with a plus of 17 percentage points.
He needs to make use of that lead. Particularly in Colorado, where there are five Air Force bases, Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy – and the vote sometimes goes Democratic, sometimes Republican. “If Donald wins Colorado, then he’ll win the entire election,” said Steve House, the head of the Republican party in Colorado. That will be possible only with the votes of current and retired soldiers – if at all. So it’s no wonder that in October alone, Mr. Trump appeared four times in the state, also sending his son and running mate Mike Pence there.
“We Americans are used to hearing polished statements. But Donald Trump is different. He’s a businessman. He doesn’t deliver perfect sound bites. But he knows how to tackle things,” enthuses Dan Howell, who coordinates the organization “Veterans for Trump” in Colorado.
This argument pays no regard to Mr. Trump’s many missteps. His vulgar words about women don’t find favor at the Christian university. “Believe me, I find that really obnoxious,” said a female Trump supporter who preferred not to give her name. “But that was more than 10 years ago. I hope he’s changed.”
Mr. Trump’s statements are not always met with such leniency. He has repeatedly offended veterans. He criticized the Muslim parents of the fallen soldier Humayun Khan, who spoke out against him at the Democratic National Convention. He was rebuked for his remarks also within his own party. And concerning Republican senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Mr. Trump said dismissively: “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Mr. Trump exchanged harsh words with John Allen, a retired Marine general whose final assignment was as special envoy in the battle against the terrorist organization Islamic State. He “failed badly in his fight against ISIS,” fulminated Mr. Trump in an interview with U.S. broadcaster ABC. Mr. Allen had criticized Mr. Trump for his readiness to “have us do illegal things.” The former general, who supports Hillary Clinton, gave a list of specifics: “He’s talked about needing to torture. He’s talked about needing to murder the families of alleged terrorists. He’s talked about carpet-bombing ISIS. Who do you think is going to be carpet-bombed when all that occurs? It’s going to be innocent families.”
Mr. Trump isn’t giving such charges a listen. Last week he reiterated: “We have to roll back the cuts in defense spending and assure that veterans have the right to go to the doctor of their choice.”
That’s what the masses want to hear.
Astrid Dörner is part of Handelsblatt’s team of correspondents covering finance and U.S. corporations in New York. To contact: firstname.lastname@example.org