‘Save what we fought for’: Veterans denounce Trump as a threat to America

Mike Smith, a former Naval pilot, is a member of Veterans for Responsible Leadership. He and other veterans spoke at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park last week. (Michael McElroy/Cardinal & Pine)

By Michael McElroy

May 31, 2024

A coalition of veterans groups delivered a letter to the state Republican convention last week calling on them to commit to a peaceful election. The veterans were turned away.

During the last years of his service in the Navy, Mike Smith, a fighter pilot, performed funeral rites for the fallen, kneeling before grieving families with a tightly-folded American flag.

As he handed the flag to the mothers, fathers, wives, sons, and daughters of service members killed in the line of duty, he’d ask them to please accept it, “on behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation.”

But on “a lot more than one occasion” during Donald Trump’s administration, Smith said, whenever he said the word president, “people would wince.”

Trump, who has called soldiers “suckers” and “losers,” rejected principles of democracy, and issued barely disguised calls for violence if he loses again in November, is unfit to lead, Smith said.

Smith was among some two dozen veterans who attended a press conference at a Greensboro war memorial just before Memorial Day to issue a stark warning: Donald Trump is a danger to the ideals that service members had fought, bled, and died for.

“[Trump] is bad for national security, he’s bad for democracy, and he does not respect the service of men and women in uniform,” Smith said.

The veterans — many of whom were members of Common Defense and Veterans for Responsible Leadership, two grassroots veterans organizations — are part of the largest coalition of anti-Trump veteran groups in the country, organizers of the event said.

In Greensboro, the coalition included a general, a Navy SEAL, a couple of fighter pilots, several special operations commanders, a former member of the 82nd Airborne, technicians who worked aboard nuclear submarines, and one of the first women to see combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The veterans’ experience is at the root of their concern, they said.

They’ve seen more than enough to recognize a threat when they see one.

‘The same playbook’

One of the veterans, Bobby Jones, served as a commander in the Navy in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, helping lead his shipmates through hostile territory. President George W. Bush once name-dropped him in public remarks.

Veterans are trained not to speak politically, Jones said, because they have to put politics aside to serve any president, no matter who they voted for. It’s a crucial element of an effective military, he said.

“However, there is a larger responsibility once you take that uniform off to take the experiences that you have and relay it to the American public to say ‘this is why this is dangerous,’” Jones said.

Jones compared Trump to historical dictators including former Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and Charles Taylor, the former totalitarian president of Liberia who was arrested and charged with war crimes in 2006.

“Charles Taylor, who’s locked up at the international court in the Hague, he did the same thing Donald Trump did: delegitimize the media, go after the military, try to replace civil servants, put in loyalists, and the country fell apart, fell into civil war twice. Same playbook.”

And Mussolini, Italy’s brutal leader during World War II, started in media, just like Trump, before transitioning to politics.

“Because both of them saw it as profitable. Then they both got drunk with power,” he said.

‘They don’t make them more bad-ass than that’

Trump escaped service in Vietnam through a medical deferment for bone spurs. And he often dismisses his critics as ‘vermin’ who hate the United States.

Here is a quick description of some of the other veterans who gathered to condemn him.

  • Dan Barkhuff, the founder of Veterans for Responsible Leadership, was a Navy seal, who also became a trauma surgeon.

“They don’t make them more bad-ass than that,” Jones said about him.

  • Brigadier General James R. Gorham was the first African-American to lead the North Carolina National Guard, and has won several medals for service.
  • Shelane Etchison enlisted after the Sept. 11 attacks at a time when women were not allowed in combat. She became part of a pilot program to allow “a handful of women” beside Army Rangers to participate in dangerous, nighttime raids in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is running as an unaffiliated candidate against Republican Richard Hudson for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional district, which covers several counties and includes Fort Liberty.
  • Ted Spencer worked aboard nuclear submarines.
  • Ken Harbaugh flew fighter jets into enemy fire.
  • Jason Cain served in the 82nd Airborne and was a leader in the US special operations command, a joint-group across all branches that, among other things, specializes in counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and unconventional warfare.

Trump’s threats

Trump’s threats rarely include definitive calls for violence. He has never said publicly, for instance, that if he loses, he wants his supporters to shoot Democrats in the face. But a 2020 ABC News investigation found more than 50 times that Trump’s words had inspired violent assaults or attacks.

His threats are far from subtle.

This, the veterans said last week during their press conference, needs to stop.

Their plan, the group said, was to travel by bus from the war memorial to the site of the NC Republican convention in Greensboro, where they would deliver a letter to state leaders asking them to denounce violent rhetoric and commit to a nonviolent election process.

“You know it’s up to us, right?” Harbaugh said in his remarks.

“No one is coming to save us. We are the ones who are going to have to do the fighting between now and the election to save this democracy, to save what we fought for, to uphold those oaths of office we swore when we raised our right hand so many years ago.”

He added: “We have a particular kind of moral authority having risked our lives for this country. And now the whole world is watching and we have to deliver once again.”

‘Losers’ and ‘suckers’

Trump has often belittled the idea of military service, and privately insulted soldiers killed or wounded in action, news reports show.

According to a 2020 report in the Atlantic magazine, Trump refused to go to a World War I cemetery in Paris to honor the American soldiers buried there, in part because it was raining. He didn’t want to get his hair wet, the article said.

The article also cited numerous anonymous sources who said that Trump frequently questioned why the public so admired military members. Wounded soldiers were, “suckers,” he said. Those killed in action, the article said, were “losers.”

Trump denied the report after it was published, but last year, Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly, a retired general, confirmed that Trump had used that language on several occasions.

According to a 2020 review of military records by the Huffington Post, Trump attended only four of 96 “dignified transfers” at Dover Air Force Base for the remains of military members killed overseas. Then-Vice President Pence attended far more than Trump did.

A second Trump term would be disastrous, General Gorham said.

“All great nations fall from within, and what’s going on right now is heading us in that direction,” he said in an interview before his remarks last week.

“Our national defense apparatus depends on trust, the adherence to laws and the ability to distinguish between lawful and unlawful orders.”

Trump’s “disregard for those principles,” Gorham said, and his erratic behavior, threatened the trust that binds the chain of command. Without that trust, he said, “confusion and inefficiency can reign, compromising our ability to respond to threats both foreign and domestic.”

‘We took an oath’

The stakes couldn’t be higher for service members, Gorham said, so it is imperative that the elected officials sending them into harm’s way understand the gravity of their decisions, adhere to an ideal bigger than themselves, and know the difference between right and wrong

“At its core, what [service members] do is about national security. It’s about being willing to die, potentially, for our country or to kill for our country. It doesn’t get tougher than that,” Mike Smith said.

It’s one of the essential elements of service and sacrifice he said, and is at the root of why many of the Americans the country mourns on Memorial Day never made it home.

They willingly gave their lives for their fellow soldiers.

In his comments at the memorial, Barkhuff spoke of Dan Malcom of Brinson, Ga. Malcolm and Barkhuff were on a roof in Fallujah, Iraq alongside other service members when they started taking gunfire. Malcolm, who could have run down the stairs ahead of his men first, waited until everyone else had gotten off the roof before he tried to escape. He was shot in the back, just above his armor.

Barkhuff tried to tend to Malcolm’s wounds, he said. When he took off Malcolm’s back plate, the bullet that killed him fell out into Barkhuff’s hand, he said.

@cardinalandpine

Donald Trump’s disparagement of US military personnel, his rejection of Democratic principles, and his threats of political violence if he loses again make him unfit to lead, veteran groups said in Greensboro just before Memorial Day. Dan Barkhuff, the founder of Veterans for Responsible Leadership (VRL), said on Friday that Trump violates the inherent ideals expressed in veterans’ oaths to defend the country and in the calls for remembrance of their sacrifices on Memorial Day. Barkhuff and other veterans from VRL and from Common Defense delivered a letter to the NC Republicans’ convention in Greensboro on Friday, calling on party officials to reject calls for violence and Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. They were quickly ushered out. #ncvets #nc #northcarolina #veterans

♬ original sound – Cardinal & Pine

A leader never puts the needs of himself above the needs of his troops, Bobby Jones said.

“America’s military is built on selfless dedication, the sacrifice that makes you a patriot, and he displays none of those qualities,” Jones said of Trump.

“We took an oath to possibly give our lives, and some of us have done that to protect this country. There’s nothing about Donald Trump that says he’s willing to sacrifice any of his personal wellbeing.”

‘Please heed our call’

After their speeches, the veterans boarded the bus to the NC GOP convention to deliver their letter. It was addressed to Trump, Lara Trump, (the former president’s daughter-in-law and a co-chair of the Republican National Committee,) and the state’s Republican leaders.

The veterans called on all three to “pledge to support a peaceful and nonviolent election season,” “commit to the rule of law,” and “renounce violence and implicit threats of violence.”

Citing Trump’s past statements and polls that show widespread concern about political violence, the groups felt obligated to make this request “as veterans who have sworn to defend the Constitution,” they wrote.

“Please heed our call,” they wrote. “Veterans and North Carolinians are united when we clearly say: threats of violence, voter intimidation, and violent rhetoric have no place in our Democracy and go against the values that veterans have sworn and given their lives to defend.”

‘There’s the door’

The veterans climbed off the bus, one after the other.

A group of four, as planned, made their way through the hotel and into the ballroom, where, single file, they walked to the front of the dais. They stood silently waiting to be acknowledged.

“Remember your oath,” their shirts read.

Soon the crowd noticed them and began to mutter.

“They’re anti-Trump,” someone said.

Some in the crowd, dressed in red, white, and blue hats, buttons, and paraphernalia, began to jeer.

A man holding a drink came over and demanded the veterans leave.

“Go,” he said. “Now. There’s the door.”

@cardinalandpine

“There’s the door. Go!” A group of veterans and military families were escorted out of the NC GOP’s convention in Greensboro on Friday after delivering a letter calling on Republicans and Donald Trump to reject calls for violence and inflammatory rhetoric. The coalition of veterans, including members of Veterans for Responsible Leadership and Common Defense, were quickly ushered out of the event, though they received a guarantee that their letter would be delivered to the chair of the Republican National Committee.

♬ original sound – Cardinal & Pine

A.J. Daoud, who was serving as the convention’s sergeant of arms, came over to diffuse things. He told the other delegates to calm down, thanked the veterans for their service, and promised to personally deliver the letter to party leadership.

The veterans had to leave, though, he said, because only delegates were allowed in the room. He said it almost apologetically, framing it as procedural.

The group walked out. Daoud spoke with them outside the ballroom for several minutes.

“USA!, USA!”

The veterans who’d stayed outside chanted for more than an hour. Some cars honked in support as they passed. Some drivers jeered. Delegates trickled out of the convention and made their way to the parking lot behind the veterans.

Three women carrying Republican delegate swag bags shouted at them from across the street.

“Traitor, traitor, traitor,” one of them chanted.

“We’re all veterans here,” one of the protesters called back.

The women started shouting again, “USA, USA, USA.”

The United States military veterans joined in, “USA, USA, USA,” until the women went quiet and turned back toward the convention.

Some delegates, however, thanked the veterans for their service. Penny Geiger, a delegate to the convention from Mecklenburg County, made her way over to talk with them.

She and Jones talked for several minutes, each saying their piece, each listening to the other.

A man in a long beard walked across the street, about half a block away from the crosswalk, his service dog walking ahead of him without a leash.

“You’re nothing but traitors,” the man said in the direction of the group.”You don’t belong in this country. You’re a disgrace.”

Geiger shooed him away.

Geiger said she had every plan to vote for Trump, but she shares the concerns about violent rhetoric, “from both sides,” she said. She said it was crucial that Americans start listening to each other again, regardless of their political differences.

“If we can’t start having these conversations, we are not going to be able to put ourselves back together,” she said in an interview.

“I have never known Americans not to be able to solve problems when they come together.”

When it was time to go, Jones and Geiger shook hands. They thanked each other for listening.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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