First the good news: Nobody played taps.
That said, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s appearance at a national Veterans of Foreign Wars gathering in Charlotte Monday drew a chilly response from most of the thousands of military veterans on hand.
The VFW delegates were polite – as requested by their commander earlier in the day – but little more.
There was no mass exodus, as rumored in parts of the room, when Clinton took the stage. But neither was there much enthusiasm – even when Clinton called for better health benefits and increased opportunities for all who have served. Her best applause lines, when she criticized Republican nominee Donald Trump without actually naming him, drew largely muted reactions.
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Interviews beforehand with veterans from nine states and Panama revealed that the credibility of the former secretary of state remains damaged by her handling of diplomatic email on personal computers and the 2012 attack on the country’s diplomatic compound in Libya.
She didn’t mention either issue during her 30-minute speech, nor did she have to.
“How about Benghazi?” someone yelled from the audience midway through her remarks.
James Spiker, a Vietnam veteran from Virginia, stormed out of Hall A as Clinton took the podium.
“She’s lied to the American public her whole life. She’s still lying and these people are going to vote her in,” he said. “So I don’t have to listen to it. That’s what I fought for and that’s why I’m leaving.”
Based on interviews, Clinton had a significant number of supporters in the room. But they were clearly outnumbered – tracking a recent Military Times poll that shows Clinton losing the active-duty vote to Trump by more than a 2 to 1 margin.
Few of the veterans on hand in Charlotte needed permission to speak candidly about the presidential race.
“A lot of the room is still pissed off about Benghazi,” said Kim Wischmeyer of Columbia, Mo., who was attending the convention with his wife, Rebecca, a retired Veterans Administration nurse.
He says he is bothered by Trump’s tendency to “shoot off his mouth,” but not to the degree that he will ever support Clinton.
“Not her. You’re talking about a commander and chief who knows something, well, she don’t know diddly,” Wischmeyer said. “She’ll sit there and deny and deny, and she’s no better than her husband when he said he didn’t inhale.”
Because of Clinton’s email scandal, Ed Aitken, a 73-year-old delegate from Colorado, says he’s leaning strongly toward Trump, who will take his turn at the convention podium on Tuesday morning.
“There are different standards for those who serve the country and the veterans who protect the country,” he said.
Gulf War vet Dwight Nowell of Athens, Ga., who is black, says he won’t vote for Trump because “the only thing he believes a black man can do is make babies.”
Yet Nowell allowed that if he had handled diplomatic email like Clinton, “I would be in Leavenworth.”
Carlos Gordon, a 28-year Army veteran living in Panama, says he’s voting for the former first lady – largely because he believes Trump is a dangerous embarrassment for the country.
“The Berlin Wall came down and this crazy fool is talking about putting up another wall in the 21st century?” said Gordon, 68.
He turned and swept his arm across the vast room, teeming with thousands of vets – male and female, black and white, most old or aging.
“This room speaks to the greatness of America,” he said. “Because we served. We said ‘yes’ to the defense of this country.”
With polls tightening, the military vote could prove pivotal, particularly in swing states that are home to hundreds of thousands of vets and active-duty personnel. In North Carolina, active or former military makes up about 9 percent of the population in a state that the Republicans and Democrats narrowly traded during the last two presidential elections.
Joe Duncan, who lost his leg to a Vietnamese sniper almost 50 years ago, expressed contempt for Trump because “he’s never been to the Salvation Army.”
Tom Blanton, an Vietnam vet from Kings Mountain, took another route. When Clinton began speaking, he moved as close to the stage as security would allow. There, erect like a lone sentry, he applauded throughout most of her speech, his muffled claps clearly audible in the relative silence dominating most of the big room.
“I believe in her,” he said later. “She’s telling the truth.”
After the speech, Blanton worked his way up front to join the receiving line as a smiling Clinton shook hands on her way out of the hall.
When she took Blanton’s hand, the tall pony-tailed former soldier leaned deeply at the waist, and he and his candidate talked briefly ear to ear as the room slowly emptied.
Staff Writer Rachel Stone contributed.