Donald Trump was greeted with whoops and roars as he rock-starred onto the stage Tuesday before thousands of military veterans in Charlotte. Ten minutes later, he mentioned his Democratic candidate by name for the first time.
“You know her. ‘Crooked’ Hillary Clinton,” Trump said. “And she is crooked.”
“Lock her up,” several vets yelled from the front rows.
“God bless you,” added Stewart Christenson of Ogden, Utah, as he filmed Trump with his smart phone, 20 rows back in the vast hall.
Trump later noted that Clinton had appeared before the same audience the day before.
“I guess she didn’t do so good,” he quipped, again to sustained roars.
The energy flowing between the Republican presidential candidate and the delegates to the national convention for the Veterans of Foreign Wars was that visceral, leaving little doubt where most of the vets’ allegiances lie in the upcoming presidential election.
When Clinton entered the hall Monday, she received the polite applause one might associate with a high school recital. The same convention commander who had urged the crowds to be polite to both candidates, then proceeded to mispronounce (‘RahDAM’) Clinton’s middle name. Tuesday, he allowed himself to be pulled into a bear hug with Trump.
When the New York businessman first appeared on stage, dozens of veterans, men and women – many of them elderly, most of them white – pushed to the front to get Trump and running mate Mike Pence on camera. Arguments broke out over sight lines as old soldiers in wheelchairs or with walkers yelled for others not to block their views.
That Trump has had little previous involvement with veterans, sought and received five deferments to avoid Vietnam, then later questioned the heroism of Sen. John McCain, a longtime Vietnam prisoner of war, appeared to be of little consequence.
“It doesn’t matter,” Christenson said before the speech. “When Donald Trump talks about veterans he starts to cry. You can tell he cares. Twenty bucks says he starts crying today.”
Trump didn’t cry during his 20-minute speech. But he touched familiar buttons that frequently brought cheers – an overtaxed country, a rigged political system, Third World infrastructure, along with Clinton’s alleged mishandling of the attack in Benghazi, Libya as well as her email.
The momentum in the room slowed somewhat when Trump walked through his 10-point plan for improving veteran medical care, including his pledge to answering a White House hotline himself.
Chris Franklin, a VFW medical liaison with Veterans Administration hospitals from Columbus, Miss., said most of Trump’s so-called reforms are already in place.
“If all you have is Benghazi and the emails, you don’t have a lot to say to vets. Tell me something new,” said Franklin, an African-American. “I feel like he came into our house and insulted us.”
Rebecca Wischmeyer, a retired VA nurse from Columbia, Mo., though, said Trump’s pledge to reform veterans medical care resonated with her, particularly the part about holding management and executive staff more accountable.
The loudest burst of veteran applause came when Trump promised to cut off immigration from Syria and “other dangerous countries” to block the importation of “the same terror that our American soldiers are fighting overseas.”
“He has a big heart,” said Mary Touve, a VFW Auxiliary member from Minneapolis would was wearing a Trump button. “He says it like it is and it’s all about the U.S.A.”
Mary Lynn Church, a VFW district commander from Cleveland, said she trusts Trump to fix things, even if he has no government service to pull from. “If he’s been bankrupt six times and is still a billionaire, he knows what’s he’s doing,” she said.
Polls show Trump with a big lead among active and former military personnel. But the hall was not universally on Trump’s side. A quarter of the delegates interviewed over the past two days voiced support for Clinton. Still others said they were still making up their minds.
“It’s a broader issue than veteran affairs,” said a female Illinois VFW convention delegate who asked that she not be named. “It’s our country.”
Several vets, many of them African-American, left before Trump began to speak.
One of them, Rose Ann Clark, a 20-year vet from Panama, says Trump’s immigration policies indicate “He doesn’t feel that I’m a human being.”
“All he thinks about is himself, like he’s the only person on earth,” she said. “What has he done for veterans? What has he done for anybody?”
Most of those who stayed, however, liked what they heard. So, apparently, did Trump.
“We love you,” someone shouted in the middle of his speech.
“I love you, too,” he fired back.