During a campaign rally for Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on February 19, the eve of that state's primary, a group of 10 veterans unfurled a banner reading, "Mr. Trump: Veterans are not props for hate. We stand with our Muslim sisters and brothers." Shortly after, they were escorted out of the Trump rally by security.
Jose Vasquez, who serves on the board of directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), condemns Trump's call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, emphasizing that many of his fellow veterans also oppose such measures.
"Some of us have served overseas and have worked side-by-side with Iraqi interpreters or people in Afghanistan working with the American troops there, and also interacted with Iraqi and Afghan people, and know that not everybody who is Muslim is evil," Vasquez told Truthout.
Vasquez served from 1992 to 1996 as a cavalry scout in the US Army and then as a combat medic, nurse and EMT instructor from 1997 to 2005 before applying to be discharged as a conscientious objector. He was honorably discharged in May 2007 at the rank of staff sergeant.
Vasquez is one of 14 antiwar veterans and conscientious objectors traveling along the campaign trail to hold both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates accountable for their rhetoric on veterans' issues and foreign policy. Vasquez says their group wants to show that Trump and other candidates are simply pandering to vets rather than substantively addressing their needs, and that many of their proposals would harm their interests rather than help.
The contingent is associated with IVAW and its sister organization Veterans for Peace, as well as Beyond the Choir, a strategy group that is working to help veterans become leaders in progressive social justice movements by providing a strong critique of foreign policy at a time when the national antiwar movement has waned. In the past few weeks, they have directly challenged GOP candidates, including Marco Rubio and John Kasich, and others who have since dropped out of the race, including Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum, on issues such as the Iraq war, welcoming refugees to the United States, Islamophobia and war profiteering.
The group is injecting veterans' concerns into a presidential debate, in which, for the first time in modern US politics, no candidate from either party currently in the primary race has ever served in the military. (Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham and Jim Webb had served, but are no longer in the race.)
Veterans are making clear that they - the "troops" that everyone claims to "support" - are being exploited by extremist politicians.
Vasquez asked Santorum about the deportations of immigrant veterans after their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and what he would do to prevent such deportations in the future. According to Vasquez and others, Santorum was shocked to hear that veterans were being deported. Other candidates simply snubbed the vets, such as Bush when he was confronted about his support for the Iraq war.
In each forum, the veterans are making clear that they - the "troops" that everyone claims to "support" - are being exploited by extremist politicians whose goals differ vastly from their own.
"[We're] trying to direct these campaigns and ask them questions in a way that makes them think about issues that they haven't," says another conscientious objector, Jacob Bridge, who served in the Marine Corps from 2011 to 2016. "[We're] trying to shift conversations so that they actually have to represent our wants and needs. ... We're getting some of these politicians on the record with our bird-dogging attempts, and we're not letting events go off, especially like Trump's, where they can just kind of say whatever they want and expect no repercussions from these groups that they use."
One of the issues this contingent is working to highlight and pressure candidates to address is an ongoing right-wing effort to privatize the Veterans Affairs (VA) health-care system through an AstroTurf group funded and created by the Koch brothers, Concerned Veterans for America, which advocates free-market proposals to "fix" the problems plaguing the VA.
"I sort of got the same canned response from everybody, which was, 'Oh, we're not trying to privatize the VA; we want veterans to have a choice,' which seems to be the official talking point for people who want to privatize the VA," Perry O'Brien of Beyond the Choir told Truthout. O'Brien served as a medic in the Army from 2001 to 2004, and deployed to Afghanistan in 2003. "A lot of the candidates on the Republican side have sort of unofficially endorsed [privatizing the VA health-care system] by ... talking about versions of it under the auspices of creating 'choice' for veterans."
O'Brien pointed to his experience watching the private sector in action during his time in Afghanistan, where he saw "obscene levels of graft, waste, fraud and abuse perpetrated by private contractors in the areas of the occupation that were outsourced and privatized." He says these abuses have made a lot of veterans understandably skeptical about the private sector's ability to solve any of the problems at the VA.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates have vied to supply the strongest rebuke of President Obama's plan to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer its prisoners to their home countries or to a US prison. Sen. Marco Rubio said the plan would be tantamount to handing over the base to the Cuban government. "We are not giving back an important naval base to an anti-American, communist dictatorship," he said. Sen. Ted Cruz compared the plan to former President Jimmy Carter's signing of the Panama Canal Treaty.
"Politicians saying that the Iraq war was a mistake doesn't begin to get at the hundreds of thousands of lives lost."
As the GOP candidates try to one-up each other to reject a move by the president that once held wide bipartisan support, they are also volleying over how best to expand the role of the US military, both domestically and abroad. Most of the candidates have advocated for beefing up and "modernizing" the armed forces and intelligence spheres, which would require increasing military spending. It's the components of a foreign policy agenda that antiwar veterans say would not just harm those who serve in the armed forces, but also the US public and the victims of US imperialism across the globe more broadly.
"Politicians saying that the Iraq war was a mistake doesn't begin to get at the hundreds of thousands of lives lost," O'Brien said. "I think there's no question that the war in Iraq led to the creation of what we now call ISIS, and the struggles in Syria. You can draw a pretty clear causal line between the invasion of Iraq and the [foreign policy] challenges that we face today, not to mention the collapse of our own economy and the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been killed. I think it's fair to say that there's very little of our current political situation abroad or at home that hasn't been dramatically negatively impacted by [Iraq's] invasion."
Military spending accounts for more than 50 percent of all US discretionary spending, according to the National Priorities Project. President Obama's fiscal 2017 budget includes a proposed Pentagon budget of $582.7 billion, up from a defense budget of $580.3 billion for fiscal 2016. An analysis of the largest defense budgets in 2015 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies shows that US defense spending easily dwarfs all other countries, individually, and is almost as much as 14 other countries' budgets combined. Antiwar vets on the campaign trail argue that even just cutting the US military budget by a small percentage would provide the US public with more social services.
"There isn't a single [GOP] candidate who actually addresses the problem of militarism, which to me means getting the military influence out of middle schools and out of high schools, drawing down the military's size, decreasing the budget and using that extra money for social health care," Bridge said. "They're really all about a bigger and bigger military."
But it's not just Republicans' positions on military expansionism that the veterans want to challenge - the problem also extends to the Democratic candidates. "The Democrats in general fall less into the war hawk camp than certainly the current field of Republicans. However, I think it does matter that [Hillary] Clinton not just supported the war in Iraq but really rallied behind it," O'Brien told Truthout, warning against her hawkish record.
While the contingent was generally supportive of Bernie Sanders' emphasis on diplomacy, history of opposition to the Iraq war and rejection of increases to defense spending that come at the expense of domestic social spending, they cautioned that no one politician can be a solution to the sprawling US military-industrial complex, and that all the candidates need to be held accountable to veterans and everyone else who is impacted by US militarism and interventionism.
If given the chance, Bridge said he'd challenge both Clinton and Sanders on their willingness to continue the use of drone warfare in the war on terror. "[Drones] are the strongest source of ISIS recruitment, because we have a lot of civilian casualties over there that we refuse to acknowledge," he said.
Both major parties have received campaign contributions from the arms industry, something the veterans are also working to highlight in their electoral activism. So far during the 2016 election cycle, defense contractors have contributed nearly $10 million to politicians, with most of that going to Republicans. But, of the top 20 recipients of the arms industry's cash, including congressional candidates, Hillary Clinton is ranked number three, receiving $256,050 in contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In fact, she has received the most contributions from the defense sector of any presidential candidate, with Ted Cruz coming in second, having received $87,997. Sanders' campaign has received $$98,057 in contributions.
"The idea that you can profit off a machine that's only used, really, to destroy property and people, I think is a perverse thing, and then I think that the companies that profit off that would then inject that money into the political process is totally, totally wrong," Bridge said. "It totally warps what a democracy is."
But the vets aren't just trying to challenge the candidates and hold them accountable on militarism and warfare abroad. They are also organizing beyond the election, pushing issues they view as central to the well-being of veterans, such as expanding access to the VA health-care system, and support for vets with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
The VA health-care system came under national scrutiny when CNN reported in 2014 that 40 veterans had died while waiting for care at Veterans Health Administration facilities in Phoenix, Arizona, and an internal VA audit later revealed that more than 100,000 veterans waited more than 90 days for care or never received it.
Both Democratic and Republican candidates have promised to reform the VA, pledging additional funding for PTSD and TBI treatment, job training and placement services, and to end waste, fraud and mismanagement within the VA system. However, the antiwar veterans don't buy all of these promises; they remain united in highlighting the threat of some Republican candidates' vague rhetoric about giving veterans the option of using public funds to see private sector providers.
The group was more divided over charges that Sanders allowed the VA scandal of 2014 to unfold on his watch as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, with some saying the problems at the VA predated Sanders' tenure on the committee and that the VA has long been underfunded and ill-equipped to meet the needs of a surge of veterans created by the global war on terror. Still, others said Sanders does share some of the blame for the lack of oversight, although they also praised him for having the strongest record of all the candidates in terms of authoring and co-sponsoring legislation that has substantially improved the lives of veterans, such as the post-9/11 GI Bill.
Regardless of who becomes president, however, the activists see their work with Beyond the Choir and the 2016 election as an opportunity to promote the voices of antiwar veterans and recruit other veterans who are connected to racial, economic and climate justice movements like Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15.
"Many of the so-called 'domestic' issues are intimately connected with issues of foreign policy, war, militarism and imperialism, and veterans are the ones who are best positioned to draw those connections, and to help lead a broader progressive movement in a way that encompasses those issues," O'Brien said. "It's not so much about bringing back a separate, stand-alone peace movement that is organized around opposition to a particular war, but a more durable, long-term progressive alignment that includes those issues and strategically recognizes intersections."