The forgotten soldiers: Trump isn’t keeping his promises to veterans—and they’re starting to notice

Sacramento area veterans say loose-talking president doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of war

Army veteran Bill Randolph opposes the Veteran Affairs office’s plan to close about 1,000 health care centers.

Army veteran Bill Randolph opposes the Veteran Affairs office’s plan to close about 1,000 health care centers.

Photo by Lucas Fitzgerald

Juan Gomez sat in a dark room reliving a nightmare.

Gunshot wounds, dismembered bodies and images of war flashed in his mind, unbidden and unrelenting. The images hit him while he was watching TV at home with his girlfriend and a group of their friends. He jerked up from the couch and locked himself in a room with no lights to ride out the emotional storm.

The panic attack, he would come to find, was a symptom of the post-traumatic stress disorder he was diagnosed with in 2014, a gift from the 27 months he spent doing military tours through Iraq and Afghanistan. Gomez had brought the wars home with him.

After suffering another attack when he saw Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps candidates in passing while on a drive in Chico, Gomez sought help at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health clinic in Rancho Cordova. Gomez said he found the experience incredibly difficult.

Clinic staff, he claimed, were more interested in giving out pills than putting him in contact with a psychologist, which is what he said he requested time and again. The attacks started happening daily. Seeing someone in uniform or smelling iron, which reminded him of blood, set him off. At a certain point, Gomez said he seriously considered suicide. That was in 2015.

More than two years later, the country is being run by a man who campaigned, in part, on his pledge to drastically reform a mismanaged agency that left returning service members languishing for months to see a doctor.

As a candidate, Donald Trump was fond of blasting the VA, promising that only he could reform an agency that failed to improve under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Calling the VA “the most corrupt agency in the United States,” he told an audience in Las Vegas that “you fix it by getting Trump elected president,” the Washington Times reported in July 2015.

And veterans heard that message, voting for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin, Time reported in January.

Now that he’s in office, there is little evidence that President Trump has kept his promises to the veterans who overwhelmingly supported him.

One of Trump’s first moves in office was implementing a federal hiring freeze that left the VA unable to fill thousands of vacant positions, including hundreds of nurses and doctors, USA Today reported.

The hiring freeze was eventually lifted, but not before people like Carrie Farmer, a health policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, told that it would “just exacerbate the problems they already have.”

While the president’s recent budget proposal includes $186.5 billion for the VA next fiscal year—up $6.4 billion from the previous year—CNBC reported last month that the increase doesn’t appear to go toward PTSD or mental health care. Meanwhile, Trump’s budget would cut $3.2 billion from a VA compensation program for disabled veterans unable to work due to their PTSD, the same report stated.

Trump has also yet to deliver on a 24-hour hotline he promised veterans on the campaign trail. The hotline was part of a 10-point plan that candidate Trump said he would implement for the veterans if elected president. Trump’s campaign has since removed that plan from its website.

In April, Trump did sign an executive order creating an office within the VA to investigate alleged misconduct, shield whistleblowers and remove barriers that prevent the removal of bad employees. His cabinet secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, also announced a new task force to ferret out fraud and abuse within the agency.

Shulkin, who served the agency during the Obama administration, is one of the president’s few cabinet picks to win bipartisan support. Fittingly, Shulkin has differed from the president when it comes to one of Trump’s biggest ideas for fixing the VA—privatizing care.

As a cabinet nominee, the Washington Post reported, Shulkin told the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs that the “Department of Veterans Affairs will not be privatized under my watch.” But Shulkin serves at the pleasure of his president.

On May 3, he told the House of Representatives that the VA was looking to potentially close more than 1,100 VA facilities in a bid to shift veterans’ care to the private sector. The plan Shulkin presented calls for Congress and the VA to prioritize the closure of buildings Shulkin described as “underutilized” or “vacant.” The Pentagon has used a similar joint process to evaluate its bases since 1988.

But this plan to redirect veterans into the private sector by providing them vouchers worries Bill Randolph, an Army veteran and president of the Democratic Veterans of Sacramento County.

“Right now the VA is talking about closing down—or not reopening—about 1,000 centers providing health care,” said Randolph, who ended a 25-year military career in 2015. Instead, Randolph would like to see the Trump administration proposing funds to keep those facilities afloat.

Citing its policy, the VA declined to comment on Trump or on his budget outline.

Beyond the ongoing alleged issues at the VA, many veterans are worried about the president’s impacts on the world stage.

For Gomez, who spent 15 months in Iraq and 12 months in Afghanistan, Trump’s campaign trail bluster that “torture absolutely works” was most troubling.

“As a former interrogator, I can tell you with an absolute certainty that torture doesn’t work,” Gomez told SN&R. “Once it stopped being employed on the battlefield was when we started to get more valuable information.”

On January 29, Trump greenlighted a rare ground operation in Yemen that devolved into a massive firefight, leaving a U.S. sailor dead and three other service members wounded. Trump’s decision, which he made over dinner with military advisers and top aides, drew criticism from Sen. John McCain and others.

On January 30, 200 military veterans signed an open letter to the president criticizing his Muslim travel ban, which also blocked refugees who had aided U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Blowback continued as Trump ratcheted up tensions with both Afghanistan and North Korea, dropping the United States’ largest nonnuclear bomb on the first and openly predicting “a major, major conflict” with the second.

Gomez said he worried that the president doesn’t understand the real costs of sparking an armed conflict, which the local veteran said now looks unavoidable.

“The political balance is on the thinnest [ice] that it’s been in years—since probably the Cuban missile crisis,” Gomez said. “It’s inevitable to imagine that this administration will go to war.”

John Motter, a Los Angeles resident and active member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War, echoed those concerns. Especially concerning to him was the idea of a ground invasion in Syria, which Motter imagined as a bleak sequel to the Iraq quagmire.

“I’d like to think that the American public has learned its lesson about the cost of wars and everything, but I feel like they’re so disconnected,” Motter said. “People research an automobile more than they’ll research going to war.”

Trump is certainly planning to spend as if he’s going to war.

Trump’s latest budget proposal—released May 23 to a storm of criticism—would ladle out an additional $52 billion in discretionary spending to the Department of Defense by cutting other federal programs.

Meanwhile, Trump’s plans to kill the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a measure that would leave 23 million Americans uninsured by 2026 would also hurt those veterans covered by Medicaid.

Randolph criticized that tradeoff, as well as the president’s newly inked arms deal with Saudi Arabia, worth $350 billion over 10 years.

“If you’re not taking care of the service members and you’re just giving huge contracts to civilian military contractors, that’s kind of a farce, too,” added Randolph, who served 11 months in Afghanistan. “I’m not confident … that our current president really has any kind of clue as to military operations and foreign affairs. I think the budget just kind of reflects a pandering to his base.”

As for Gomez, today he describes his PTSD as “under control” and said he is “absolutely in a much better place.”

But that was no thanks to the VA.

Gomez graduated from UC Davis in 2014 and currently works as a claims adjuster with Blue Shield, through which he has private insurance that provides him the help he sought in vain at the VA. He is finishing up his master’s degree in social work and hopes to become a licensed clinical social worker in the two years after his graduation this December.

David Schafer, acting associate chief of staff for the VA Northern California Health Care System, which operates the Sacramento Mental Health Clinic, said that “protected patient information” prevented him from commenting on Gomez’s case. Speaking generally, Schafer, who has held his position for about a year and a half, said that the VA is always looking to improve its care of veterans.

“We’ve got a lot of innovation that has come on stream in the last two years. We’re focusing on ways to get veterans [the] care that they need,” Schafer said. “I get a sense from the veterans that I’ve talked with that they are happy with the care they are receiving.”

Regardless of where the VA stands today, Gomez said he wouldn’t wish his darkest moments on anyone. Gomez added that he is in full support of a strong military strategy to combat terrorism. But he and Motter both agreed that returning from a war zone is an impossibly difficult process few will ever comprehend.

And Gomez is worried that the most powerful man in the world understands this sacrifice the least.

“I don’t think he appreciates the seriousness of what it is to send someone in [to war],” Gomez said.