© (Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)
Danny Hill, 50, retired staff sergeant served 23 years in the United States Army. (Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

Theron Martin, a US Army soldier in Ft. Benning, was immediately skeptical when he first came across a link to a magazine story alleging that President Trump called the soldiers killed in action « fools. » and « losers ».

Reading the report in the Atlantic, which began with a claim that Trump skipped a visit to a cemetery in France for fallen Americans because he was concerned the rain would ruin his hair, the 24-year-old from Montana was disheartened because the story was based on anonymous sources. He decided that allegations that the president repeatedly despised American service members could not be trusted.

« I don’t think so, » Martin said. “I think people are trying to ground it. It’s an election year. « In November, Martin said, he will vote for the president.

“He may have said stupid things; he often does, ”said Martin, who serves in the 1st Squad of the 16th Cavalry Regiment. “If he said that, it’s absolutely disrespectful… What a shame. But he’s still doing a good job as president. It deals with the economy and the Army. He increased our pay. « 

Martin shrugged as he contemplated that the commander-in-chief might have disrespected the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. « What are you going to do? » He said. « It doesn’t affect my life. »

© (Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)
Theron Martin, a US Army soldier in Ft. Benning, Georgia, plans to vote for Trump in November. He does not think the president has called those who died in military service « losers. » (Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

From the moment the Atlantic story went online on Sept. 3, citing first-hand accounts from Trump aides who declined to be identified, service members and veterans around the world have been trapped. between political responses in duel.

Trump and administration officials have been quick to deny the claims as a « hoax, » while Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden condemned the president, criticized his alleged comments as « disgusting » and urged him to « humbly apologize. »

Many veterans have sided with him. But active-duty service members have been more reticent, reflecting the military’s tradition of no-meddling policy. However, some are willing to comment.

Around Ft. Benning, one of the nation’s largest military installations, some active duty soldiers view the story as confirmation of Trump’s disdain for active duty soldiers, previously reflected in his boasts of avoiding going to Vietnam and his mockery of veterans who criticize him.

But a significant number of soldiers here in Georgia, an emerging battlefield state, echoed Martin in dismissing the report as the latest narrative of a liberal media intent to bring down the president.

« I think in this era of ‘caught in the act’ journalism, this is clearly a move to try to discredit the president, » said a captain who only gave his last name, Smith, because he said he was not allowed to speak politics while he was wearing the uniform.

The captain, who described himself as politically independent, said that after reading the magazine’s story, he read rebuttals from other officials, including Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton. However, now critical of the president, Bolton said it was « simply false » that the president skipped the visit to the cemetery to protect his hair.

Smith said he thought the claims were probably taken out of context.

« I am skeptical of almost everything I read in the newspapers, » he added. « The charges are only as good as the evidence in a court of public opinion would be. »

Few of the military service members who spoke officially appeared to believe the allegations, and those who did said they were not surprised.

© (Jennie Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)
Second Lt. Jacoby Evans of the 316th Cavalry believes Trump despised the fallen troops. Evans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and plans to vote for Joe Biden in November. (Jennie Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

« I can believe it came out of his mouth, » said 2nd Lt. Jacoby Evans of the 316th Cavalry. “He is quite ignorant what he said, but he has always made ignorant comments. It’s nothing new to me. « 

Still, Evans said it was « strange » to think of him as a military man under a president who supposedly asked, « Why should I go to that graveyard? It’s full of losers. »

« I joined (the Army) to protect America’s values, » Evans said. « We have a commander-in-chief, the face of the US, who sets a bad example. » Evans, who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, plans to vote for Biden in November.

In the past four years, Trump’s position among active duty service members has eroded, according to a Military Times poll. In 2016, a poll indicated they preferred Trump over Clinton by more than a 2-to-1 margin. But in polls this summer, even before the Atlantic story, nearly 50% reported having an « unfavorable opinion » of him. Trump. Biden had a 4-point lead, 41% to 37%.

« Trump has the lowest results among service members of any Republican presidential candidate since George W. Bush, » said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who specializes in civil-military relations. A former adviser to Bush in the White House, Feaver is an anti-Trump Republican.

He acknowledged that the Military Times annual survey tends to reflect more attitudes among career officers than among rank and file troops. In 2016, Feaver said, Trump had broad backing in the military because he promised to increase defense spending and allow more permissive rules of engagement. However, once he took office, many military leaders soon complained of chaos and a lack of clear goals.

The latest controversy could hurt Trump in hotly contested states like North Carolina, and even Georgia, which have large populations of active duty soldiers and veterans.

« This is a toxic story for Trump, » Feaver said. « He gets to the center of the re-election picture that he’s trying to present: that he’s a tough guy, he’s pro-military, he loves the flag, he loves America, and on the contrary, he’s the left, on Biden’s side, the which is dishonoring America. « 

VoteVets.org, an anti-Trump organization that says it represents 700,000 veterans and their families, released a campaign video last week with parents of American soldiers who died in service. « Donald Trump called our soldiers who have died ‘fools’ and ‘losers,’ » read a caption. « They (the fallen soldiers) cannot speak for themselves, but these 6 families speak for our dead. »

Still, even some Ft. Benning soldiers who aren’t enthusiastic about Trump remain skeptical.

« I am very critical of Trump, » said an official who declined to give his name. « He says a lot of silly things, but I would never believe such accusations without proof. »

Many soldiers in Columbus credited Trump for cutting overseas deployments, increasing the military budget and ushering in a 3.1% pay increase, the largest in a decade.

© (Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)
« I’m judging Trump by what he does rather than what someone says he said, » said Eric Dooling, 46, a retired infantryman who has served in Afghanistan and Somalia. (Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

« I’m judging Trump by what he does rather than what someone says he said, » said Eric Dooling, 46, a retired infantryman who served in countries like Afghanistan and Somalia. « When he gets off Air Force Eleven, he salutes the honor guard, shakes their hand. »

« If he said anything about the veterans who died during World War I, so be it, » Dooling said. « You know, there are many of us who are in the Army and we would say ‘those poor innocents’ because of the trench warfare they had to go through. »

Trump’s alleged comments in the magazine article referred to soldiers in wars throughout history, up to the present.

Danny Hill, 50, a retired staff sergeant who served in the Army for 23 years, credited Trump for pulling US troops out of countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Hill was shot out of a vehicle in Iraq in 2007, in an incident that killed two soldiers.

Hill said he does not believe Trump made the comments, but would support the president if he did, on free speech grounds.

« He’s almost like an American soldier, » Hill said. “We always say what we have in mind, we don’t bite our tongue. We stand firm in what we believe and also if we express something. He’s a strong American. « 

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