Veterans Advocate Fires Back at Donald Trump's PTSD Comments: "It's a Teachable Moment"

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Donald Trump

Hours after the Republican nominee told a veterans group that military suicides befall people who "can't handle it," a prominent activist explains why political leaders need to be careful when they talk about PTSD: "Unfortunately, Trump is not a precise person."

If a presidential candidate were to make inflammatory and controversial remarks about soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a sane observer might think that an afternoon speech in front of a room full of military veterans wasn’t the time or place to go there. But this is October 2016, right in the thick of a most peculiar election cycle, and on Monday afternoon Republican nominee Donald Trump went there — suggesting military suicides happen to people who “can’t handle it” —  while standing before a panel at the Retired American Warriors PAC in Herndon, Va.

Trump was asked how he would support and improve treatment programs for PTSD and other behavior issues that soldiers face, and his reply left the room stunned — and initiated a minor offensive on social media. “When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of folks in this room have seen many times over and you're strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can't handle it,” said Trump. “They see horror stories, they see events you couldn't see in a movie, nobody would believe it.”

Trump’s advisor’s quickly reacted to downplay the resulting outrage, pointing to the larger context of the candidate’s comments — which did, in fact, address the many issues returning veterans face and the challenges to best treat them. But still, advocacy leaders in the field and the masses on Twitter had ample reason to take umbrage at his comments.  

One of the most forceful critics was Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a group dedicated to supporting the interests of post-9/11 veterans. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Rieckhoff was emphatic that his objectives are not political. “It’s a teachable moment for Mr. Trump and for America,” he said. “When political leaders talk about things like PTSD and suicide, they need to be responsible and precise. And unfortunately, Trump is not a precise person.”

When asked to explain why Trump’s comments would harm his constituency, IAVA’s founder cited three primary issues. “When people in power use terms like ‘killing yourself’ and ‘mental problems,’ it perpetuates the stigma, it compounds the impression that these veterans are broken, and it can discourage them from seeking help,” said Rieckhoff. “And also, he assumed that no one in the audience has PTSD, which is a really unlikely assumption in a room full of war veterans.”

Rieckhoff said he doesn’t expect Trump to apologize (“I know better than that”) but hoped that the controversy will sharpen the candidate’s awareness of the issue. “Obama is extremely careful and nuanced with his language about veteran suicide and PTSD, but it didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “There’s a steep learning curve, and maybe Trump will master it.”

Curiously, the IAVA CEO feels that the entertainment industry can speed up the curve. “The last time there was a conversation like this in the public, it was started by American Sniper and before that, Hurt Locker,” said Rieckhoff. “Hollywood can communicate about these issues in a visceral way that politics can’t. The end product is the public has an elevated conversation about these problems.”

What does he hope that Trump and others in need of education will learn? “Getting help for a mental health injury is not a sign of weakness,” said Rieckhoff. “It’s a demonstration of strength.”

See some of the reactions on social media Monday below.