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Trump's Relationship To The Military, According To 2 Veterans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin today by focusing on President Trump's relationship with the U.S. military. This comes after an explosive report from The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that asserts that the president privately disparaged service members and even called fallen service members, quote, "losers and suckers."

At a press conference at the White House yesterday, the president vehemently denied the reporting and called the story a, quote, "hoax." But in the course of his remarks, he made disparaging comments about his former chief of staff, retired General John Kelly, whose son died in combat.

Now, we want to mention that NPR has not independently verified these stories, which relied on unnamed sources. But we still feel that the president's relationship to the military does bear scrutiny as he makes his case for reelection, so we reached out to two military veterans to give us their thoughts.

Major Jas Boothe served in the Army and Army Reserve. She is a disabled veteran, and she's the president and founder of Final Salute. That's a nonprofit that works to help homeless women veterans, as she once was. And she's with us from Winchester, Va.

Jas Boothe, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

JAS BOOTHE: Oh, thank you for the opportunity.

MARTIN: Fred Wellman is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and is now the senior adviser on Veterans Affairs with The Lincoln Project. That's a political action committee formed by former Republicans working to defeat President Trump in the next election. And he joins us from Park City, Utah.

Fred Wellman, Lieutenant Colonel, thank you so much for joining us as well.

FRED WELLMAN: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Thank you. And would it be OK if I started by thanking you both for your service?

BOOTHE: Yes, it's fine.

WELLMAN: Hello.

BOOTHE: Thank you.

MARTIN: I understand it's controversial in some parts. I just wanted to ask your permission, so thank you for your service, both of you. So while we know the president has denied these comments, I do want to ask both of you - Major Boothe, Jas, I'll start with you. Both you and your husband are veterans, and your son is an active duty service member now. Do you remember how you reacted when you heard this?

BOOTHE: I - obviously, we didn't hear these things from the president directly, so I can only go by the remarks that he has made directly towards other service members such as Senator John McCain and on behalf and to some Gold Star families, which I feel as a leader in that position to be inappropriate.

But also, you know, to the Gold Star families and those that serve, remarks like that does not take away anything from their service and their sacrifice. And me as a military member, we always try to be, you know, very impartial. And, like I tell most people, after going through basic training, there isn't much that was said to me that could hurt my feelings. My drill sergeants did a very good job.

(LAUGHTER)

BOOTHE: I've seen the worst of the worst. But I think that we are affected more by what goes on in our direct line of leadership as opposed to what is said in the political arena.

MARTIN: Just to remind people of what you're talking about when you referenced Senator John McCain, on the campaign trail in 2015, he attacked the late senator, who was, of course, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, saying he was not a hero and that, quote, "I like people who weren't captured." And he did subsequently call Senator McCain a loser in other contexts, in part because he disagreed with him.

Fred Wellman, what about you? How did you react when you heard these remarks?

WELLMAN: I think in this case, I'm not necessarily surprised. I mean, he's said much of this in public already. But I had to tell you, I (laughter) was - I was in fury. I was enraged. The thing about being a serviceman, being - going to war - and I had the fortunate - unfortunate experience - I went to war four times. In Desert Storm, I lost two men as a young platoon leader. I did three tours in Iraq, where I lost both Americans and Iraqi partners.

The thing is, when you do that, when you volunteer to serve, you put your life on the line for your country, there's this code. And the code is, no matter what happens to me - if I'm captured, if I'm injured, if I'm killed - my country will bring me home. It's such an ingrained part of our culture and our code of honor, right?

And these words - to say that someone in a cemetery were losers who got killed - right? - or that a POW is a loser in some way because they got captured - it cuts to the very core of the military ethics.

MARTIN: So, Jas, I know you and your husband both have experienced disabilities. And at the end of Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting, he includes an anecdote about a 2018 military parade at which President Trump, quote, "asked his staff not to include wounded veterans on the grounds that spectators would feel uncomfortable in the presence of amputees." He's quoted in the piece as saying, "nobody wants to see that."

How do you react to that - recognizing, as you said before, that you weren't present for these remarks if they were, in fact, made? Other news organizations have verified some of these remarks. But how does that strike you - those comments about, you know, nobody wants to see that?

BOOTHE: Well, for me, obviously, he doesn't speak for everybody. But also, seeing a wounded warrior - that tells you the service and sacrifice. So for you to want to remove that is not telling the whole story because you are removing the casualties of war that people can't see. But for me personally, as he is seen as a leader by virtue of his position of being president, if he's saying these things, it is not leadership quality. It is something that I think the people around him should hold him accountable for.

I think a lot of people around him are afraid to say things to them because, hey, we serve the office of the president. But also, you serve the American people. And I also believe that - you know, I've met General Milley. I respect - highly respect General Milley. These offices have doors for a reason, and I'm pretty sure there has been some closed-door conversation that we're not privy to - and I would hope because General Milley by my definition is not a pushover.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about that. You referenced General Milley. General Mark Milley is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What role do you think that leaders like General Milley or retired leaders like General Mattis or General Kelly should play here?

WELLMAN: Well, I think unequivocally for me, I do believe the uniformed generals and service members need to keep their counsel private. I would disagree heavily with the idea that General Mattis and especially General Kelly should remain silent.

One, I do believe that it is tough, difficult for generals to speak. But in this case, those specific gentlemen, Kelly - they're now trying to say, well, look - we're four-star generals, and we shouldn't be talking about politics. Like, OK. That's super. But unfortunately, the political positions they took completely abrogate that argument.

Again, we rely on an all-volunteer military. It relies on America's parents to trust that when we give our sons and daughters, like Jas has and like I have, to the United States military that their lives are in the hands of people who respect that, and they'll be trained and equipped and only deployed when necessary. I think this is an important moment. We do need to know the heart of the commander in chief.

MARTIN: That's Fred Wellman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and senior adviser on Veterans Affairs at The Lincoln project. We also heard from Jas Boothe, retired Army major and the president and founder of Final Salute.

Thank you both so much for talking with us. And once again, thank you for your service.

BOOTHE: Thank you.

WELLMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.