Pat Morris, a 44-year-old St. Paul banker and a father of two, signed up for the Kansas Army National Guard not long after 9/11. He was 26 years old, a college graduate with a good job and no debt.
“There was nothing in it for me,” Morris said last week. “I just felt a duty to my country to serve.”
His nine years in the National Guard included a deployment to Iraq in 2008 as a field artillery officer. Morris’ voice still catches when he discusses his battalion’s one death: An 18-year-old man, the youngest soldier in the unit.
Morris said he was disgusted when he read the story in the Atlantic on Sept. 3 quoting four anonymous sources speaking about President Donald Trump denigrating veterans and members of the military. They said Trump had referred to American war dead as “suckers” and “losers.”
What hit Morris hardest was hearing that Trump, while at Arlington National Cemetery, had wondered why war dead chose to serve in the first place: “What was in it for them?”
“He’s the commander in chief of this country, the highest point you can get,” Morris said. “Yet he can’t comprehend what has motivated someone to serve.”
The Atlantic article, many key aspects of which were quickly corroborated by the Associated Press, the Washington Post and Fox News, is opening up fresh divisions among Minnesota veterans. Trump’s military backers say they remain in support of the president and blame the mainstream media for advancing what they call damaging statements based on anonymous sources in a left-leaning magazine.
The reaction of nine-year Marine Corps veteran Tyler Kistner, a Republican running against Rep. Angie Craig for Minnesota’s Second Congressional District seat, was the complete opposite of Morris’.
Kistner did four overseas tours with the Marines. He spent five years with Special Operations — the Marine Raiders. The first thing he noticed with the Atlantic story was the anonymous sources.
“Having come from special ops and intelligence, verification was something we took very seriously,” Kistner said. “When I heard anonymous sources, it told me he didn’t do the digging to verify anything. And you saw literally the same day all these people in the administration going on record speaking against it, including [former National Security adviser John] Bolton. And Bolton is not a fan of the president.”
Kistner has been talking with fellow veterans, he said, and what he is hearing is that this report won’t affect Trump’s standing among veterans. What it will do, Kistner said, is further undermine trust in the media.
“It’s sad that the media has become an arm of the propaganda machine,” Kistner said.
Getting current members of the military or the National Guard to speak candidly about politics is difficult. Service members worry about getting in trouble for publicly criticizing a sitting commander in chief. The military ethos is to follow orders, not publicly criticize.
“As a senior leader it would be inappropriate for me to comment,” said Johanna Clyborne, a two-star general in the Minnesota National Guard. “As you rise in rank the perception between your personal and professional opinion blurs and leaders must adjust their actions appropriately. … I choose to make my statements as a citizen in private when I vote.”
In a calcified, tribalized nation where most Americans seem to have long since chosen sides, it seems likely the report will go down in history as one more bit of noise in a noisy, chaotic election season.
For military veterans on the right, this report falls in line with four years of unfair mainstream media attacks on Trump. They see a president who has been strong for the military, increasing funding, improving the VA and securing bigger pay bumps.
For military veterans on the left, this report is the latest instance of Trump denigrating the military, going back to when he said John McCain is “not a war hero. … I like people who weren’t captured.” They see the Atlantic report as consistent with a president who has long looked down at veterans.
“It’s reaffirmed for some their belief that he doesn’t really support the military,” said Jeremy Butler, chief executive of the nonpartisan Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “And for those on the other side, the fact they were all anonymous sources just feed the narrative of fake news and the deep state and people trying to bring Trump down. These articles with all anonymous sources, it doesn’t help the overall conversation from a substantive point of view. It’s just going to be one more piece of noise.”
The president’s relationship with the military has become increasingly strained since Trump took office.
In June, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wrote a scathing critique of Trump, accusing his former boss of dividing the nation as the riots intensified after the police killing of George Floyd. He accused the president of ordering the U.S. military to violate the Constitution by clearing peaceful protesters from around the White House so he could make an appearance outside a nearby church.
A recent Military Times poll taken before the Atlantic’s report shows a surprising trend among active-duty service members’ views of Trump. Based on more than 1,000 active-duty troops surveyed before the political conventions, views on Trump have steadily declined since his election in 2016, and service members now show a “slight but significant preference” for Joe Biden: Four percentage points.
Nearly half of the respondents — 49.9% — said they had an unfavorable view of the president, compared with about 38% who had a favorable view.
Morris and other national Democrats hope that Trump’s reported comments will become a sea-change moment in the election, though he said he believes that Trump’s base has already made up its mind that anti-Trump reports in the mainstream media are lies.
Fred Wellman, a lifelong Republican who served three tours in Iraq, is now the senior adviser for veterans affairs for the Lincoln Project. The political action committee connects former and current Republicans to defeat Trump in 2020.
Wellman’s phone has been blowing up since the Atlantic report: “It cuts to the very core of who we are as military members,” he said. “We revere our dead.” He knows the base won’t shift. But he aims to move only 1 to 4% of Republican or independent voters away from Trump.
For an election that could be won on the margins, Wellman said the report could be “cataclysmic” for Republicans.
Dan Stecker, a 44-year-old union electrician in south Minneapolis, conducted airborne long-range surveillance in the Army for four years in the 1990s. He keeps in touch with fellow veterans through Facebook.
Stecker was disgusted by the report but not surprised. He instinctively believed it. It felt right in line with what Trump said about McCain back in 2015. What did surprise him was how veteran friends who are Trump supporters didn’t give merit to the report.
“If they’re Trump supporters, they’re Trump supporters, and they choose not to believe it,” Stecker said. “I really think we’re told, ‘Fake news, fake news, fake news.’ If it doesn’t fit their narrative, it doesn’t fit their narrative.”
Marko Milosevic, who lives in the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities, is a retired Army Ranger who spent 50 months in Iraq and Afghanistan during 12 overseas deployments. He voted for George W. Bush twice, but he has never trusted Trump as a supporter of the military.
But he also sees something deeper at play here. There’s been a generations-long dislike of the Democratic Party by veterans, Milosevic said, stemming back to the reaction veterans received when returning from Vietnam.
Milosevic believes this is a time when Democrats can mend that historical strain. And he fully expects more reports like last week’s to come out after the election.
“People should just listen to what this man says,” Milosevic said. “He’ll tell you what he thinks and what he’ll do. All you’ve got to do is listen.”