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Trump suggests military members with mental health issues aren’t ‘strong’ and ‘can’t handle it’

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally, Monday, Oct. 3, 2016, in Pueblo, Colo. (John Locher / AP)
By Sean Sullivan and Jenna Johnson Washington Post

Donald Trump told a group of military veterans on Monday that some members of the military develop mental health issues because they are not “strong” and “can’t handle it.”

“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat, they see things that maybe a lot of the 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,” the Republican presidential nominee told an audience of military veterans at an event in Northern Virginia on Monday morning. “And they see horror stories, they see events that you couldn’t see in a movie — nobody would believe it.”

Mental health advocates have been trying for decades to destigmatize depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other issues in hopes of empowering people to not be afraid to seek medical help. The stigma surrounding mental health has been especially difficult to fight in the military, where many service members think that they should handle these issues on their own and that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Suicide has become an epidemic among veterans, and more than 20 end their lives each day.

Trump said these suicides often occur because veterans are not able to quickly make an appointment for “what could be a simple procedure, a simple prescription.”

Trump’s campaign defended the candidate’s comments and accused the media of taking his words out of context.

“The media continues to operate as the propaganda arm of Hillary Clinton as they took Mr. Trump’s words out of context in order to deceive voters and veterans – an appalling act that shows they are willing to go to any length to carry water for their candidate of choice,” retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, one of Trump’s top advisers, said in a statement. “Mr. Trump was highlighting the challenges veterans face when returning home after serving their country.”

Marine Staff Sgt. Chad Robichaux, whose question Trump was answering in his remarks, issued a statement after the event calling it “sickening that anyone would twist Mr. Trump’s comments.” Robichaux, who suffered from PTSD, added: “I took his comments to be thoughtful and understanding of the struggles many veterans have.”

Monday’s town-hall-style event in Herndon, Virginia, was hosted by a political action group called Retired American Warriors. Trump gave prepared remarks and then fielded questions from the friendly audience. One combat veteran asked Trump what he would do to end the “social engineering” in the military, which now allows women and transgender people to serve. Trump agreed that the military has become too “politically correct” and said he would follow the recommendations of top military leaders.

“We have a politically correct military, and it’s getting more and more politically correct every day,” said Trump, who received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War. “And a lot of the great people in this room don’t even understand how it’s possible to do that. And that’s through intelligence, not through ignorance – believe me – because some of the things that they’re asking you to do and be politically correct about are ridiculous.”

Trump’s comments came during his first campaign event since new revelations about his personal taxes, which have drawn intense scrutiny, but he did not mention the New York Times report on Saturday that said he declared a loss of $916 million on his 1995 income tax returns, which could have enabled him to avoid paying federal income taxes for 18 years.

Instead, Trump continued to criticize Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state and laid out his plan to counter the threat of cyberattacks, an issue that came up during the presidential debate last week, although he struggled to provide a clear answer.

“Hillary Clinton’s only experience in cybersecurity involved her criminal scheme to violate federal law,” Trump said, referencing Clinton’s emails. A Justice Department criminal investigation of Clinton’s email practices resulted in no charges against her.

Trump said the threat of cyberattacks from the governments of countries such as China, North Korea and Russia constitutes “one of our most critical” national security concerns. As president, Trump said, he would promptly commission a review of cyber-defenses and weaknesses and ensure that the issue is a high priority.

However, Trump has sent mixed messages about safeguarding against online attacks from foreign intruders. During the summer, he called on Russia to hack Clinton’s emails in hopes of recovering the ones that she said were personal and deleted.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” Trump said in July.

Trump said those who violate rules governing classified information should be prosecuted to the “fullest extent of the law.” And he claimed that “lately, we’re more interested in protecting the criminals than making sure we’re strong and powerful.”

Trump added: “I think we need to go back to a little more old-fashioned method of thinking.”

With about five weeks left until the election, Trump is trying to recover from a bruising few days. In addition to new attention on his taxes, his performance in his first debate against Clinton was viewed as weak, polling shows, and he continued to engage in personal feuds that many Republicans deemed counterproductive.

At Monday’s event, Trump repeated some positions he has emphasized earlier in his campaign, including the need for authorities to engage in “profiling” to guard against the threat of terrorism. He also railed against political correctness and vowed to protect religious liberty.

Trump was scheduled to campaign in Colorado later Monday.