Clinton and Trump Missed A Huge Opportunity By Ignoring Our Military's Diversity

The Commander-in-Chief Forum should have highlighted servicemen of all backgrounds to effectively address their concerns.

Matt Lauer and Hillary Clinton at the NBC Commander In Chief Forum

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Matt Lauer and Hillary Clinton at the NBC Commander In Chief Forum

Wednesday night, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fielded questions on national security and foreign affairs from an audience of active-duty and veteran service members. NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum, co-sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and broadcast live from New York, provided the Republican and Democratic candidates half-hour windows to address veterans’ issues and reintroduce their respective platforms ahead of more formalized debates beginning later this month.

Despite the fact that the one-hour forum is slated to be the only presidential conversation focused exclusively on veterans’ and national security, the hour-long broadcast devoted a mere three minutes to direct questions from service members and offered no veteran the opportunity to present follow-up questions or participate in actual dialog. What resulted was a line of questioning that was biased, predictable and at times, uninspired; a missed opportunity to highlight the changing faces of those who serve in our nation’s military and a prime example of how the unique concerns of marginalized veterans can be muted in spaces meant to amplify their grievances.

As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, my experience in the military was largely shaped by my identity as a gay black man and the son of a Haitian immigrant. These identities undoubtedly shape my experience in the world and ultimately how I showed up in uniform. Unfortunately, the forum largely ignored a growing number of veterans like me and the issues we face.

In two 25-minute segments, host Matt Lauer doubled down on issues ranging from temperament to preparedness. He focused heavily on Clinton’s use of private email servers and her record of support far the Iraq War while also honing in on Trump’s abrasive leadership style and his nondescript policy positions during his time on stage. Both candidates spent the bulk of their segments on the defensive, attempting to reframe attacks and critiques as misrepresentations of their record.

Though Clinton’s responses were the most paced and thoughtful, Trump’s ability to deliver his expected brand of no frills (and often no substance) answers seemed to resonate more with the veteran audience, who were largely reflective his base of support - white men.

Going into the town-hall style forum, Trump held a clear advantage – both leading in the most recent national poll and having secured endorsements from 88 (to Hillary’s 95) top military brass. Lauer’s failure to fact-check Trump’s responses about his support for the war in Iraq, how he would deal with ISIS or a hostile Russia and his remarks on prisoner’s of war and gold star families during the Republican National Convention left a clear vacuum for Trump’s ego and an impression that the entire episode was essentially political theater.

Though Clinton may have come out seeming more competent on policy, she and Trump seemed either blithely unaware of or unconcerned with veterans issues that go beyond mere campaign rhetoric, leaving veterans who don’t fall into the category of white, male, heterosexual and economically mobile out of the conversation.

It’s important to note that the last eight years have brought with it a marked shift in the makeup of those who serve. The forum did little to showcase that. Of the nine veterans who had the opportunity to participate in direct Q&A with the presidential candidates, six were white and seven were male. By comparison, nearly a third of veterans are of color (18 percent Black, eight percent Hispanic, and four percent other races), while female veterans constitute nearly 10 percent of all former service members. Additionally, it’s estimated that our nation currently has nearly 134,000 transgender veterans and nearly 1 million veterans who self-identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

As the Armed Forces continues to shift to include more racial, ethnic, religious gender, and sexual diversity, the image of what veterans look like and the issues they find important should also evolve. Apparently, that’s not the case when it comes to presidential politics.

At no point during either candidate's time on the stage was veteran homelessness or unemployment addressed, an issue that disproportionately affects black and Latino veterans and those who suffer from PTSD and mental illness. Also not discussed were the GI Bill and Veteran Home Loans, responsible for creating untold opportunities for veterans to enter and remain a part of America’s middle class, but still remaining under threat of budget cuts by an eager Congress looking to cut military related spending. Equally alarming was the lack of attention paid to LGBTQ veterans – a growing and influential demographic given the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the end of bans of trans service members serving openly.

With both campaigns so close in the polls and the country so divided on issues, Clinton or Trump could have distinguished themselves by introducing and acknowledging the diversity of our troops and the intersectionalities that make their individual experiences unique. Shockingly, Trump was the only candidate who even came close to doing this with his suggestion that he’d consider allowing undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship through military service and his concern surrounding the pervasive cases of sexual assault of female service members. 

The Armed Forces can provide a window of opportunity for many Americans. It has been for me. Just as our country continues to be pushed to address the concerns of its most marginalized citizens, so should it address the shameful marginalization of female, LGBTQ, and veterans of color who faithfully defend it. Taking up that charge will become a central responsibility of whoever becomes the next Commander-in-Chief.

Indeed, if the last eight years are any indication, the military will only continue to diversify. The exclusion of voices that reflect the diversity of our nation’s fighting force cannot continue to go unnoticed and unchecked, especially by those who seek to lead.

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