Donald Trump has angered many veterans over the past week for his criticism of Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala Khan, the grieving parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim American soldier who died fighting for the United States in Iraq in 2004. The Republican presidential candidate’s recent visit to Colorado gave vets an opportunity to voice their opinions on Trump and counter his messages with a public display of unity.
Mr. Trump’s appearance at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) on July 29 may have gotten off to a late start but the school grounds were abuzz all day. Thousands of people converged on the campus hoping to see Trump, while over 300 people showed up to protest as part of a “Love Trumps Hate” rally.
The organizer of the protest was Crystal Cravens, a 30-year–old Army veteran and African -American. “Colorado Springs is a diverse and unified community,” Crystal said. “We stand against a message of hate that would seek to further divide us. We want to come together to remind our community that we’re made strong by standing together and not against one another.”
Fittingly, the diverse crowd of protesters next to us alternated their chants between “Love Trumps Hate” and “Love Not Fear.” They were met by a wide range of reactions. The folks waiting in the quarter-mile-long line to see Trump stared, muttered to each other, laughed among themselves, yelled vigorously or chanted in reply. Others seemingly tried to ignore the vocal protesters and their many signs, some of which were provocative.
There was the image of Trump kissing Putin. And another with three large words: “Mussolini, Hitler, Trump.” Most of the protesters’ signs however, said things like “Elevate Above the Hate” and “Unity in Diversity.” The two most popular counter-chants coming out of the Trump line were “Build that Wall!” and “Lock her up!” — the second a clear reference to Hillary Clinton.
Crystal continued, “Trump tends to be a fearmongerer in his speech, and he speaks against certain demographics of people. So I don’t think a Trump presidency would bode well for us as a whole.”
When asked to share how she would approach a fellow vet who supports Trump, Crystal explained, “I would tell them that they have the freedom to believe in who they want to believe in. That’s the beauty about being an American. This country is made great by our ability to be free, but I would hope that they would understand that the military does not stand for Donald Trump’s messages. We’re supposed to protect and serve our country and that includes everybody. There’s not a caveat that excludes any group of people.”
Like Crystal, Paul Schurtz is an Army veteran and so are his father and brother. His grandfather was a POW in World War II.
“I’m here to show that there are veterans against Trump because Trump is scary. It’s not like I’m for Hillary, I’m just deathly afraid of what’s going to happen to our country if Trump is elected president,” he said.
“Trump doesn’t know anything about the military. He wants to build the military up. He thinks it’s weak. Uh, yeah okay, we have the strongest military in the history of the world,” Paul continued, visibly upset. “His foreign relations [policy] is pro–Putin so that kind of says it all. He doesn’t want NATO around. We pay more toward NATO, but we are also the biggest force of NATO. His foreign policy is just scary: The whole building of the wall, he’s not for diplomacy. He’s gonna bomb ISIS into the ground? Okay, I’ve heard that so many times. ‘Nuke ’em all and let God sort it out,’ you know. That kind of mentality is not diplomatic and it sets what America is all about way way behind.”
As Paul spoke, a group of about 15 Colorado Springs police officers walked down the road that acted as a buffer between the two crowds of people. Both sides cheered loudly and chanted “USA!” in a rare show of agreement. The officers took up positions on the narrow sloping street, mostly facing the protesters and with their backs to the line of people waiting to hear Trump speak. Chants of “Blue Lives Matter” broke out sporadically from both sides for the rest of the afternoon.
Still heated while pondering the prospect of a Trump presidency, Paul went on, “Being in the military means being of service to something greater than yourself. What has he served? Himself. He hasn’t served anybody except for himself. He knows nothing about community except for the community that’s in Trump Tower. I am not a Clinton supporter. I never have been and probably never will be. But I am voting against Trump. If she is the most viable person to beat him, then yes I will vote for her.”
Another veteran on the side of the protesters, Alan Pitts, shared that because his dad was in the military, “I grew up with all these stories so all I ever remember wanting to do was to join the military.” Alan wore a shirt with “Iraq Veterans Against the War” written across the front. He is also part of the recently created group known as Vets vs. Hate. The group’s Facebook page states: “We are veterans united against the rampant hate being promoted in our country right now.” Vets vs. Hate has protested several times at Trump Tower in New York City and also had a presence at the Republican National Convention last month in Cleveland.
At this particular rally, Alan and a fellow member of Vets vs. Hate, Matt Stys, took on the role of marshals. In that capacity, they intended to act as liaisons between protesters, pro–Trump event attendees and police officers should the need arise. They hoped to quiet any potential trouble before the police were compelled or required to get involved. In short, Alan and Matt wanted to ensure a peaceful protest for everyone involved.
When I spoke with Alan, he sounded a lot like Paul. “I think foreign relations would be a joke under a Trump presidency,” Alan said. “I just don’t see Trump being able to sit down with Putin or other powerful leaders from around the world and put his ego aside to actually work to get things done. Talking about bringing back torture and things worse than that. I don’t know how you can spew an agenda like that and be taken seriously, especially by people in the military.
“If there’s anybody who’s against war, it’s the people who have been there and who don’t want to go back anymore. And I think with somebody like Trump we’ll be even more imperialistic, militaristic and interventionist. I think Trump tries to use vets as props to push his political agenda of hate.”
When Trump took the stage after 2:45 p.m., he spent the first two minutes of his speech ripping the Colorado Springs fire marshal of 23 years, Brett Lacey, for not letting more people in. “This is why our country doesn’t work,” Trump began. “We have thousands of people in a room next door, we have thousands of people outside trying to get in, and we have a fire marshal that said, ‘Oh, we can’t allow more people.’”
To be clear and according to KKTV News, there were 1,100 people in the viewing room next door, not “thousands” as Trump declared. Lacey had actually increased the capacity for both the main venue and the secondary viewing room by 100 people before the event in an effort to accommodate additional attendees.
Trump told the crowd, “It’s not my fault,” despite the fact that his campaign controlled ticketing and issued far more tickets than the venue held. Then he suggested that the reason Lacey wouldn’t fill the venue past capacity is that, “They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” Trump went on, “Maybe they’re a Hillary person? … This is the kind of thing we have in federal government also by the way, folks. And then you wonder why we’re going to hell. That’s why we’re going to hell.”
The irony of these statements against the fire marshal is that Trump was actually rescued by Lacey’s fellow firefighters with the Colorado Springs fire department less than an hour prior. Along with nine others, he had been stuck in a local resort elevator for about 30 minutes. KKTV reported, “Crews opened the top hatch and lowered a ladder into the elevator. Everyone inside, including the Republican presidential candidate, had to climb out.” No injuries were reported.
While the veterans I spoke with were protesting his message outside the auditorium, one could argue that Trump only helped to prove their points when he took the mic inside. Among other things, Crystal noted Trump’s divisive rhetoric, Paul worried about a disinterest in diplomacy, and Alan mentioned his ego.
By publicly haranguing the community leader who worked for the very fire department that had rescued Trump just a few hours earlier, Trump certainly didn’t win over the protesting vets.
Perhaps it went both ways. Alan’s final statement before I left was this: “I don’t think we changed a single person’s mind that was coming to see Trump speak, but this is how our country was built. This pushing and pulling is good.”