On Thursday night, the candidates at the seventh GOP presidential debate talked a little about veterans, frontrunner Donald Trump claimed to raise millions for veterans at a separate event and veterans advocates labeled the whole situation an upsetting mess.
The evening was the culmination of a week of political posturing with wounded service members confusingly thrust in the middle of the Republican fight. Trump claimed to have raised $6 million for veterans charities by the end of the evening, while his party rivals claimed to have won the last major national debate broadcast before the Iowa caucuses next week.
Veterans await the arrival of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a "Rally to Benefit Veterans" at Drake University on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.
Photo Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
At the Iowa debate — which Trump skipped because of conflicts with Fox News over its choice of moderators — the other seven top GOP candidates offered a calmer debate than the past six, with more focus on military policy and their own campaign promises.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush fielded the first veterans-themed question of any of the Republican debates so far, promising to "fix the mess at the Department of Veterans Affairs" as the first priority of his presidency.
"I will make sure that we fire the sheer incompetence inside (VA), and then we'll give veterans a choice card so that they don't have to travel hours and hours to get care if they want to go to their private provider," he said. "Give veterans choices and you'll get a much better result."
Other candidates reiterated their promises to plus up the military and use it more effectively to fight the Islamic State group and other foreign threats.
"Barack Obama over seven years, has dramatically degraded our military," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said. "We need to rebuild the military to defeat the enemy. And we need to be focused and lift the rules of engagement so we're not sending our fighting men and women into combat with their arms tied behind their backs."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio lamented that "we are on pace to have the smallest Army since the end of World War II" and "you cannot destroy ISIS with a military that's being diminished." Neurosurgeon Ben Carson said the United States needs to be holding more military exercises in Eastern Europe to counter Russian aggression.
And several of the candidates blasted Trump as a danger to the country, casting him as a distraction to the real threat Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton poses.
Meanwhile, just a few miles down the road from the Des Moines debate, Trump held his promised counter rally, an event to raise money for to-be-determined veterans charities. He claimed Fox executives pleaded with him to reconsider his debate absence, but called his plans to "honor our veterans" more important.
"Is it for me personally a good thing, is it a bad thing for me to (skip the debate)? Who the hell knows," he told his raucous, applauding crowd. "But this is for our veterans, and you're going to like it."
Fellow Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee — neither of whom were invited to the main Fox debate — also appeared at the event, along with representatives from the veterans group 22Kill.
The $6 million Trump claimed to have raised for veterans charities included $1 million of his own money. But exactly who will receive those proceeds remains unclear.
Money was collected through the nonprofit Donald J. Trump Foundation, and Trump promised to distribute it to a number of outside organizations.
"Everybody is going to get a lot of money," he said. "We were really selective because we want to make sure the costs are down and the people are doing work from the heart."
Earlier in the day, a number of veterans groups said they would not accept any money from Trump's event because they felt he was politicizing the efforts of veterans charities for his own campaign.
Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement: "We need strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts."
Other organizations quietly indicated to media that they would be uncomfortable taking the funds given how they were raised.
The organizations also lashed out at Cruz and business leader Carly Fiorina, after supporters of both campaigns offered large cash donations to veterans groups only if Trump agreed to show up for other debate events.
Officials from the Democratic National Committee seized on the concerns, circulating a piece from former Marine and current DNC researcher Sean Sorbie that blasted the GOP candidates' actions as "pandering" and "cheap political stunts."
"It is insulting that America's veterans are being used as a bargaining chip by candidates who want to get air time next to Donald Trump," he wrote.
Whether any of the rhetoric plays a factor in the larger presidential race remains to be seen. The Iowa caucuses, the first primary event of the election season, are Monday.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.