Wednesday's nationally televised Commander-in-Chief Forum provided the first chance for the major party candidates to present their cases to voters and may have been the highest profile military- and veterans-themed election event in American political history.

Many community advocates walked away wanting more from the quick hour-long event, where Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton each talked about security and Veterans Affairs reform for only about 25 minutes.

"Today" show host Matt Lauer received criticism as moderator from some camps for focusing too much on Clinton's emails and allowing Trump to make assertions about his past Iraq War stance, taking away valuable time from other topics. 

But the pair did pack a fair amount of news into the short span, both intentionally and unintentionally.

VA gets lip service

The forum was sponsored by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and was billed as a chance for a national conversation on veterans issues. But neither candidate fielded a veterans policy question in their first 10 minutes on stage, upsetting many community members.

"I felt like the candidates talked about symptoms and not how to solve problems (in the veterans' community)," said Mike Haynie, executive director of Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families. "There are a lot of underlying problems that require thoughtful consideration, and I was hoping to hear more of that."

Both candidates recounted most of their campaign trail talking points on expanding health care access and improving VA services. For the first time before a national audience, both talked about veterans suicide, but neither fielded questions on veterans employment or homelessness.

On MSNBC after the forum, IAVA CEO Paul Rieckhoff acknowledged that getting an in-depth look into veterans issues and reforms "needed about three hours" and not 30 minutes.

IAVA officials acknowledged that campaign staffers and network officials dictated much of the event format and setup, limiting how much they could keep the focus on community issues.

But Rieckhoff hailed the event as an important first step in bringing veterans issues into the national election conversation, with plans for similar follow-up events.

Bill Rausch, executive director of Got Your 6, said the event did help bring some of that internal veterans community conversation to an audience unfamiliar with VA problems and military life.

"However, our issues continued to be defined within the context of the VA, despite the fact that less than half of our 21.8 million vets are enrolled at VA," he said. "Suicide, foreign policy, and taking care of those who served are not just veterans issues, they are American issues."

Military families, personnel shut out

Moderator Lauer and veterans at the event peppered Clinton and Trump on Iraq, terrorism, veterans health care and leadership concerns. But military families got only a passing mention, a fact that several advocates lamented.

"This election we’ve heard about Gold Star families more than any other, but no one is actually talking about our challenges and needs," said Jane Horton, a military family advocate whose soldier husband was killed in Afghanistan in 2011. "I know it’s a hard topic to fit in. But we need to be part of the conversation.".

Personnel issues were also largely left aside in favor of a broader foreign policy conversation. The GI Bill and veterans jobs programs were not mentioned. Rieckhoff said he would have liked to see more enlisted veterans included both in the event and on the campaign trail.

Both Clinton and Trump have made those issues a focus in policy papers and smaller-scale speeches in recent weeks. But those mentions don’t carry the same weight as a nationally televised forum or debate, leaving advocates wanting more.

Trump's suicide data mistake

Trump’s responses drew several laughs and eye-rolls from the largely nonpartisan veterans audience, particularly when he said the military’s generals "have been reduced to rubble" under President Barack Obama.

But he drew ire from many in the audience and on social media when he mistakenly corrected a veteran who asked how he’d handle the problem of 20 veteran suicides a day.

"Actually, it's 22," he said. "And it's almost impossible to conceive that this is happening in our country, Twenty to 22 people a day are killing themselves. A lot of it is they're killing themselves over the fact that they can't -- they're under tremendous pain and they can't see a doctor."

New data released by VA in July puts the number at 20 veterans a day, most of whom have had little or no connection with VA services. Clinton cited the correct number in her appearance on stage earlier in the event.

Though the difference is minor, many advocates addressed concerns that Trump has not engaged enough on the issue, and questioned whether that lack of attention to detail bodes poorly for him engaging on the problem if he wins the White House.

Clinton's weekly meetings

Most of Clinton’s responses at the event echoed her existing campaign promises, but her response to the veterans suicide issue did make news for veterans groups and organizers.

"I'm going to have a meeting every week in the Oval Office, we're going to bring the VA people, we're going to bring the DoD people, because we've got to have a better fit between getting mustered out and getting into the VA system," she said.

"I've met so many vets who get mustered out, who leave the service, they can't find their records from DoD, and those records never make it to the VA. They feel like they're living in a funhouse. They have to go over the same things over and over."

That has been a major point of focus for Obama, who pledged similar (but less frequent) meetings and a fix to the disconnect between the agencies. His efforts have been met with mixed results.

A weekly White House meeting on veterans and military personnel issues would be a dramatic increase in attention and focus on those populations. Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at


Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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