Obama Struggles to Console Military Widows, Gold Star Mother

President Barack Obama speaks to members of the military community, Sept. 28, 2016, at Fort Lee, Virginia. Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama speaks to members of the military community, Sept. 28, 2016, at Fort Lee, Virginia. Carolyn Kaster/AP

President Barack Obama was confronted Wednesday by two military widows and a Gold Star mother on the scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, suicides in the ranks, and his refusal to use the term "radical Islamic terrorism."

Clutching the flag that draped her husband's coffin, Donna Coates pleaded with Obama to end the wait lists at VA hospitals. She said her husband, Barry, waited more than a year for a colonoscopy that finally revealed he had metastasizing cancer.

"So when are we going to actually start holding these contracted doctors and the VA employees accountable? For it's a difference between life and death," Coates said at a CNN presidential town hall meeting with service members, veterans and military families at Fort Lee, Virginia.

"And families like mine, they're tired of waiting. We've heard a lot about reform. And the only true change that's come since we began talking was that I am now a widow. And my family -- we will never be the same."

"My heart goes out to you," Obama told Coates, "because we can't bring your husband back. I don't in any way want to sugarcoat the fact of significant problems in the VA. You have a system of bureaucracy that's overwhelmed."

"We're beginning to fix it, but we're not there yet," Obama said. He said that no other president has poured as much money into the VA, but "it's not enough to just put money" into what he called an "antiquated system."

The problem of "inexcusable wait times" remained, he said. One of the solutions was to allow vets facing a backed-up local VA hospital to seek private care, he said.

"In taking appointments, we were using old systems where somebody would answer the phone, they'd write down, try to schedule it, then they'd hand it off to somebody who then would input it into some old, rickety computer," Obama said.

He said that "part of what we've done, working with Congress, was also making sure that if somebody is in a situation where, for example, they live far away from a facility, that they now have recourse to go to a private doctor" who would be reimbursed by the government. "So across the board, we're working on these issues," he said.

Obama also had no easy answers for Amanda Souza, whose combat veteran husband succumbed to suicide, or for Gold Star mother Tina Houchins, who asked why he would not use the term "radical Islamic terrorism."

The president told Houchins that he had to take care to avoid lumping together terrorist killers with the millions of followers of Islam, including many in the U.S. who have served with honor in the military.

"The truth of the matter is that this is an issue that has been sort of manufactured, because there is no doubt, and I've said repeatedly that where we see terrorist organizations like al-Qaida or ISIL, they have perverted and distorted and tried to claim the mantle of Islam for an excuse, for basically barbarism and death," Obama said.

"These are people who kill children, kill Muslims, take sex slaves -- there's no religious rationale that would justify in any way any of the things that they do," he said.

"I'll just be honest with you: The dangers where we get loose in this language, particularly when a president or people aspiring to become president get loose with this language, you can see in some of the language that we use, in talking about Muslim-Americans here and the notion that somehow we'd start having religious tests in who can come in the country and who's investigated and whether the Bill of Rights applies to them in the same way," Obama said.

Moderator Jake Tapper interjected to question Obama on the apparent allusion to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. "You were clearly talking about the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, just then," Tapper said.

Obama initially denied that he was referring to Trump and then added: "No, but it's not unique to the Republican nominee. And again, I'm trying to be careful. We're on a military base. I don't want to insert partisan politics into this. I think that there have been a number of public figures where you start hearing commentary that is dangerous because what it starts doing is it starts dividing us up as Americans."

In the most heart-rending exchange of the more than one-hour town hall, Souza asked for Obama's help in removing the stigma that prevents too many service members and vets from seeking mental health treatment for post-traumatic stress.

In a halting voice, Souza told Obama that her Marine husband had multiple overseas tours and "on his last deployment they came under attack. Not everyone made it. He had to live with that when he came home" and his anguish led to suicide.

"He was diagnosed with PTSD, but unfortunately, like many of our servicemen and women, this was his career, this was his livelihood and he was too scared to go get help because he did not want to risk being labeled as unstable or weak," Souza said.

"Unfortunately, he did not get the help that he needed," she said. "My question to you is how can we ensure that our military men and women understand that it's OK to get the help that they need and that they're not going to risk their careers, that they are not going to be labeled?"

"This is something we just have to talk about," Obama said. "Sometimes, the weight of battle comes home" and leaves veterans "feeling wounded inside. We see this all across our veterans' population."

"If you break your leg, you're going to go to a doctor to get that leg healed. If, as a consequence of the extraordinary stress and pain that you are witnessing, typically, in a battlefield, something inside you feels like it's wounded, it's just like a physical injury," Obama said. "You've got to go get help, and there's nothing weak about that. That's strong."

Obama said he's told the Joint Chiefs that "they have a responsibility to de-stigmatize mental health issues -- explain there's nothing weak about asking for help." He said he's boosted funding to provide more mental health professionals for service members and veterans, but the estimated 20 veterans who commit suicide daily was evidence that "we've got to do more."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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