Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke was in Tampa Monday to talk up his plans to better support American veterans.
But the former Texas congressman avoided discussing his proposed “war tax” during a one-hour conversation with veterans and veterans’ service providers at Brew Bus Monday morning.
Before the veterans’ roundtable, O’Rourke released a four-point plan to support veterans, including a controversial provision that would tax non-military Americans to establish a Veterans Health Care Trust Fund for any new wars the nation enters. The idea is to spread the cost of war, both abroad and at home, among non-serving Americans.
Households earning less than $30,000 annually would pay $25. The amount paid goes up incrementally based on household income. The tax would be capped at $1,000 for households making more than $200,000 a year.
Instead, O’Rourke talked up his commitment to ensure all veterans have access to quality health care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, job opportunities, and education.
“We have to do much more for the veterans who have served this country,” O’Rourke said.
“I think about those Vietnam-era veterans who fought in a war that this country did not understand, who came back to a country that did not celebrate their service with ticker tape parades or a pat on the back, very often with scorn. And yet those men and women quietly got back to work and continued to build the greatest country on the face of the planet.”
He continued: “And now, in some cases 50 years later, (they are) finally coming to terms with post-traumatic stress disorder that they had carried with them their entire lives. They’re waiting not minutes or hours to get care at the VA. They’re waiting months or sometimes years, they’re sometimes not able to get in at all.”
O’Rourke promised that under his administration, no expense would be spared to ensure every single returning veteran received the care and investment they deserve.
His audience was receptive. Each took turns sharing harrowing tales of challenges they’ve faced after returning to civilian life, ranging from substance abuse to denied medical care. O’Rourke used the intimate setting to address each person individually.
One man, Gulf War veteran Ralph Dukes, could barely get his words out through his tears.
“I am proud to be a vet and the services that are taken away from us so that we can live our lives, to better ourselves as a country, is a shame. We shouldn’t have to fight for all this,” he said.
Dukes joined about 15 others who spoke about having to appeal and re-appeal sometimes several times to receive care for PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. Their cases, each explained, were often dismissed as not being combat related. Others missed out on care because they were missing paperwork or faced other bureaucratic hurdles.
“I cannot do justice to what you just said but I want you to know that I listened to every word and when I think about sending women and men to war and into harm’s way, I’m going to be thinking about you and the full cost of these wars that we’re fighting,” O’Rourke said. “We made you fight again … to get the care and respect that you’re owed.”
That, O’Rourke promised, would no longer be the case if he’s elected.
O’Rourke also addressed retraining military service members so that when they rejoin civilian life they’re able to provide for themselves and their families. He proposed a program that begins the reentry process while military personnel are still serving. Under that model, O’Rourke said soldiers would be given access to vocational training or other education to obtain gainful employment after they’re discharged from service.
He also briefly entertained the idea of reinstating a long-cancelled program that provides financial assistance for veterans to start a small business.
O’Rourke also supports legalizing medical marijuana use in veteran treatment plans. He mentioned a man he met during another veterans’ event where the man said he had been cut off from prescription medications because he was abusing the drugs.
“He said ‘I am buying heroin on the street right now because it is the only way I can care for and treat myself,’” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke said he’s spoken with many VA doctors who want to be able to prescribe medical cannabis as an alternative treatment for things like PTSD or pain management. It would avoid the dangerous addiction that can occur from other drugs like opioids or Xanax, arguing addiction leads to additional and unnecessary overdose deaths.
“This is a life-or-death issue at the VA,” he said.
O’Rourke’s veterans’ plan also includes an equal treatment provision that would protect LGBTQ veterans from harassment and allow immigrants to use military service as a pathway to citizenship.
O’Rourke is in Florida ahead of the first two Democratic presidential debates in Miami Wednesday and Thursday. Twenty declared candidates will into two groups, with 10 appearing on stage each night. O’Rourke is participating in the Wednesday night debate alongside Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar. Also sharing the stage will be Tulsi Gabbard, Julian Castor, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Jay Inslee and Tim Ryan.
O’Rourke surged in popularity after narrowly losing to Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018 midterms, but his support saw a sharp drop after he announced his presidential bid. O’Rourke is now polling at about 4 percent.