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President Obama is trying to dispel the stigma of PTSD in the military. Donald Trump just helped advance it.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

On top of all his other campaign woes, Donald Trump is fielding a bunch of additional criticism this afternoon for suggesting veterans who experience post-traumatic stress are weaker than those who don’t. 

“When people come back from war and combat and they see maybe what the people in this room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” Trump said during a Q&A with veterans. 

Because Trump has intentionally insulted veterans before (John McCain and other prisoners of war, for instance) critics are interpreting this as a mean-spirited shot at veterans with mental illness. I think it’s probably more generous to interpret it as a ham-fisted attempt at expressing empathy. 

But that doesn’t make the story much better for Trump, because if he’s elected president, he’ll assume responsibility for the military’s approach to this problem, and that will require an understanding of how mental health issues are stigmatized in the military, and what the consequences of that stigma can be.

As it happens, at a CNN military town hall last week, President Obama addressed the issue with appropriate seriousness, in response to a question from a military wife and mother whose husband had committed suicide. 

I have instructed the Joint Chiefs and up and down the chain of command that they have a responsibility to destigmatize mental health issues and issues of PTSD and help to explain to everybody in all of the units under their command that there’s nothing weak about asking for help.

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. You’ve got to go get help. And there’s nothing weak about that. That’s strong. And that is what will allow you then to continue with your service and there shouldn’t be a stigma against it.

And so we’ve tried to do that.  I mean I’ve done PSAs myself about it.  We’ve had events in the White House to emphasize this.  We’ve worked with Congress to try to amplify that message.

But ultimately, that has to pervade the culture of our military.  There’s no weakness in asking for help.

Trump may not have intended to degrade veterans with PTSD. But suggesting they aren’t as strong as veterans who don’t develop PTSD advances the very stigma Obama is working to dispel. Unlike Trump, Obama understands lives and livelihoods are at stake.