President Donald Trump loves veterans, or at least that’s what he would have us believe. “You’re amazing people, great people,” he told the Retired American Warriors PAC last October. “Our veterans, in many cases, are being treated worse than illegal immigrants, people that come into our country illegally,” he said last September. “Honor their valor,” his foundation’s website still insists.
Trump is certainly aware that no American politician can win office without appealing to veterans. But his commitment to this constituency has always been dubious. He received five deferments to avoid going to Vietnam. It took four months and heaps of negative press for him to make good on promised donations to veterans’ advocacy groups. He attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Gold Star parents, and ridiculed former prisoner of war John McCain, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” Pundits warned that Trump was endangering the support of a critical group, but he brayed about his allegiance to the troops and pledged to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It worked. Veterans voted for him by a two-to-one margin and were critical in helping him win office. Several told Reveal they liked his anti-establishment edge and conservative rhetoric: “All I know is that Trump is sending fear into the very status quo special interests I despise,” a Gulf War veteran explained.
And then he froze most federal hiring.
The Military Times reported last November that veterans now comprise roughly one third of the federal workforce—or more than 600,000 positions—a testament to the success of projects like former President Barack Obama’s Veteran Employment Initiative. These job opportunities are critical for veterans, but it also leaves them particularly vulnerable to political turmoil. The GOP-driven budget sequestration in 2013 forced the federal workforce, including veterans, to take pay cuts; it also forced many active-duty servicemembers to leave the service early. For similar reasons, any federal hiring freeze—even a temporary one, like Trump’s executive order—inevitably affects veterans. And though there are exemptions to the 90-day freeze, it’s not yet clear if these exemptions will be enough to mitigate the damage.
“This is going to really impact veterans in a negative way,” Peter Kauffmann, a former U.S. Navy officer and current senior adviser to VoteVets.org, told the New Republic. “By freezing hiring, you’re cutting off one path for veterans leaving military service to transition into civilian life.”
And employment isn’t the only need the hiring freeze will leave unmet. At the VA, Kauffmann said, there are “thousands” of open positions that now will not be filled. “Keeping in mind the devastating impact of PTSD on a generation of veterans? If we can’t staff suicide hotlines this may cost the lives of veterans,” he said. “That’s not hyperbolic. That’s actually true.”
“Right now there are 45,000 vacancies at the VA that need to be filled immediately. This freeze will only make wait times longer and accessing care more difficult,” Will Fischer of the Union Veterans Council concurred.
On January 27, VA Acting Secretary Robert Snyder released an extensive list of VA positions exempt from the freeze. It may add more in the days to come: In a statement provided to the New Republic, the VA says it “intends to exempt anyone it deems necessary for public health and safety, including frontline caregivers.” But this hasn’t been enough to alleviate concerns about the department’s ability to function.
Veterans in Texas are in a double bind. Governor Greg Abbott recently announced a copycat freeze of state hiring that will extend to August. Texas’s freeze also exempts “positions that have a direct impact on public safety,” but it, too, is low on detail.
The federal hiring freeze is red meat for Trump’s base, and more purported evidence of the Republican Party’s sudden interest in “draining the swamp.” The swamp, of course, endures: Trump’s obscenely wealthy and ethically compromised cabinet attests to the hollowness of his promise to cleanse Washington of corruption. Now many veterans must find their way in the dark.
Tim Meehan is a stranded man. “I spent 14 years, five months, and nine days in the Marine Corps,” he told the New Republic. Injuries ended his military career this December; since then, the former chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) defense specialist has volunteered with the U.S. Navy’s REACH program so he could transition to a career in health care at Navy facilities. Trump’s executive order now squats between him and that goal.
“Basically I was told, ‘Hey, you’re going to be hired, you’re going to be working at the naval hospital at Camp Lejeune,” he said. “I went into my meeting with my boss.... And now I’m told now I’m not going to be hired for 90 days.”
Meehan believes his offer will still be good when the executive order expires. But there’s no guarantee, and a clunky claims processing system means his disability compensation—currently his only source of income—may not arrive for weeks.
“At first I was like, you know what I can deal with that. We’ve saved a little money,” he said. “But I don’t know when I’m going to get paid by the VA for disability compensation. I kind of had all my ducks in a row because I was guaranteed this job. Stress level is a little higher, to be honest with you, because I know I’m not getting paid now for a while and I still have a family to support.”
Another former Marine says the freeze has already stymied his career as a foreign affairs officer. “I’m on a limited appointment hiring authority. The idea is that you find your forever home and get hired by the federal government as a full-time employee,” he told the New Republic on the condition of anonymity. He received that long-awaited job offer the day before Trump signed the executive order. It’s since been rescinded.
“No one’s able to give me an answer though, about whether I’ll have to start all over again and go through screenings,” he said. “And so, if I’m not able to come on in the next couple of months, I will be without employment.”
A former Army Reserve officer told the New Republic, also on the condition of anonymity, that, “I’m fortunate to be a federal employee at the moment, but was in the process of being hired for a great position in Washington, D.C., which has a huge promotion and would have set my career path for the rest of my federal employment. I was literally within a week or two getting ahead of the freeze, but did not make it.” He added, “I calculated that my wife and I spent more than half of our first seven years of marriage apart, and this was to be the reward for all that sacrifice, but that’s all on hold now and I worry it will never come to fruition.”
According to Meehan, the freeze underscores the importance of federal employment for veterans.
“I was a recruiter for the Marine Corps, too. And we sell kids on the benefits and programs and tell them we take care of our own,” he said. “These [federal] programs are our lifeblood. We’ve sacrificed so much—I’ve sacrificed my mental health and my physical health. It’s our lifeblood.”
Conservatives mourn government inefficiency in one breath and praise the private sector in the next. But corporate America can provide little relief here. Active-duty servicemembers are federal employees: They begin earning credit toward retirement benefits the moment they sign their contracts. If they’re able to transition to civilian employment within the federal workforce, they can transfer that credit. Private employers, meanwhile, aren’t obligated to provide the same slate of retirement benefits. “It’ll be very much starting from scratch,” the foreign affairs officer said.
Trump’s executive order therefore harms veterans three ways: It limits their job prospects, kneecaps their health care, and damages their chances to comfortably retire. But these are concerns Trump, who was born to a wealthy family, has never had to consider. That people would be hurt in the wake of a reckless and cynical executive order also fits a troubling pattern, as we saw with the order barring U.S. entry to refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
He could nevertheless be an ally to veterans if he wanted to be, but his actions don’t provide much reason to hope. “I think Donald Trump has never seen veterans as anything more than the backdrop for a publicity stunt or a photo op,” Kauffmann said.
It’s still much too early to tell if the hiring freeze will chip away at Trump’s hold on veterans. But Fischer thinks it’s possible. “That support, along with our ability to have access to good careers and earned benefits, will erode as a result of this hiring freeze,” he said. Kauffmann agreed: “If he keeps this up for four years he won’t be able to maintain the support of veterans.”
For now, the message Trump has sent has come through loud and clear. “I spent nine years of my life working for the federal government in the military, and that counts for a ‘thank you for your service’ and a free meal on Veteran’s Day,” the foreign affairs officer said. “I very much value the ability to continue service somewhere that appreciates what I did.”