Harold Homefield can’t remember the last time he had this much trouble deciding who should be president. The World War II veteran has backed candidates from both parties in his 97 years, although he has most recently voted for Republicans, as he’s not a fan of President Obama.
But this year?
“I honestly don’t know, despite my PhD, who I should really vote for,” said the retired speech pathologist.
Traditionally, veterans vote Republican — they did overwhelmingly in 2004, 2008, and 2012 — but little has been traditional about this presidential contest. Now, under the enlarged spotlight of a presidential campaign, local veterans are trying to figure out who will get their vote in a contest in which polls show neither candidate is well liked or thought of as a good commander in chief.
At first, Homefield, of Sudbury, thought Donald Trump would be a good for the country, because “he is a multimillionaire, knew how to make money, maybe he could do that for the government.”
But now, the retired Navy commander says: “I’m not quite sure. I tell you, frankly, this has been a pretty crazy time for veterans.”
Sitting in full dress uniform at the 241st birthday party for the US Army in Cambridge, retired colonel John Steiner said he, too, doesn’t know who will get his vote.
“I don’t trust either one,” the 82-year-old from Lexington said of Trump and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. “This has been a bad year.”
Still, a recent Morning Consult poll showed veterans and their families largely back Trump, with 47 percent saying they support the likely Republican nominee, compared with 38 percent who favor Clinton. About 14 percent of the 1,668 military voters polled remain undecided, according to the May survey.
In previous elections, Republicans have been backed by veterans by larger margins — sometimes as much as 20 percent — according to exit polls and other survey data.
Since the start of the 2016 race, the attention on veterans has grown, which political analysts say is not unusual in a presidential election.
Veterans and the sacrifices they’ve made have been “a big deal in American politics” for decades, said Robert Farley, a lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.
“Focusing on veterans issues is a way for candidates to demonstrate they are serious about national security issues,” he said. “Talking to veterans and talking about veterans is a better way of making oneself a national security candidate than some of the other options. Veterans are, generally speaking, more cuddly than defense contractors.”
But something about the tenor of this year’s conversation about veterans and the issues they face feels different, said US Representative Seth Moulton, a former Marine captain who served four tours in Iraq.
“First of all, there’s been more attention to the problems with the VA, and rightly so,” he said. “We are still engaged in the longest war in American history. And I think that Donald Trump has tried to use this calling card of supporting veterans in a way that is actually, I think, quite abusive.”
Moulton is a Democrat from Salem and Clinton supporter.
On his campaign website, Trump outlines how he’s “going to take care of our vets.” In a three-page policy position, Trump said he would reform the Veterans Administration by firing “corrupt and incompetent executives,” ending “waste, fraud, and abuse,” allowing eligible veterans to see any doctor that accepts Medicare, and increasing funding to treat “our veteran’s invisible wounds.”
In January, Trump opted out of a Fox News debate, holding a televised fund-raiser for veterans instead. Trump said he raised $6 million for veterans causes, including, he said, $1 million of his own money. But the fund-raiser drew intense scrutiny when it was revealed that it took months for the donations to be made.
Clinton has a detailed 11-page veterans plan, which she recently expanded to include a six-page plan to support military families as well. There is some overlap with Trump’s plan, such as improving health care services for female veterans and increasing funding for mental health services. But Clinton also calls for creating a standing council on veterans, expanding tax credits for businesses that hire disabled veterans, and improving “tandem assignments” of military couples.
Richard Giroux, of Hudson, said he sees a lot of political posturing and little action from elected officials and those seeking office. It’s why the former sniper with the US Army said he doesn’t trust politicians.
“They tell you what you want to hear,” the 75-year-old Vietnam veteran said, recently quoting lyrics from the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Fortunate Son,” a 1960s antiwar anthem:“ I ain’t no senator’s son . . . I ain’t no fortunate one.”
“You know what that means?” he asked at a veterans breakfast. “They don’t send their sons to the front line.”
But that’s exactly what New Hampshire Representative Al Baldasaro, a retired US Marine who serves as Trump’s state co-chairman, said he did.
“I’ve been to war. I’ve sent a son to war. I would never in a million years put my name on anybody who was not truly in support of veterans’ issues,” said Baldasaro, who helped write Trump’s plan to reform the Veterans Administration. “We need more and more loud voices like Trump on veterans’ issues.”
Baldasaro said Clinton has been silent on the needs of former servicemen and women, including reducing wait times at VA hospitals and increasing the number of health care facilities.
At the Army’s birthday party, some active servicemen and women welcomed the attention, saying the spotlight is not about personal recognition but ensuring veterans’ issues are not ignored.
Sergeant First Class Claudy Charles, 41, who planned to retire at the end of June, said political priorities shift as one issue or another surfaces, but the bottom line is this: “I just don’t want the veterans to be forgotten. As long as they keep us in mind, that’s the big thing.”
Master Sergeant Kimberly Albercio, 53, an assistant inspector general at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, agreed, saying: “It’s great” that veterans’ issues are in the forefront. Still, she hopes that veterans aren’t being used as a political cause celebre.
“This is just such a strange presidential year. There is a lot of angst about who is going to be the next president,” said Albercio, in the Army 24 years. “You hope they are not using the veterans as a platform.”