In this photograph taken July 17, 2018, Marine Corps veteran Chris Sheppard poses with a picture of himself taken during his service in Iraq in Oct. 2004, at his office in Seattle. "I thought that press conference yesterday with him in Putin, I thought that was a national tragedy. I just couldn't believe it," Sheppard said from his office in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)

Military Veterans Divided Over Trump's Russia Comments

July 18, 2018 - 3:42 pm
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Iraq War veteran Chris Sheppard fumed as he watched President Trump's joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

The former combat engineer with the U.S. Marine Corps sat glued to his cellphone screen in his downtown Seattle office, watching live on Monday as the American president suggested he believed Putin's denial that his agents interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections. Trump also declined to say whether he believed the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Russia interfered.

Sheppard, who left the military after 13 years in 2005 and is now a tax attorney, couldn't believe his ears.

"It's like I'm watching somebody commit treason," he said of Trump.

But former U.S. Marine Boe Bostjancic, a 61-year-old Virginia Beach resident, said while he didn't particularly care for Trump's performance in Helsinki, the president was acting like the same politically incorrect leader he voted for and still supports.

"At least I can respect the fact that he was honest with us," Bostjancic said.

Sheppard and Bostjancic represent the mixed views among former members of the U.S. military to Trump's comments: Some say they are a betrayal, with the commander in chief giving more credence to Putin's word than to the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies and creating a hardship for those who serve and put their lives on the line. Others say Trump's relationship with Putin, whatever it may be, is positive for the U.S., and won't change their minds about their president.

Trump on Tuesday said he simply misspoke in Helsinki and accepted the conclusions by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the election hacking, but then on Wednesday he appeared to defend his original remarks.

Those who spoke with The Associated Press largely didn't buy his change in tone — or said it didn't matter.

Sheppard, 43, a self-described reluctant Democrat who became disenfranchised with the Republican party during the Iraq War, characterized Trump's performance in Helsinki as "a national tragedy."

"I honestly felt like Trump wasn't representing the collective interests of Americans. He looked like he was representing the interests of Vladimir Putin."

Kate Handley, a 22-year Navy veteran whose husband is still on active duty, said Trump's reluctance to fully support American intelligence agencies also undermines the U.S. military.

"He's throwing the military under the bus when he throws the intelligence community under the bus," said Handley, 52, of Chesapeake, Virginia. "Everything we do — every deployment — is based on a reason. And it's often based on (information) the intelligence community has."

Handley, who retired as a chief petty officer, said she started serving under President Ronald Reagan.

"Just because the Soviet Union broke apart, doesn't mean they stopped being our enemy," she said of Russia. "What has Russia done to advance the U.S.'s interest? They go against U.S. interests."

But James Flaskey, a 74-year-old Norfolk, Virginia, veteran who served in the U.S. Army during the height of the Cold War with Russia, sees it a bit differently.

"Back then it seemed like they were our enemy. We couldn't trust them," Flaskey said as he sat in a Norfolk barbershop.

But now the dynamic with the former Soviet Union is different, he said, and because of that he trusts that Trump is doing the right thing, even if the end game isn't exactly clear.

"I think he's got a reason to be friends with Putin," Flaskey said. "And I think it'll be to our advantage, just like with North Korea."

Aron Axe, a combat-decorated Marine infantry officer with 25 years in uniform, feels anything but trust for his president after witnessing his performance in Helsinki.

"I felt like I'd spent a career defending the principles and the freedoms of this country," said Axe, 44, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland. "And in just a few moments I watched a president hand over any semblance of pride or respect for what so many people like me in uniform have been fighting for and potentially been dying for over the last several decades."

Axe, who retired in 2016 and recently made an unsuccessful bid in a Democratic primary for a Maryland state House seat, said the issue has little to do with political party and "everything to do with the person who is in the office of commander in chief."

Kim Samoyoa, a research operations manager at a biotech firm in South San Francisco who served as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy for three years, said Trump's words and actions make her and her active-duty friends nervous.

"All this backtracking is frustrating because we've seen with Trump that if a button gets pushed, he really doubles down and escalates things," the 41-year-old mother of two said. "If we do end up needing to support a conflict, what this means for some people in the military — these are life and death matters."

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Myers reported from Los Angeles and Finley from Norfolk, Virginia. Associated Press Writer Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this report.