John Oliveira voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2008. Then he voted for Barack Obama in the general election. In 2012, he voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein; and in the primaries earlier this year, he chose Bernie Sanders.
But in November, as the election drew near, Oliveira decided to do something different.
The former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, who led bombing missions in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, cast his ballot for Donald Trump.
THE TRUTH WILL NOT REVEAL ITSELF
“Thirty years in public service and she really hasn’t accomplished anything,” Oliveira said from his home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he has been medically retired. “It’s time to shake things up. It’s time to try something different.”
Exit polls show veterans played a pivotal role in Trump’s surprise victory Tuesday night, with those who’d served in the military breaking for the New York billionaire by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 61 to 34 percent.
Veterans make up about 10 percent of registered voters nationally, with large concentrations in the key swing states of Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In interviews, many veterans said they weren’t sure what a Trump presidency would bring, but that they thought it was important to reject Hillary Clinton, who they said mishandled classified information and was unwilling to reform a broken health care system at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“All I know is that Trump is sending fear into the very status quo special interests I despise,” said Ryan Honl, a Gulf War veteran in rural Wisconsin who blew the whistle on the massive over-prescription at the VA hospital in Tomah last year.
Though the hospital’s chief of staff has been fired and the VA has rolled back narcotic prescriptions nationally, Honl said many senior hospital managers responsible for the scandal have simply been shifted to other facilities.
Honl voted for Obama twice, in both 2008 and 2012, and for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 before that. But in the months before this election, he worked overtime to elect Trump and re-elect Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who decisively held on to his seat that many observers thought might flip to the Democrats.
Other veterans said they were attracted by Trump’s caustic rhetoric and outsider persona, including his promise late in the campaign to “#draintheswamp” – make government honest again.
“He had me at drain the swamp,” said Chris Neiweem, an Iraq war veteran and political consultant in Virginia who split his ticket, voting for Trump and his local congressman, a Democrat.
“I was voting on VA issues,” Neiweem said, “and it was an anti-establishment rejection of the political-industrial class of unions and managers at the VA who conspire against us.”
“I see Trump as a clean slate,” Neiweem said.
While military veterans have historically supported Republicans for president, Trump’s margin among vets was more than twice that of John McCain’s in 2008. In that election, McCain, a Vietnam veteran who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, bested Obama by 10 points among military veterans.
This was despite the fact that Trump avoided service in Vietnam with five draft deferments, lied about his position about the Iraq war, disparaged veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as weak and mocked the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq.
But those revelations mattered little to the veterans who decided to vote for Trump, who likewise cast aside reported allegations of serial groping and sexual assault.
Pete Hegseth, a former counterinsurgency instructor and founder of the Republican-leaning veterans group Concerned Veterans of America, called those reports “creations of the media. The media is in the tank,” he said.
Honl said it was “unfair to talk about what happened in the past when Trump had no idea he was running for president.”
Brandon Coleman, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who works as a substance abuse counselor at the VA hospital in Phoenix – which also has been rocked by scandal related to veterans dying while waiting for appointments – said he hopes Donald Trump follows through on a pledge to “fire everybody” at the VA.
“I do a good job,” he said. “I’m sure I would get rehired.”
“I don’t know if Donald Trump is the answer,” added Coleman, who has three children on active duty, “but D.C. needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Something needs to change.”