WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Collins is standing strong behind Donald Trump in the wake of the Republican presidential candidate’s verbal attacks on the parents of a slain soldier, but several Western New York veterans and parents of veterans said Tuesday that they’re appalled at the GOP standard-bearer’s comments.
Seven of eight local veterans activists randomly selected and interviewed by The Buffalo News harshly criticized Trump for his attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who lost their son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, in the Iraq War. The slain soldier’s parents appeared onstage at last week’s Democratic National Convention to condemn Trump’s plan for banning Muslim immigration and question his knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.
Meantime, Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, issued a statement that, without mentioning Trump by name, defended the Khans.
Collins, R-Clarence, could not be reached for an interview. But he issued a statement Tuesday in which he reiterated points he made in an MSNBC interview a day earlier.
“As a father of three, I can’t imagine the pain the Khan family must feel after the loss of their son,” Collins said in the statement. “Captain Khan is an American hero and we are very grateful for his sacrifice on behalf of our country. However, whether we like it or not, politics is a tough game. If you are going to make politically charged statements, no matter who you are, you open yourself up to criticism.
In an ABC interview, Trump implied that Mrs. Khan remained silent on stage at the Democratic convention because of her faith. Asked about that on MSNBC, Collins said, “When someone attacks your character as they did attack Mr. Trump, he just asked a question, and maybe that’s not a question I would have asked. But it goes back to Mr. Khan attacking him. He’s now appeared on other shows, he’s become Hillary Clinton’s attack dog. And every time Donald Trump will say something, he (Khan) puts up this shield, if you will, of the loss of his son.”
Collins’ comments stood in stark contrast to those of most veterans interviewed by The Buffalo News, who were aghast at Trump’s comments, in which he asked if Clinton’s scriptwriters had penned Khan’s remarks and compared the sacrifice of their son’s life to the sacrifices he made building his business.
“What Trump said was totally inappropriate,” said Patrick W. Welch, a Vietnam War Purple Heart recipient who formerly ran Erie County’s Veterans Service Agency. “You cannot expect anything but bad outcomes when you attack a Gold Star family.”
Welch said he remains a Trump supporter, thinking the wealthy developer can shake up Washington. But Charles Catalina, commander of Disabled American Veterans Post 203 in Depew, said Trump’s latest comments were bad enough to make him change his mind and consider voting for Clinton.
“The more he talks, the worse he gets,” said Catalina, who served in the Navy in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “It’s like there’s venom coming out of his mouth now.”
Catalina said it was terrible that Trump criticized the parents of a fallen soldier, and Marlene Roll, quartermaster of VFW Post 7967 in Alden, agreed.
“Really, seriously, dude, you’re picking on Gold Star mothers and fathers?... How dare you take a potshot at them?” said Roll, a Gulf War veteran. “We understand their sacrifice because we’ve been there, done that.”
Roll said the election left her in a quandary, too, because she’s no fan of Clinton, either.
“As far as Hillary goes, I’ve got one word to say: Benghazi,” said Roll, citing the death of four Americans in a poorly secured U.S. consulate in Libya while Clinton was secretary of state. “That was the kiss of death for me.”
Of all the veterans interviewed, only one – Michael Caple, commander of VFW Post 3180 in Newstead – defended Trump. A Gulf War veteran, he said he understood why Trump would speculate that Mrs. Khan’s Muslim faith would force her to remain silent while standing next to her husband at the Democratic convention.
She later said she was too emotionally overwhelmed to speak, but Caple said of the Middle East: “I’ve spent a lot of time over there. The women aren’t allowed to say anything. Their discrimination against women is deplorable.”
Caple said he remains a Trump supporter because “this country doesn’t need a politician; it needs a businessman.”
Others who commented on the Trump-Khan controversy offered varied views.
Reed, the congressman who has endorsed Trump but not served as a cheerleader for him as Collins has, issued an abrupt statement on the matter.
“Captain Khan is an American hero,” said Reed. “Both Captain Khan and his family deserve our respect for their sacrifice – that’s what is right and that’s what is fair. I care about our military and their families. We need to honor and respect them.”
Closer to Buffalo, Democrats and other observers turned their sights on Collins, the first House member to endorse Trump back in February.
Diana Kastenbaum, Collins’ Democratic opponent in the November election, said that in the MSNBC interview, Collins casually noted that Capt. Khan was killed 12 years ago.
“My response to Mr. Collins is: the loss of a child has no expiration date for one’s grief,” Kastenbaum said in a statement.
In addition, the Democratic chairs in the eight counties at least partly in Collins’ congressional district issued a statement saying: “Rep. Collins went way over the line. Incredibly, he accused Mr. Khan of using his dead son as a ‘shield’ from criticism and suggested he deserved anything he got, since he had dared to enter the fray.”
One of Collins’ constituents – Syed Abdul Haq, a Muslim immigrant from India-controlled Kashmir whose son, Umar Syed, served in the Army in the Iraq War – said Collins could have kept quiet instead of again defending the bombastic GOP presidential nominee.
“I think it is very unfortunate that he defended Donald Trump,” said Haq, a retiree from Clarence. “Donald Trump is an ignoramus. Honestly, he is putting the lives of Americans in jeopardy with his tirades against Muslims. ... He’s making America a target.”