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Some see Trump as a ‘protector.’ Others have ‘had enough.’ Military voters in Pa. are deeply divided.

Strong military support helped elect Trump, and polls show he remains their preferred candidate. But he's lost ground with both active-duty service members and veterans.

Retired Army Sgt. Major Claudette Williams at the Women Veterans Museum in Mt. Pocono, Pa., on Oct. 15. Williams is running for state representative.
Retired Army Sgt. Major Claudette Williams at the Women Veterans Museum in Mt. Pocono, Pa., on Oct. 15. Williams is running for state representative.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

MOUNTAINHOME, Pa. — It started gradually for Jim Hillegas, a feeling of unease that would creep in whenever he saw news about President Donald Trump’s talks with foreign leaders or conflicts with long-standing U.S. allies. One day Hillegas, a “die-hard Republican,” had a bizarre thought: He wished Trump would act more presidential.

In retrospect, more like President Barack Obama.

Hillegas, a 53-year-old UPS driver who served in the Navy in the 1980s and lives in this small rural town in the Poconos, supported Trump in 2016. But following years of what he sees as a dangerous erosion of America’s standing in the world, he’s voting for Joe Biden.

“I will remain a Republican for the rest of my life," said Hillegas, who flies Navy and American flags from his porch. "But I’ve had enough of this president. I just can’t do it.”

Strong military support helped elect Trump in 2016, and national polls show he remains the preferred candidate of the nation’s military households. But the same surveys show Trump has lost ground with both active-duty service members and veterans since taking office. While Trump leads Biden by 10 percentage points among military-affiliated voters, according to a Morning Consult poll last month, that’s significantly smaller than the advantage he had in 2016, when veterans chose him over Hillary Clinton by almost a 2-1 ratio.

Older veterans overwhelmingly prefer Trump, but a Military Times poll this month found that only 38% of vets under 55 said they planned to reelect him. A survey of active-duty troops in August, meanwhile, found that 41% supported Biden, compared with 37% for Trump. That survey was conducted before the Atlantic reported in September that Trump said service members who die at war are “losers” and “suckers.” Trump has denied the report.

As with so much of the country, those numbers underscore a sharp divide.

More than 400 former military and top national security officials say Trump is unfit to lead and have endorsed Biden, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican and Vietnam War veteran.

But hundreds of other retired military leaders have endorsed the president, saying he advocates for a community that was neglected under Obama, and warning of the threat posed by “growing acceptance of radical leftist ideology."

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D., Pa.), a freshman representing a Chester County district and a third-generation veteran, was raised believing members of the military shouldn’t discuss politics or personal opinions. For many, she said, the Trump era has made that impossible.

“Now, just like everyone else in our society, we are having to have these conversations,” said Houlahan, a former Air Force officer. “Military voters are like any other people, and just like other people in our country, I believe we have become more civically engaged.”

Trump campaigned in 2016 to bring troops home from “endless wars,” a pledge that found support among veterans who increasingly believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting.

In late 2017, there were almost 26,000 troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, according to the Department of Defense. That number has fallen by more than 10,000, according to various estimates. But National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told the BBC this month that Trump “moved the needle modestly in terms of global operations and deployments, as we remain everywhere that we were on January 20, 2017, when he took office.” Last month a top commander announced more troops would return from Iraq and Afghanistan by late November.

Pennsylvania veterans who support Trump said he’s been good for the military, citing pay increases, robust military spending, and improvements to the VA hospital system.

“He’s followed through on his promises,” Glen Lippincott, a decorated Vietnam War infantryman, said as he sat with other veterans in the wooded backyard of his home outside Stroudsburg, in Northeast Pennsylvania’s Monroe County. “He cares.”

Lippincott, 70, who comes from three generations of service in the Army, has devoted much of his life to working with vets. He is part of Valor, a foundation that helps veterans deal with health care, housing, and other challenges of transitioning to civilian life.

He’s skeptical of reports that Trump insults service members: Those accounts don’t square with how Trump speaks about the military at rallies. Lippincott also praised Trump’s tax cuts, and a stock market that padded his 401(k).

» READ MORE: The view from a Pa. county that swung from Obama to Trump — and where Trump needs a repeat

Jim Grim, of nearby Kunkletown, served in the Navy during Vietnam and later worked as a government contractor repairing aircraft, radios, and radar. He voted for Obama in 2012 but later disapproved of what he saw as Obama’s deferential treatment to the leaders of some foreign nations, like Saudi Arabia.

“I didn’t like when he bowed down to the sheiks,” said Grim, 71.

Trump famously resisted calls to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Despite U.S. intelligence conclusions that bin Salman played a role in a killing that drew international outrage, Trump said at the time, “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

Grim said Trump’s praise of the military is genuine, though he doesn’t always like the brash way Trump speaks.

“But when somebody calls you a traitor every day for four years, you’re gonna tell me you’re going to talk so nice?” Grim asked. “I believe he’s trying to get things done and is doing it with a lot of people who are against him.”

Grim, Lippincott, and several fellow veterans acknowledged that Trump and other presidents who didn’t don a uniform can’t relate to some aspects of military service. They suggested some of Trump’s comments, like those the president made about the late Sen. John McCain, stem from that disconnect.

“If you have a president who’s served, he knows the true cost of being an American,” Lippincott said. “When you go through the military, you are changed. You understand a mission. You understand a sacrifice. You understand putting something first for the good of the nation.”

Members of the military disproportionately come from the demographics where Trump has his strongest support: They are overwhelmingly white and male, and often live in rural parts of the country.

» READ MORE: Rural Pennsylvania voters don’t hate Biden as much as they hated Clinton — and Trump may need them to

Danny Sjursen, an antiwar activist who served Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, believes that while prominent military leaders may have abandoned Trump, the president’s pledge to end wars gave him enduring support among the rank and file.

“Veterans are generally tired of the wars,” Sjursen said. “But some them are the same guys who are very anti-PC, very anti-identity politics, and maybe have a sense of Trump as being the last line of defense to that.

“They see Trump as a protector,” he added. "So if someone who was, say, softer or more liberal would have talked about this, it wouldn’t necessarily have had the same impact.”

Sjursen said that after serving in the Middle East and watching the conflict continue for close to 20 years through multiple administrations, some vets have also become deeply disillusioned with politics. So when Trump attacks institutions or members of his own government, they see it as justified criticism of a broken system.

It was faith in government that led Claudette Williams, a retired Army sergeant major who is running for state representative in her small town of Mount Pocono, to the world of politics.

Born in Jamaica and raised in New York, she moved to Monroe County in the 1990s to raise her three children amid trees and fresh air. She ran for borough council in 2014 after a 30-year career in the military that included tours in Kuwait and Afghanistan. It was her way of giving back to a community that supported her while she was overseas, planning her daughter’s Sweet 16 party from a battlefield while relatives and friends watched over the family.

She first ran for state representative two years ago, and when she started door-knocking, she looked for houses with American flags.

“I’d say, ‘Thank you for flying the flag. I served under the flag,’” said Williams, 56. “Right away something would change. They’d thank me for my service, or ask about it. Even if they weren’t going to vote for me, at least they knew me a little better."

She lost by about 2,000 votes. This year, as she again challenges Republican State Rep. Jack Rader for the seat, she said more people have asked her about Trump. After the Atlantic story, some military families in the area reached out to her.

“They said, ‘My son or my father served, and they’re not a loser,’” she recalled. “And that’s why I think a lot of military families now maybe can’t relate to him anymore.

“You serve because you are proud to do it, you give your life to it because it makes you proud," Williams said. "You hate to see someone try to take that away.”