When Donald Trump’s presidential campaign began to take on momentum this summer, Thomas Fant’s sister started in with the jokes.
“As a teenager, I thought Donald Trump was the coolest,” Fant, now 44, tells the Voice. “I had all the books.” Back then, Fant found the Donald’s swagger and business acumen appealing.
“She’s killing me relentlessly about it now,” Fant says.
Fant served in the Coast Guard in the late Nineties, and injuries stemming from that time have left him mostly disabled. When he thinks about who to vote for in the 2016 presidential elections, issues like health care for veterans and reforming the Veteran’s Administration are high on his list of importance.
Born in New York and currently splitting his time between Manhattan and Massachusetts, Fant grew up in a conservative household, but considers himself a centrist. Earlier this summer, when Trump started emphasizing veteran’s issues and, in particular, the well-documented problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Fant kept an open mind.
Fant got in touch with the Voice in July after we wrote a dismissive story about one of Trump’s first “initiatives” — a hotline for veterans set up by Trump’s campaign, purportedly offering to help veterans with their various issues.
On the morning it was launched the hotline was basically nonfunctioning; we called and the line rang several times before being connected. Then came five minutes of hold music before the call was disconnected. After a few more tries, a reporter spoke to an operator who had little information to offer, and sounded as though he’d either just smoked a blunt or awoken from a long nap.
The announcement of the hotline came just five days after Trump was raked over a heap of bipartisan coals for comments he made about John McCain’s war record. Basically everyone called for him to apologize for denigrating the senator for having been held prisoner for more than five years in Vietnam. He wasn’t a real war hero, Trump declared; “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Fant decided to give the hotline an honest try. His plan was to go through whatever process Trump had set up, documenting his communications along the way, and see if the campaign provided any substantive help. He offered to keep us updated as he went along.
Fant’s struggles with the VA are of a type that have been well-documented by now — long delays for treatment, bureaucratic mismanagement and scant access to care. For more than a year, he’s been trying to get help with knee problems that began while he was in the Coast Guard.
The problem, mainly, is chronic dislocation. His patella can slip out of place at a touch, and even minor physical activity can trigger one of the excruciatingly painful episodes, even something as simple as rolling over in bed at night. “I turn the wrong way and boom, the knee pops out,” Fant says. “It’s gross, it’s disgusting, and in the last couple years, it happens probably every other month.” His doctors have recommended an operation to repair ligaments in Fant’s knee, but every time the surgery is scheduled, it ends up being pushed back, for one reason or another.
His first communications with Trump’s people seemed promising enough. He was at least able to get through to a human being.
“When I called [the hotline], and I did so twice on different days, it seemed as if the same woman answered,” Fant wrote to us in July. “She instructed me that the best thing to do was email or snail mail my concerns, preferably with documentation. There was a big emphasis on supplying documentation.”
Fant went ahead and submitted some information about his particular problems, only to receive what seemed to be canned responses.
“Thank you for sharing your story,” one email read. “It is an embarrassment to America when our men and women who served have to struggle to get the care they earned and deserve. Mr. Trump is determined to fix the problems veterans face and your experience will be a part of the reform. Please know that fixing these problems is job one. Thank you for your service.”
Given the emphasis on documentation, Fant was understandably concerned about what would happen to any records he sent in. (Fant provided the Voice with records of his service, communications with VA officials regarding medical care, his disability determinations and his honorable discharge status.) Would medical records be kept confidential? Was he going to see his information bandied about in campaign literature? He worried that stories like his would become fodder for stump speeches. He also had trouble getting specifics on who was receiving the materials on the other end. Trump’s hotline was rolled out in conjunction with the campaign’s announcement of a group called the New Hampshire Veterans Coalition. Fant believes its this group who has been reviewing the communications the hotline receives. The group’s leadership, listed in a campaign press release, include a handful of conservative New Hampshire State Representatives, along with a man named Jerry DeLemus, listed as the group’s co-chair in the town of Rochester.
Delemus is apparently the same former marine who attempted to organize a “draw Muhammad” contest in New Hampshire roughly a month before Trump’s veterans coalition was formed. He was also a somewhat prominent member of the Bundy Ranch crowd, which engaged in a weeks-long armed standoff with federal authorities in 2014. Fant says he wasn’t sure he wanted someone like DeLemus handling potentially sensitive personal material. But when he pressed Trump representatives — or whomever was answering queries at email@example.com — about how his information would be handled, he got only vague assurances.
“We have a team of vets collecting stories and reforms for improving the VA and veteran benefits,” another email from the campaign said. “Your story will be part of what we compile and produce for Mr. Trump to study. Your information is confidential”
Those two emails are the sum and substance of what the campaign sent him. Several other calls and emails went unanswered, he said. It seems, Fant says, that the hotline has proven to be what many suspected — a campaign stunt without a lot of substance behind it.
“He started this hotline and what was supposed to be a website to get vets help. That’s how it was pitched. But what it turned out to be was, provide us with your stories and any sort of ideas you may have to improve things, and we’ll help,” Fant says.
The closest Trump has come to offering any actual policy proposals came in a speech in September, aboard the U.S.S. Iowa (see video above), when he said that if he was elected, he would allow vets to see private doctors if delays at V.A. were preventing care. But this “idea” sounds a whole lot like the Veterans Choice Act, a federal measure passed last year that allows vets to do exactly that; Fant has actually been approved to have his surgery performed by a private doctor — this is not exactly a new idea.
The Trump campaign did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Fant says he’s used to politicians using veterans issues as a talking point, and while paying lip service to the problem in speeches isn’t helpful, it’s not necessarily harmful, either. But the problem with Trump’s hotline, he adds, is that the people Trump is soliciting have actual problems, many far more serious than Fant’s; untreated PTSD and depression, chronic injuries, serious medical needs. He thinks Trump’s empty gesture might actually be harmful.
“If they’re promising to do something,” Fant says, “and saying, ‘hey send me your information, I’ve got a hotline,’ now all of the sudden you’re giving false hope to guys or women that may be counting on something to actually be done.”