Beto O’Rourke has a plan for veterans. But are SC veterans buying it?

South Carolina is home to more than 400,000 veterans, comprising a voting bloc poised to be courted by Democratic presidential candidates stumping in the critical early primary state.

Having already rolled out what he calls a comprehensive policy platform for veterans, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke is hoping to make inroads with this base — and stand out in a crowded field of more than two-dozen 2020 contenders.

Some S.C. veterans and those who work in veterans’ affairs around the state say they’ve noticed O’Rourke is focusing on issues that matter to them.

“I think he’s got some really great ideas, and I like his energy, and I like the way he’s talking, especially for the veterans,” said Stan Bridges, an Air Force veteran in Sumter, home of Shaw Air Force Base. “He’s my top choice right now,” along with former Vice President Joe Biden, he added.

But many veterans have questions and concerns about O’Rourke’s new veterans’ policy proposal, particularly a plan to impose a “war tax” on non-military families to help pay for certain veteran health services.

The concept of a tax in and of itself also could be a tough sell in conservative South Carolina.

“Another tax?” asked Steve Creech, a former Sumter mayor who also sits on the executive committee of Gov. Henry McMaster’s Military Base Task Force. “I can’t imagine anybody thinking that’s a great idea.”

O’Rourke on the radar

This week, nearly a dozen S.C. veterans told The State that presidential candidates aren’t talking enough — or in enough depth — about veterans’ issues and how they would help returning servicemembers.

So O’Rourke’s efforts to reach out to veterans, and develop a formal policy platform just for them, is not going unnoticed.

Recently, O’Rourke held a “working group” with close to 16 veterans at a Sumter restaurant. Lawrence Davis, a retired lieutenant army colonel who lives in Sumter and helped organize the event, said he and others “felt highly about him (O’Rourke) and the chance to meet a candidate who actually did take into consideration issues and concerns of veterans.”

The meeting helped earn O’Rourke the endorsement of Sumter’s representative in the S.C. Senate, Democrat Thomas McElveen.

“He’s the only candidate that I’m aware of who is really addressing these issues head on and the only candidate who is paying more than lip service to veterans,” McElveen said of O’Rourke. “He has a real plan of some substance.”

In a further bid to win over the Palmetto State’s veteran voters, O’Rourke’s S.C. campaign put out a press release Monday directly tying the candidate’s new veteran policy platform to his meeting with Sumter-area veterans nine days earlier.

A campaign source told The State that components of O’Rourke’s veterans proposal — from shortening the backlog of processing appeals with the Department of Veterans Affairs to allowing VA doctors to prescribe alternatives to opioids, like medical marijuana — were directly inspired by the Sumter veterans’ roundtable.

But O’Rourke’s work in the Palmetto State is not yet complete.

Even after meeting O’Rourke and speaking to him personally, many S.C. veterans interviewed by The State this week —including Davis — say they still don’t know who they’ll vote for in the February 2020 primary.

O’Rourke has ways he can connect to veterans: His home town of El Paso, Texas, is home to a military installation, and as a member of Congress he emphasized veterans’ issues. However, he’s not likely to be the only candidate who advocates for veterans to come stumping through South Carolina between now and then. For starters, there are two veterans currently running for president: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and U.S. Reps. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

“It is a little bit early,” said Gwen Wiggins, the coordinator for the Veterans Resource Center at Morris College in Sumter, “and I’m a little bit undecided.”

‘War tax’ a tough sell

Veterans in South Carolina also have questions about the proposal itself.

O’Rourke’s plan to invest more money and resources into services for veterans would, in the words of a campaign spokesperson, “end forever wars” and “invest nearly $200 billion in savings that will result from ending these wars into directly helping veterans.”

But most of the focus has been on the concept of the war tax, even though it would only go into effect when a new foreign conflict involving the United States begins.

The money collected through this tax would be deposited into a trust fund reserved specifically for health care services for veterans of that particular engagement. It would be imposed on a sliding scale depending on annual household income: a household making less than $30,000 paying $25, the lowest level, while a family making more than $200,000 would pay $1,000, the highest amount.

Lenore Jackson — an Air Force veteran in Sumter who is also married to a veteran and advocates on behalf of women veterans — said she appreciated that O’Rourke’s plan would help veterans suffering from breast cancer and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as she does.

However, Jackson added, she unsure about the mechanics of the war tax, specifically how service members would directly benefit from the trust fund, and wondered if it was a good idea to put more money into the current Veterans’ Affairs system she said was “already broken.”

Davis said that multiple trust funds for multiple wars, if it came to that, could become chaotic. The VA already has trouble managing “various issues and medical scenarios for an individual soldier,” he said, adding “the implementation of a new trust fund that may have thousands of soldiers ... I think that could get very cumbersome,” he said.

Also, Davis asked, “how would a homeless person have access to the trust fund? How would someone who is elderly know about the plan? For those who are not literate and not on top of it, how would they find out about the war tax if it goes into place?”

The concept of a new tax is also raising eyebrows in South Carolina.

“A person making $33,000 a year, that’s a working poor category,” said Creech, who is not affiliated with a political party. “You don’t need to be paying any tax.”

Creech said O’Rourke could help veterans by fighting to improve military pay.

Sue Berkowitz, the executive director of S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, agreed that a war tax could become “very expensive for families who have limited means.”

Kevin Shwedo, now the director of the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles in Columbia who retired as an army infantryman after 32 years, couldn’t comment on O’Rourke’s proposal but said any presidential candidate trying to make inroads with veterans in South Carolina would do good to talk to the chapters of national groups. Local affiliates of American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled Veterans of America, he said, have their finger on the pulse of what veterans really need.

Shwedo warned against politicians talking to only small groups of potential voters who could lead candidates down “rabbit holes” of “anomalies” in the veteran experience in the United States.

And he cautioned South Carolinians not to get to excited: “I’m always very concerned about the promises made to veterans during election years.”

At the first presidential debate on Wednesday night, none of the Democratic candidates were asked about veterans’ affairs. O’Rourke did not bring the issue up.

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Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.