In the first forum of the presidential race to address military concerns exclusively, both candidates pledged to fix problems at the Veterans Affairs Department that prevent veterans from getting prompt, proper medical care.
At the Commander-in-Chief forum hosted by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and NBC News, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each said the VA must do a better job to ease veterans' transition to civilian life. Among their requirements is for VA to provide quality health care free of prolonged wait times and other problems that have plagued the system since a scandal over delayed care erupted in early 2014.
"Under my plan, if [veterans] have a long wait, they walk outside, they go to their local doctor, whether that is a public or private doctor, they go outside, they get a doctor, they get a prescription or their procedure, they do what they have to do, and we pay the bill," Republican Donald Trump said.
"I was outraged by the stories that came out about the VA and I have been very clear about doing whatever is required to move the VA into the twenty-first century to provide the treatment they need," Democrat Hillary Clinton said.
The forum provided an opportunity for the candidates to discuss issues ranging from military personnel and national security to veterans concerns and their qualifications for leading the armed forces.
Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA founder and CEO, called it a "a conversation that’s long overdue."
"There still wasn’t enough specifics, like, who is going to be your VA secretary? Are you going to keep Secretary Bob McDonald as some veterans organizations have asked? What are you going to do about the VA’s budget? We needed about three hours," Reickhoff told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow after the forum.
Topics raised by moderator Matt Lauer, host of NBC's "The Today Show," and veterans in the audience included Clinton’s private email server, Trump’s temperament, plans for defeating ISIS, the Iraq nuclear deal, Russia and national security.
When it came to veterans, health care, suicide and military sexual assault topped the list of concerns.
The forum format didn’t allow candidates to spar face to face, but Clinton charged that Trump supports an agenda to privatize VA while Trump refuted the accusation.
"I never said take the VA private. I would never do that — too much respect for our people. But I do believe if you are waiting in line six, seven days, you should never be there. You should go out and see the doctor," Trump said.
"I’m going to have a meeting every week in the Oval Office because we need to have a better fit between being mustered out and getting into the VA system," Clinton said.
Both candidates also discussed veterans suicide, which numbered 20 deaths a day in 2014, according to VA.
Clinton said she has a mental health plan that includes a section to address veterans treatment, reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care and and improve addiction recovery services.
Trump called the number of veterans who die by suicide nearly impossible to comprehend.
"Twenty to 22 are killing themselves. A lot of it is because they are in pain and can’t see a doctor. We are going to speed up the process and we are going to create a great mental health division. [Veterans] need help. They need tremendous help," he said.
Rieckhoff said the forum set a precedent he hopes it will become an election tradition.
"The country has never stopped to talk about the duties and challenges of being a commander in chief," he said "... We accomplished that goal."