South Carolina has one of the largest military retiree populations in the country, and they make up a major voting bloc every election cycle.
So it's no surprise that when it comes to veterans and the military, the two candidates in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District race — Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham and Republican challenger state Rep. Nancy Mace of Daniel Island — want to make men and women in uniform in the Lowcountry a priority.
This is the fourth and final installment leading up to the Nov. 3 election that lays out candidate policy views on issues that matter most to South Carolina voters.
Their responses have been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than Americans who never served in the military. What do you believe needs to be done to address this epidemic?
Cunningham: Even one veteran death by suicide is too many, and the fact that we are losing an estimated 22 veterans a day to this epidemic is unacceptable. The Committee on Veterans Affairs has made addressing the veteran suicide crisis a top priority this Congress, and I’m proud to have worked with my Democratic and Republican colleagues on the committee to pass the Cmdr. John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, legislation that I believe will make meaningful change to prevent veteran suicide.
This was a good first step, but there is still so much more we can do to serve our veterans, including expanding lethal means safety training to every VA employee that makes contact with veterans, something that was identified as a key priority by the President’s Veteran Suicide Task Force. The science is clear: putting time and space between veterans who are in crisis and have access to lethal means, saves lives. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address this critical issue.
Mace: It’s clear that the system we have right now does not work. We need to make sure our veterans are given not only incredible care for physical health but their mental health, too. The system needs a complete overhaul or at the very least a significant upgrade to its mental health and addiction services.
I’ll do in Congress what I did in the state House where I sponsored the bill to create the first-ever S.C. Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans shouldn’t be limited to receiving care through the VA. Instead, we should increase access to more health care providers by opening up options through VA benefits.
Do you have any family members who served in the military or have a personal connection to the service? What does the military mean to you?
Cunningham: My father proudly served his country in the Vietnam War and was lucky enough to return home safely. Too many of our country’s heroes are less fortunate.
Our nation has a sacred duty to those who have served our country and we owe them a debt we can never fully repay. In the Lowcountry, we are blessed to have one of the highest numbers of veterans in the country – and they make our community undeniably stronger. It is an honor to serve them on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and ensure they have access to the resources and benefits they’ve earned.
Mace: Military service has been my family’s way of life for as long as I can remember. My father, a retired Army general, served two tours of combat in Vietnam and is the most decorated living graduate of The Citadel. Several members of my family graduated from West Point.
I am a graduate of The Citadel. I also have members of my family deployed overseas right now. We were raised to respect our flag and support our troops. To put your life on the line for your country is the bravest, most selfless decision anyone could make. I admire and respect all the men and women in uniform who’ve served.
What have you done in your current office and what do you plan to do in Congress to grow and protect South Carolina's military bases?
Cunningham: The Lowcountry plays a critical role in ensuring our national defense, which is why I’ve made ensuring our local military installations have the resources they need one of my top priorities in Congress. I secured $37.2 million in funding, after it was excluded from the president’s budget, for the Marine Corps to complete its range modernization project on Parris Island. I also passed a bipartisan amendment to fund the expansion of Goose Creek’s nuclear power training school.
I’ve also worked to ensure bases in the Lowcountry have funding to adapt to recurrent flooding and climate change, while fighting to prevent another wasteful and disastrous BRAC round, so that servicemembers and their families can continue to live in the most beautiful district in the country for generations to come. It is disappointing, however, that my opponent continues to spread lies and misinformation about the future of Parris Island. This week, five former high-ranking USMC officials called on state Rep. Mace to stop politicizing the issue and spreading her “outlandish” and “factually inaccurate claims.”
Mace: In Congress I will always be an ally for our troops. I will stand up to ensure our bases have the necessary resources to continue training soldiers effectively. I will not support legislation that puts unrealistic expectations on them. I’ll fight the liberal California agenda that put Parris Island on the chopping block. I’ll also work with our South Carolina GOP delegation, who filed legislation to fix the problem at Parris Island and ensure the continued use of all of our bases in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.
Having grown up in Charleston, I saw the aftermath of the Navy base closure and the devastating impact it had on our economy and beyond, which is one of many reasons why I’m fighting so hard to protect Parris Island.
President Trump tweeted this month that he wants all remaining forces in Afghanistan home by Christmas. Do you support the commander in chief's move to withdraw American forces out of the Middle East?
Cunningham: Given the logistical challenges that would come with transporting over 8,000 servicemembers and billions of dollars of equipment out of the country in only 10 weeks, as well as the conflicting statements from the president’s senior advisors since he made this announcement, I think this may be another one of those times where my Republican colleagues might say the president is meant to be taken “seriously but not literally.”
Like the president, I think we all would like to see our men and women in uniform back home and out of harm’s way as soon as possible. And after nearly 20 years, it’s long past time we had a public debate on the future of American involvement in Afghanistan, as well as in the Middle East more broadly, which is why I have consistently argued for Congress to reassert its role in national security decision making. But setting an arbitrary date to get American troops completely out of Afghanistan plays right into the Taliban’s hands and threatens any hope for a peaceful, prosperous future for the Afghan people.
Mace: We do not need to continue being in endless wars. I support the president’s effort to bring our troops home. I also believe we should continue to protect our interests abroad. We need to continue brokering peace in the Middle East like the president and his administration have via treaties. We also need to make sure Israel has a true ally.
Veterans are statistically more susceptible to fatally contracting COVID-19. What do you believe needs to be done to improve healthcare access and VA treatment for retired service members in the 1st District?
Cunningham: COVID-19 has exposed countless faults in America’s healthcare system, including in the care provided to our veterans and retirees. As a Member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I will continue to work with both parties to address these issues and ensure our veterans have the care that they deserve.
I was proud to see the president sign my bill, the VA Tele-Hearing Modernization Act, which will allow veterans to participate in VA disability hearings via teleconference at home, so that they do not have to risk exposure to continue with their claims.
Looking forward, I will continue to advocate for policies that would dramatically improve health care for veterans and retirees. One example is to temporarily eliminate TRICARE copays on mail order prescriptions, to ensure that military retirees can access their medicine without endangering themselves or others.
And, in July, the House passed my bill, the Support Our National Guard Act, which would provide National Guardsmen who were activated to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with six months of health care coverage after they return home. Similar legislation was passed in the Senate, so I look forward to seeing it become law later this year.
Mace: For too long the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been a bureaucratic nightmare. I saw this firsthand how difficult it can be as my father battled health issues from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Supporting our veterans is a deeply personal issue. During my time in the state House, I sponsored legislation to create the S.C. Department of Veterans Affairs. One of the requirements in this legislation was that the secretary must always be a veteran themselves. It is incredibly important that the person running the VA knows personally the struggles our veterans go through starting the moment they arrive back home.