By Erin McPike
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump appealed to veterans on Tuesday by saying a Trump administration would let them go to private hospitals and see private doctors if the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to provide decent care.
In a 14-minute speech that had been billed as a major national security address, the real estate mogul chose a stage with the decommissioned battleship USS Iowa as a backdrop.
But he made only glancing references to Iran and did not mention the Islamic State group once. Instead, he used the venue to drive his crusade against illegal immigration and appeal to veterans, one day before the second televised debate between Republican contenders for the November 2016 election.
"We have illegal immigrants that are treated better, by far, than our veterans. That’s not going to happen anymore,” he said on a stage in front of three 16-inch guns on the battleship that was commissioned during World War II. It was donated to the city of Los Angeles three years ago and has since become a museum.
"We're going to create a whole new system. We're going to take this system apart," Trump vowed.
"And if they're not doing their job, the veterans are going to go to private doctors, private hospitals. We're going to reimburse those doctors and those hospitals, and you're going to get the greatest service of any veterans in any country because you deserve it."
The Republican frontrunner has been championing veterans on the campaign trail, even challenging CNN, the host of Wednesday's debate, to donate to veterans groups the network’s profits from the steep increase in advertising rates charged during the program.
Trump won the endorsement of the Veterans for a Strong America, a tax-exempt advocacy organization, which claims more than 500,000 members and that was the sponsor of Tuesday's event.
Its chairman, Joel Arends, offered the group’s support, saying he thought it was time for a president with courage who would take a stand for veterans.
Trump said he neither expected nor asked for the endorsement, but added: “I will say this, I am with the veterans 100 percent. They’re our greatest people. They’re being treated terribly.”
As he was introduced, a group of protesters shouted complaints from outside a fence surrounding the museum's parking lot.
“We have people protesting us. I think we’re doing something right here folks,” Arends said.
But others attending the event, including a 60-year-old Latino pharmaceutical salesman, said he may vote for Trump because he wants the problem of illegal immigration addressed.
“At what point do we try to solve this issue? Eleven million people, 22 million, 44 million? What’s the number at which the nation will deal with this?”
Tickets for the event cost $100 for general admission, $250 for preferred seating and up to $1,000 for a seat in front of the podium, although veterans with valid identification were allowed in for free.
For more on the 2016 presidential race, see the Reuters blog, “Tales from the Trail” (http://blogs.reuters.com/talesfromthetrail/).
(Editing by Ken Wills)