HERNDON, Virginia (AP) — Donald Trump is drawing scorn from veterans' groups after he suggested that soldiers who suffer from mental health issues might not be as strong as those who don't.
Trump was speaking at an event organized by the Retired American Warriors political action committee Monday when he was asked about his commitment to faith-based programs aimed at preventing suicides and helping soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other issues.
"When you talk about the mental health problems — when people come back from war and combat, and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over, and you're strong and you can handle it. But a lot of people can't handle it," he said.
"And they see horror stories. They see events that you couldn't see in a movie, nobody would believe it," he added.
The comment drew condemnation from critics as well as veterans' groups that have been working for years to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues in an effort to encourage soldiers to seek treatment.
David Maulsby, the executive director of the Texas-based PTSD Foundation of America, told The Associated Press that, at first, he hoped Trump's remarks had been taken out of context. But after watching a recording of the exchange, he said the Republican nominee's words were detrimental to veterans struggling with PTSD symptoms.
"At the very least, it's a very poor choice of words. PTSD is basically a rewiring of the brain as the result of trauma or prolonged trauma. That is not a reflection of a person's strength, character, stamina — any of that," Maulsby said.
"Our veterans who are struggling with post-traumatic stress as a result of their combat need to be encouraged to seek help, and not be told they are weak or deficient in character in any way, shape or form," he said.
Zach Iscol, a Marine veteran and executive director of the nonprofit Headstrong Project, which helps provide free care for veterans suffering from PTSD, said Trump's comments weren't "just wrong, they're dangerous."
"The biggest barrier we have to people getting help is the stigma of getting help," he said. "It just shows a complete misunderstanding of what post-traumatic stress disorder is."
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a top Trump adviser, responded with a statement that accused the media of taking the GOP nominee's words out of context "to deceive voters and veterans."
Flynn said Trump has been highlighting the challenges veterans face when returning home and "has always respected the service and sacrifice of our military men and women."
Trump has vowed to make improving veterans' mental health services a top priority if he makes it to the White House.
Trump previously angered veterans when he suggested that Sen. John McCain, a former POW, was only considered a war hero because he was captured.
Colvin reported from Washington.