President orders forgiveness of student loan debt for disable vets

LOUISVILLE — President Donald Trump addressed several issues affecting veterans at the AMVETS 75th National Convention on Wednesday in downtown Louisville.

The most significant of his actions as he spoke to over 1,000 veterans at the Galt House was the elimination of federal student loan debt for permanently and totally disabled veterans. At the conclusion of his 40-minute speech, Trump invited a group of individuals — including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and AMVETS national executive director Joe Chenelly — to join him on stage as he signed a presidential memorandum ordering the forgiveness of student loan debt for over 25,000 disabled veterans — with the average total being $30,000 each.

"Today, I'm proud to announce that I'm taking executive action to ensure that our wounded warriors are not saddled with mountains of student debt," Trump said just before signing the document. "In a few moments, I will sign a memorandum directing the department of education to eliminate every penny of federal student loan debt owed by American veterans who are completely and permanently disabled."

The topic was one Chenelly and others within his organization had lobbied for and hoped to see action taken on at the executive level.

'We have a lot of veterans who have some pretty steep college debt," Chenelly said earlier Wednesday. "That issue is not just in the general public. Veterans suffer with that as well."

The private convention had several hallmarks of a Trump event. Among them were a gathering of protesters outside the venue in downtown Louisville, the uttering of catch phrases such as "you're fired," and verbal attacks on the media.

Trump did, however, stay on topic for a majority of the event, never straying too far from veterans issues for too long.

After leading off with general comments regarding the U.S. military, including the war with ISIS and his push for a "space force," the president got more granular with his topics.

Outside of the debt forgiveness, Trump also devoted a large amount of time to veteran suicides. Statistics show that at least 22 veterans take their lives each day, but many AMVETS members believe that number to be higher since some states do not report suicides.

"In my opinion, the Department of Defense needs to get more involved on the out-processing [of soldiers] to find problems instead of shoving them out the door and dumping them on the VA," member Lee Williams said Wednesday. "To be very blunt, they train us to be killers. The enemy is just an obstacle, and you dehumanize them. They don't deprogram that when you come home. It's very hard to adjust."

Williams noted that the suicide rate is highest amongst women and older veterans, such as those who fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

"They have problems that were never covered but are coming to a head now," he said. "It's been going on for a long period of time. If they take care of it now coming out, 50 years from now, we won't have the problems we have today."

Trump mentioned legislation that had addressed health care issues, such as the VA Accountability Act, which he said had so far removed more than 7,600 "sadistic, terrible people" from employment in the VA. He also said that wait times for VA care is down by nearly 33 percent.

A "record" $8.6 billion budget has been made available for mental health services, Trump added, with the White House also opening a VA hotline. Additionally, the VA has focused on same-day emergency mental health screenings for veterans.

"To end the tragedy of veteran suicide, it will require government and society at all levels working together," Trump said.

One way Trump suggested that could happen is by making a new Johnson & Johnson drug that helps with anxiety widely available for veterans, specifically by making it free.

"It's an inhaler, and you take it," Trump said. "Its results are incredible. I don't know long-term, but it really has an incredible effect on people."

The initiative most directly related to the issue of veteran suicides discussed during the event was the AMVETS Heal Program, which provides emergency support for veterans in crisis and their families.

Trump said he would like to build on the proven strategies established by the program. Chenelly added earlier Wednesday that it had saved over 600 lives this year alone.

Aside from the main address, Chenelly said Trump's attendance also served a larger purpose.

"It's really important to hear from the president, but we're also looking forward to the president and his staff to hear from our members," Chenelly said. "This is a really good opportunity for us to inform him on what's needed with our veterans."

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