GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has put himself between veterans after engaging in a heated spat earlier this week with the family of U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, killed in the Iraq war in 2004. And Trump's continued attacks on the family could prove costly in Florida, a state 1.6 million veterans call home.
Sunshine State veterans have expressed disenchantment over Trump’s latest head-to-head with Ghazala and Khizr Khan, the Gold Star soldier's Muslim-American mom and dad who appeared at the Democratic National Convention to speak criticizing the billionaire businessman.
Trump shot back in an attempt, he says, to defend himself against Khizr Khans' words -- a move for which he says he’s not sorry.
"I don’t regret anything,” said Trump. “I said nice things about the son and I feel that very strongly, but of course I was hit very hard from the stage and you know it’s just one of those things, but no I don’t regret anything."
Trump’s comments on the family came under fire from all sectors, from GOP leaders, Democrats and the media.
But for some watching the blow by blow of Trump’s back-and-forth with the Khans, the fight felt personal -- and could get costly in important places like Florida, a must-win state for anyone hoping to sit in the Oval Office next year.
Florida's 1.6 million veterans make the state the third-largest in veteran population, behind California and Texas. Vets make up 12 percent of the state’s total population.
Trump drew a crowd of 15,000 at a rally in Jacksonville this week, but veterans from the Union Veterans Council said they didn’t see how Trump could pull himself out of the grave he had dug in his relationship with vets.
“He talks about how he respects veterans and how he’s going to fix the VA,” said Korean and Vietnam Army vet David Gates. “But from how he reacts to the Khan family, I see no respect for veterans, for their sacrifice, at all.”
Union members clearly expressed their distaste for Trump, saying they were puzzled by the GOP nominee’s insults.
Other veterans said they, too, weren’t cheering for Team Trump after his remarks.
“It’s outrageous to us that he has attacked this family,” said Florida Veterans for Common Sense president and Air Force veteran Gene Jones. “He should be repudiated.”
Trump’s shot at the Khan family hasn’t seemed to hit any target that might help him. Jones said it wasn’t just Trump’s comments to the Khan family that caused him the most concern.
“He’s just out of touch with reality,” he explained.
In Washington, veterans flocked to Capitol Hill Thursday to rally against the GOP nominee, who has taken politics by storm over the last year.
“Donald Trump and his surrogates have demonstrated that their bigotry and hate speech know no bounds,” Nate Terani, the first Muslim American to serve in the US Navy Presidential Honor Guard, said. “Donald Trump is a racist and bigot and wholly unfit for this position.”
These veterans presented a petition to U.S. Sen. John McCain to “unendorse” the candidate, gathering over 100,000 signatures. McCain endorsed Trump in May.
Veterans have always represented an important voting bloc in elections. With polls indicating trouble for Trump in several swing states, he’ll need to convince many voters to take his side before November.
Some veterans say he’s clearly the better choice over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“I would like to think that he might restore some of the essential ingredients of a country’s survival back into the due processes and people of America, but power does funny things to people,” said Vietnam veteran Thomas Pastore. “I would gamble on Trump, as I am certain that Hillary has never and will never demonstrate any more loyalty to anyone other than her reflection.”
Others weren’t so sure, pointing to Trump’s comments on Khan as an indicator he’s in trouble.
“It’ll hurt him,” Gene Jones told Sunshine State News. “Rest assured.”
As of now, it’s uncertain whether Trump has any intentions of trying to heal his strained relationship with Florida veterans, and the clock is ticking for him to make amends.