At first glance, American Legion Peter Gunn Post 10 in central Las Vegas doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a presidential campaign event.
A windowless room on the north side of the building comfortably seats about two dozen – mostly at small tables with red- or blue-checkered plastic tablecloths or weathered chairs and bar stools along its perimeter. Most of the light is provided by three lamps wrapped in glass beer labels and suspended above a pool table.
But that was precisely where U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton — a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and the 19th Democrat to officially jump into the 2020 race – chose to spend almost two hours Saturday morning during his second trip to Nevada since entering the race in April.
The visit was part of a week of similar events in which the Massachusetts congressman went directly to veterans across the country to share his own story of post-traumatic stress disorder and listen to theirs in an effort to promote mental health awareness.
He told the small group of his time in the Iraq War, where he remembered seeing a family’s car riddled with gunfire. A 4- or 5-year-old boy lay writhing in agony as he passed. Moulton said he chose to leave the boy so as to not endanger his fellow Marines – a decision that took years and several attempts at therapy to cope with.
“I think that having gone through this experience and having dealt with this and come out the other side has made me a stronger person,” Moulton said. “It’s made me a better leader, and it certainly has made me more qualified for president having made life or death decisions in my life before.”
Although banners adorned the walls, the event barely resembled a campaign event. Moulton and the local veterans who shared stories referenced his candidacy only a few times. There was little policy discussion and no mention of President Donald Trump or any fellow Democratic challengers.
In all, about five local veterans shared stories of war and return.
Kyle Rodgers said he struggled to stay out of trouble after four years fighting in Fallujah. It wasn’t until he spent time in a mental hospital for various minor crimes that he actually met other combat veterans struggling with the same problems and received the help he needed.
Cesar Lopez shared that he was in the United States illegally, having been deported due to minor offenses as he struggled to readjust after three years in the Marines. He came to the United States as a 3-year-old and held a green card most of his life.
Lopez said he’s asking every presidential candidate he can reach as they move through Las Vegas to pledge an executive order banning the deportation of veterans. Moulton immediately agreed to the pledge.
Rodney Smith, an Air Force veteran, said it was hard to get help as the nature of his service does not allow him to discuss any specifics. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury.
“It’s huge,” Smith said of Moulton’s visit in a later interview. “We’re used to the platitudes and ‘thank you for your service,’ but he wasn’t just talking at us. He shared and opened it up for others to share and give feedback.”
After the event, Moulton said he will return to the more traditional campaign trail next week. He admitted that he could fall short of the 130,000 donors needed to participate in the first debates but remained optimistic he could close the gap between himself and the front-runners.
“My background is unique,” Moulton said. “And I think my leadership experience is uniquely qualified to bring together the coalition that we need to win next November.”