TAMPA -- Ralph Dukes listened for an hour as fellow American veterans described for presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke how hard it was to get medical care despite their sacrifice. He heard stories of friends and family who succumbed to addiction and the demons of war, and their struggle to get help.

When it was his turn to talk, Dukes broke down. There was nothing else to add, he said, wiping away tears.

“We shouldn’t have to fight for all this. It just doesn’t make any sense,” Dukes, a 13-year Navy vet, said. The Tampa resident then turned to O’Rourke: “For you to come along and listen to us, I admire that, I respect that. We want to see action. Words mean nothing without action.”

O’Rourke promised Monday to be that man of action if elected president.

“When I think about sending women and men into harms way, I’m going to be thinking about you,” the 46-year-old Democrat said. “I fully expect you to hold me accountable.”

The former Texas Congressman swung through Tampa on Monday morning for a round table with local veterans, medical professionals and advocates. They did not hide their contempt for the bureaucratic hurdles they face at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or their disappointment with politicians who forgot the men and women they sent to the front lines.

O’Rourke unveiled a plan that he said would ensure past and future veterans won’t face the same hardships. It includes filling 40,000 vacant Veterans Affairs positions, improving facilities and care and eliminating the backlog on disability claims. To curb opioid dependency among veterans, O’Rourke said he would let doctors prescribe medical marijuana to veterans.

SCOTT KEELER | Times US Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, left, listens to US Navy veteran Ralph Dukes, Tampa, right, as Dukes becomes emotional about veterans having to wait for treatment for their illnesses. In the center is Stephanie Keegan, Somers, N.Y., who's late son, US Army veteran Sgt. Daniel Keegan died in 2016. The group attended a discussion of veteran issues at Brew Bus Brewing, Tampa, Monday, June 24, 2019.
SCOTT KEELER | Times US Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, left, listens to US Navy veteran Ralph Dukes, Tampa, right, as Dukes becomes emotional about veterans having to wait for treatment for their illnesses. In the center is Stephanie Keegan, Somers, N.Y., who's late son, US Army veteran Sgt. Daniel Keegan died in 2016. The group attended a discussion of veteran issues at Brew Bus Brewing, Tampa, Monday, June 24, 2019.

To pay for it, O’Rourke would institute a “war tax” that would raise taxes any time Congress authorizes a new war. The money would be put aside for medical care, disability compensation and other programs related to the conflict.

Taxpayers who make over $200,000 would pay $1,000 under O’Rourke’s plan. Households with veterans or active military would be exempt.

“I want to make sure that anyone who has ever served is shown the dignity and respect they deserve,” he said.

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O’Rourke also said that as president he would end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and put the savings into VA programs, while seeking to avoid endless conflicts in other parts of the world.

President Donald Trump on Monday announced new sanctions on Iran in retaliation for shooting down an unmanned drone. The Pentagon has said the aircraft was hit while in international airspace, which Iran disputes. In opting for an economic solution, Trump has, for now, delayed military intervention and the threat of all-out conflict with Iran.

O’Rourke said he opposed a war with Iran and blamed the Trump administration for escalating tensions in the region. Trump backed out of the nuclear agreement with Iran that lifted previous sanctions in exchange for the nation halting its nuclear arms program.

“War has to be the absolute last resort,” O’Rourke said. “And I’m not convinced we need to go to war with Iran and invade yet another country in the Middle East to achieve our security objectives in that region.”

O’Rourke’s Tampa visit began Sunday, where he joined new Mayor Jane Castor and her partner Ana Cruz for brunch at Trip’s Diner. It was his first visit to the Tampa Bay area since he announced his campaign for president in March after a failed attempt at the U.S. Senate in 2018.

He’s the second candidate to stop in Tampa so far. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar held a climate change panel in March.

O’Rourke is one of 20 Democrats who will be in Miami this week for the first debates of the 2020 presidential cycle. O’Rourke and nine others will meet on a stage Wednesday night, with the other 10 debating Thursday.

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