During his congressional campaign for Pennsylvania U.S. House District 17, which includes Mt. Lebanon, Penn Hills, the North Hills, western Allegheny County suburbs, and all of Beaver County, Parnell has highlighted his military experience as a virtue, as well as hawked his book in campaign ads. He is running against U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Mt. Lebanon), who is a Marine veteran.
But when it comes to some other U.S. veterans of the wars following Vietnam, he has some harsh rhetoric. And it's being called out by at least one national veterans group.
In a September 2019 appearance for RangerUpVideo's YouTube channel, Parnell says he has met a lot of veterans who come back and “feel like the country owes them something for their service.” Parnell announced his congressional run in October 2019.
“I’m just like, you volunteered to do this, you volunteered to serve, so it’s like, you should be thankful that you live in a country that appreciates it and loves it, thanks you for it,” said Parnell during the video clip of the show. “But at the end of the — the truth of the matter is, they don’t owe you anything, because you volunteered for this.”
Parnell was talking with Leather Talk Short host Nick Palmisciano in a segment described on YouTube as a discussion about Vietnam vets and how “the path to sorrow starts with increased entitlement.” Leather Talk Short is a YouTube segment of RangerUp, a clothing company founded by veterans. During the about seven-minute segment, Parnell and Palmisciano talk about their shared reverence for Vietnam vets and complain about how the country treated veterans coming home from war differently after World War II and the Vietnam War than how they are treated today.
Palmisciano claims that when soldiers came home from WWII, “no one gave a shit” and “they came back and they had to integrate.” (In 1944, before WWII had even ended, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill, which provided a vast range of benefits to returning WWII veterans, including low-cost mortgages, low-interest business loans, one year of unemployment compensation, and dedicated payments of tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college, or vocational school.)
Parnell was more concerned about how Vietnam vets didn’t receive praise or the help they deserved. According to a New York Times article from 1972, benefits for returning Vietnam War veterans were only eligible for $175 a month, which wasn’t even enough to push vets above the federal poverty line at the time.
“Vietnam Vets, some of the charity events that I do, and the charity organization that I work with, is finding the Vietnam vets that need help,” said Parnell. “And most of the time, when you bring them in to celebrate them in the community, that is the first time they have ever been welcomed home. You talk to those guys almost universally, and they say, ‘Yeah, we have the experience,’ but we wanted to make sure that no subsequent generation ever had to experience anything like that.”
But when it comes to veterans for subsequent wars after the Vietnam War, Parnell was far less gracious and claimed that veterans now have become entitled and don’t know how good they have it.
“I mean we’ve got resources, we have health care, we have charity organizations that want to help us,” said Parnell referencing the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. “And so I do think that creates a sense of ‘I’m owed something.’ And if people aren’t wired into the veteran community, and they’ve never even met someone in uniform, and they don’t treat that veteran the way that they want to be treated, it can create the sense of, you know, unhealthy entitlement.”
According to 2019 report from the VA, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults in 2017. According to the Military Times, the VA has seen a 20-year run in increased federal spending.
Jon Soltz is the Chairman of VoteVets, a national, left-leaning veterans group. Soltz is an Iraq War veteran who went to school at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington County, as well as graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. He said Parnell’s comments are one of many reasons why he isn’t a “serious congressional candidate.”
“America makes a sacred trust with those who serve. If you are wounded in combat, we're going to take care of you when you get home,” says Soltz. “If you serve, we'll help you get an education. If you feel overwhelmed by the mental wounds of war, we'll be there to help. From all those things, to help with mortgages, and more, we make a deal with those who serve, and we do owe them to make good on those promises. It's sickening that Sean Parnell thinks we should just leave veterans out in the cold."
The Parnell campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article. However, in the past, Parnell has referred to VoteVets as a “fringe organization that most veterans in the United States look at with profound disdain.”
In the RangerUp video, Parnell took particular aim at the proliferation of charities catered to veteran issues, saying they are a “dime a dozen” now, and they are part of the reason for the sense of entitlement of veterans of recent conflicts.
Interestingly, Parnell himself co-founded a veteran-focused private charity called American Warrior Initiative in 2015. AWI, which provides gifts and education to wounded veterans across the country, is closely aligned with Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation. One of its co-founders, Louise Thaxton, has worked at Fairway for 20 years, and according to tax documents, AWI receives the vast majority of its donations from Fairway.
Though he is listed as working for AWI, Parnell did not disclose any 2019 or 2020 income from AWI on his congressional financial disclosure forms. However, according to WESA, Parnell made upwards of $325,000 in 2019 working as a consultant for Fairway. Parnell also earned more than $50,000 in book royalties, and pulled in $30,000 in appearance fees from an oil and gas conference. (Parnell has been a strong booster of natural-gas drilling, aka fracking.)
“I always say that the road to sorrow in life is really paved with entitlement, and I think that for the veteran community, you know you talk about finding a mission greater than yourself, like, that’s diametrically opposed to being entitled,” said Parnell in the video. “You are owed nothing.”
Parnell is speaking tonight, Aug. 24, at the Republican National Convention.