Republican presidential contender Donald Trump vowed to offer frustrated veterans subsidized private health care, charging that immigrants in the country illegally receive better care than the nation's wounded soldiers.
The comments, delivered Tuesday aboard a retired World War II battleship in Los Angeles harbor, came on the eve of the second Republican presidential debate in nearby Simi Valley, where some of the billionaire businessman's Republican rivals are expected to challenge his fiery rhetoric on immigration.
"We have illegal immigrants that are treated better by far than our veterans," Trump declared, the USS Iowa's massive 16-inch (40-centimeter) guns behind him. "It's not going to happen anymore."
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The Republican front-runner gave no details on how he would pay for an expansion in the armed forces — or veterans' health care — leaving his foreign policy agenda still mostly a blank slate.
He called for a military buildup so broad that no foe would challenge the U.S., as well as a new health care deal for veterans stuck on waiting lists in hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In doing so, he again swiped at people who are in the country illegally, a refrain that has powered his campaign since the start.
"There's tremendous crime, there's tremendous drugs pouring across the border," Trump said. "We're going to build a wall."
Dozens of protesters gathered in the parking lot adjacent to the battleship, periodically chanting, "He's a racist."
To date, the GOP front-runner has laid out few policy details beyond his rallying cry to make America "great again."
Trump's appearance, organized by Veterans for a Strong America, drew more than 1,000 attendees to the top deck of the battleship, which has been docked in Los Angeles as a nonprofit tourist attraction, community gathering space and educational museum since 2012.
But some critics contend Trump's visit -- on the eve of the CNN Republican candidate debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library -- is not an appropriate use of the battleship.
A state senator planned a "Dump Trump" event outside the Iowa to discuss pending legislation that would Califonrnia to sever ties with the billionaire. And an online petition, "Tell the USS Iowa: We Don't Want Trump in San Pedro," had garnered more than 3,500 signatures as of late last week from area residents calling for the event to be canceled.
Lopez went on to say that those who signed the petition share a belief in zero-tolerance for hateful remarks and discrimination. Others who made comments online shared similar sentiments.
"I'm signing (the petition) because Trump's message should not be heard in a community that is largely made up of hard-working immigrants and people of color," Flor Barajas Tena of Santa Ana wrote.
State Senator Isadore Hall planned a 5 p.m. demonstration outside the battleship to discuss state bill SR 39, which would encourage the state of California and private citizens to "divest from Donald Trump, The Trump Organization, and any affiliated entities."
Whether residents love him or hate him, Trump's appearance went on as scheduled just after 6 p.m., with ticket prices ranging from $1,000 to $100, according to Veterans for a Strong America Chairman Joel Arends.
Proceeds from the night will benefit the conservative grassroots organization, which was founded in 2010 and openly supports having a strong American military, Arends said..
He said none of the money raised would go to political campaigns or candidates, and Veterans for a Strong America doesn't typically endorse candidates before the primaries.
"We could have done this event at a convention center or a hotel, but we wanted to support the nonprofit USS Iowa, which really exemplifies who our members are because of the men who served on it and what it stands for," Arends said.
Arends, who is a veteran, said he is disappointed to hear that some people don't want Trump to speak.
"The First Amendment is something that our veterans fight to protect, and it's highly disturbing that they (the petitioners) are attacking veterans who protect their right to speak," Arends said. "We're against censorship. We're against telling people how they can speak or what they can say."
USS Iowa President and CEO Jonathan Williams said the battleship was rented at market rate to South Dakota-based Veterans for a Strong America. Money raised by renting the ship for special events helps support ship maintenance and educational programs -- the vessel works with an annual budget of about $4 million.
"We are not taking sides -- this is neutral ground," Williams said. "Our number one goal is to be a community platform, and freedom of speech is a great thing, whether that's from Trump or from protestors. We are happy people are talking."
This is the first time Veterans for a Strong America has used the battleship, which rents out and hosts a variety of events throughout the year, from free community movie nights and a veterans' job fair to corporate events that can be much larger in scale than Trump's appearance, Williams said. Registration and advance payment is required for those interested in attending the event. For details, visit www.veteransforamerica.org.