KENNESAW — Herschel Walker, the former football star turned Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, spoke to supporters at a restaurant at Cobb County International Airport Tuesday, criticizing what he sees as a “woke military” in a talk centered around military issues.
“Russia, China, Iran, they’re not concerned about a woke military, they’re training for war,” Walker told the crowd at Elevation Chophouse.
Walker argued that President Joe Biden has made the military weaker, and, along with the event’s emcee, criticized the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which have led to some service members being discharged.
“Are we serious? Are we really serious that we will do that to our heroes that fought for this country?” Walker said.
After introducing himself with, “My name is Herschel Walker, and my pronouns are, I’m fed up,” Walker said that America’s adversaries are not concerned with gender issues or “worried about a tank recharging in the desert,” an apparent reference to electric vehicles.
He also blasted the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, and said his Democratic opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock, had not held the president accountable for it.
As Walker spoke, the U.S. Senate was debating a bill that would expand health benefits for veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits. The bill passed Tuesday night 89-11. Walker didn’t take questions from the media after the event, but campaign spokesman Will Kiley said Walker supports the legislation.
Seeking to tie Warnock to Biden, Walker also criticized Democrats’ record on inflation and crime.
“The gas prices, it’s not my fault. But I can lay it in the hand of the guy I’m running against, he voted against the pipeline. You can see the cost of groceries, it’s not my fault. The guy I’m running against, he voted against … the Keystone Pipeline. The crime on the street, it’s not my fault. The guy I’m running against, he voted for soft on crime. That’s not American,” Walker said.
Walker delivered solo remarks but also sat for a question-and-answer with emcee Michael Steele.
Steele is a retired Army colonel who played football at Georgia with Walker. He is also known for fighting in the Somalia mission Operation Gothic Serpent, depicted in the film “Black Hawk Down,” and for leading Operation Iron Triangle, an Iraq War operation where three Iraqi detainees were killed, leading to court-martials and convictions for three soldiers.
Steele said he has likely known Walker longer than anyone else at the event. He described Walker as compassionate, authentic, resilient and a devout Christian.
When prepping for the event, Steele said, he was told to include some levity in his introduction.
“But I’m going to tell you, I’m not interested in providing levity or entertainment tonight,” Steele said. “One of our biggest flaws, as citizens of the United States, is we lack the appropriate level of sobriety when it comes to the fact we have people that are systematically, methodically, disassembling, destroying the United States of America, because they hate the United States.”
Walker in the Q&A highlighted his experience visiting military bases and working with veterans who face mental health problems. Walker has written about his own mental health challenges.
“I’m gonna tell y’all something you may not like, don’t be mad at Herschel Walker, and it’s probably gonna be a good sound bite tomorrow, but, everybody are mentally crazy. But some people handle it better than others,” Walker said. “So I’m saying, it’s OK if you got a problem, because there are people out there that can help you.”
Walker’s work with veterans has faced scrutiny. The Associated Press reported in May that Walker was paid $331,000 last year to work as a spokesman for Patriot Support, a for-profit program offered by hospital chain Universal Health Services. The Justice Department and a group of states sued the hospital chain, alleging that it “aggressively pushed those with government-sponsored insurance into inpatient mental health care to drive revenue.”
The event attracted dozens of conservatives, many of them who were fans of both Walker the candidate and Walker the athlete.
Vicki Wisecup of Dallas, an analyst at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, was one of dozens who stood patiently in line to take a photo with Walker after his remarks. She had him sign two Georgia football-themed mugs. Walker has “always been there,” for the state of Georgia, she said, and has an authenticity about him.
She hopes that Walker, if elected, will do something to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs. She said her son, a Navy veteran who served during the Gulf War, has PTSD and has had trouble getting assistance from the VA.
“He’s real. And his statements about God, you don’t talk like that unless you’re a firm believer,” Wisecup said.
Woodstock resident Jeff Thompson works as a youth pastor and as an engagement director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group. He’s always held Walker in high regard for his athletic exploits.
“He’s not like a big politician feel, he gives you a genuine feeling,” Thompson said.
Cobb GOP Chair Salleigh Grubbs, who attended, said she felt Walker has an unpretentious appeal, and predicted success in November.
“I feel very confident. I think people are fed up,” Grubbs said. “They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. … Herschel is a humble guy, and people make a big mistake in confusing humility with, you know, not being an attack dog. And he’s not going to be an attack dog, but he’s going to be there to represent the American people.”
Brant Meadows is a semi-retired east Cobb resident and the son of activist Carolyn Meadows, the president of the National Rifle Association. He also cited Walker’s outspoken Christian faith as a positive.
“There’s somebody else that’s running on the other side that claims to have some affiliation with Jesus and God — I don’t hear a whole lot about that from him,” Meadows said, referencing Warnock, who is pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. “What I hear from Herschel is he’s willing to talk about his faith and his journey, and his ups and his downs. We’re all sinners in this world. But God, he has nothing but to call on but sinners. And God will equip everybody and God has equipped that man to run and to save our country.”
Meadows, though, is an Auburn University graduate and football fan.
“I’ll bark for that dog,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the only dog I’ll bark for right there.”