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AMERS

Outside Georgia's Fort Benning, a military town closes ranks around Trump

(This September 9 story corrects quote and number of years of service in paragraph 4)

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COLUMBUS, Ga. (Reuters) - In Columbus, Georgia, a city of just under 200,000 people near the U.S. Army’s sprawling Fort Benning, many residents remain reluctant to criticize President Donald Trump after media reports that he called American war dead “losers” and “suckers.”

“We don’t talk about that around here,” said Donnell Brown, 66, who expressed pride in his daughter, a U.S. Army officer. “He says so many things, we let it go. He’s doing a great job.”

Columbus draws its social and economic lifeblood from the 120,000 active-duty soldiers, reservists and civilian workers at the base, with many of the city’s residents strongly supporting the Republican president. Interviews with some locals indicated that Trump’s reported remarks would not dissuade them from voting for him as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

“Does it sound like something he’d say? Yes,” said Zachary Edwards, 30, owner of Edwards Military Supply who served 10 years in the Army. “Does it matter? No.”

“I will be voting for Trump,” he said.

Military veterans and current service members represent a key voting bloc for Trump.

The president, who often lauds U.S. troops even as he criticizes the military leadership, has denied that he made the comments reported by The Atlantic and other news outlets regarding American war dead. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said that if true the remarks show Trump “is not fit to do the job of president, to be the commander in chief.”

Trump won Georgia in the 2016 presidential election. A repeat victory seems crucial for his re-election chances. Georgia has not backed a Democratic candidate for president since 1992.

Bill Davenport, a retired 23-year U.S. Air Force veteran who was splitting oak logs at a local trailer park in Columbus, said Trump’s support of the military was undeniable and that he would vote for him in the election.

“He’s been pouring money into the military like no one else. Of course he cares,” Davenport said. “What he said - a slip of the tongue. He didn’t mean it.”

At L.A. Cutz barber shop, owner Kevin Williams, a U.S. Army veteran who served three tours of duty in Iraq, was one of the few willing to publicly criticize Trump.

“That sounds exactly like what he would say,” Williams, 38, said. “He will not be getting my vote. He has no respect for the soldier.”

At the roadside restaurant Taco el Paisa, a retired staff sergeant named Anthony who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said Trump’s reported comments have rattled the base and the city where almost every shop caters to service members. He declined to give his last name because he works for the military as a civilian contractor.

“A lot of my men are still in the service and we talk about this. It’s rolled through the base like a tremor,” he said. “They won’t say anything in public. They’re wired to follow the chain of command. But privately, he is losing votes. This is costing him if he knows it or not.”

Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Will Dunham

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