DURYEA, COUNTY LUZERNE – Mehmet Oz presented his medical background and conservative values to veterans on Friday, calling out a vote for him as a rejection of the “status quo” that he blamed for many of the problems veterans face.
He pledged to work to increase access to mental health resources, reduce backlogs with the US Department of Veterans Affairs and fight for “medical freedoms.”
“If you’re not happy with where we’re going, I’m the man for change,” Oz said at a roundtable meeting at the VFW in Duryea.
It was led by state treasurer Stacy Garrity, a Republican who served on the army reservation, and gathered a dozen retired military personnel, along with corrections officers and representatives from the VA.
Oz introduced himself as the child of Turkish immigrants whose family became successful in the United States after his father received a scholarship to study medicine here.
“What you’ve all been fighting for is that American dream,” he said. “That’s the American dream that I don’t think is being passed on as effectively as it should be.”
Oz has spent the past few months crisscrossing the state, passing barbershops and city picnics and having voter roundtables on a variety of topics. He has highlighted those stops on social media and in press releases to differentiate between him and Lt. gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee, who has been off track for nearly three months since his May 13 stroke sidelined his personal campaign.
Fetterman’s campaign announced Friday that Fetterman would appear at a rally in Erie on August 12, the first public event since he won the primaries.
Much of the panel was devoted to discussing the implications of vaccine mandates and the COVID-19 lockdown for service members.
“We have witnessed the perversion of science during COVID, the weaponization of science… to justify people’s belief systems,” Oz said.
Oz said he has been vaccinated and boosted and supports vaccinating older Americans, but “vaccinating young adults and children makes no sense to me.”
James May, a U.S. Army officer and chaplain running for state representative in the Northeast, said he thought Oz’s celebrity, combined with his background in communications and medicine, would elevate his status as a freshman senator.
“As we look at how we can promote freedom and medical freedom, it’s good to know we have you on our side,” May said.
Oz spent much of the hour-long event listening to the veterans talk about issues such as long wait times to get medical care at the VA and the lack of proactive outreach to help veterans struggling with mental health issues. The conversation was very emotional at times, with stories of trauma, suicide and drug use.
Jennifer Kania was moved to tears as she talked about her father’s struggles with depression and PTSD after serving in Vietnam. He committed suicide 20 years ago. Kania now helps other vets at the VFW in nearby Old Forge.
“These are issues we can address,” Oz said. “That’s what makes it even more tragic is that he risked his life to help us and we weren’t there for him when he needed us back. That is up to us.”
Oz said telemedicine could be a life-saver for people who need mental health services, especially in rural areas. He said that as a heart surgeon, he had heard from veterans about their military trauma prior to major surgeries.
Oz has military experience himself – as a young man he served in the Turkish army for 60 days to maintain his dual citizenship. His service and ties to Turkey were heavily criticized in the primaries but were not discussed at the event, and one veteran dismissed that line of attack, saying “military is military.”
“It doesn’t matter which industry you work in, in which country. You’re still fighting,” Mary Ann King, a retired United States Army sergeant, said on Friday’s panel.
The small crowd was extremely friendly towards Oz, who is about 10 points behind Fetterman in the most recent polls. He has strived to win over more voters after a difficult GOP primaries.
Barry Casper, a retired Air Force officer, said he’s seen more people flock to Oz from his native Bucks region in recent months.
“You grow on us,” he told Oz. “People who were initially ‘Oh, I don’t know about Dr. Oz’ see that he’s the real deal.”