MANATEE -- Three military veterans took turns speaking on a small stage early Tuesday evening before more than 1,000 Marco Rubio supporters.
The men, including a former prisoner of war, each endorsed the Republican presidential candidate moments before he arrived at a rally in Dolphin Aviation.
Aside from raving about Rubio, the men had one common thread -- taking aim at Rubio's most controversial opponent, Donald Trump.
"I'm here today to tell you that Donald Trump cannot be the next commander in chief," said Lt. Col. Michael Waltz, fueling a loud round of applause. "Personally, and from a policy perspective, he doesn't deserve it. Our men and women in uniform deserve better."
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The Afghanistan War veteran said he wanted to examine what kind of person Trump is.
"Here's a man who went to a boarding school up in New York and says, well, because that was so tough, he feels like he was in the military and served like veterans have," Waltz said. "Here's a man who has publicly and internationally insulted our prisoners of war."
Waltz pointed out American prisoners of war are rewarded with medals for withstanding torture and anything else enemies bring upon them to try to get the prisoners to denounce the United States.
"Here's a man that wants to be commander in chief, yet makes fun of people like John McCain and our prisoners of war," he said. "And here's a man who insults ethnic minorities, the disabled, and others that are the very fabric of this country and of our military."
Tom Hanton, a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from June 27, 1972, until his release March 28, 1973, said he was one of those men Trump called a loser.
"That's probably the most insulting thing a politician's ever said. ... I never heard of any fellow American call us losers," he said.
Hanton said those who have been in combat or served in the military don't know if they are going to return from a mission, be captured or wounded. He said the disrespectful Trump comments indirectly insult everyone in the room who has served in the military or is in the military.
"I don't see leadership -- not the leadership I want -- as a commander in chief out of Donald Trump," Hanton said. "What I see out of Marco Rubio is a level guy. He will not do the 'Ready, shoot, aim' that Donald Trump will do and he doesn't know where that bullet's going."
Staff Sgt. Johnny "Joey" Jones of the U.S. Marine Corps received loud applause and cheers as he was helped up onto the stage. The Georgia native lost his legs in 2010 when an improvised explosive device detonated under him in Afghanistan.
"If I can make it up those steps, we can win this election, right?" he asked the cheering crowd.
When it was time to pick which presidential candidate to support, Jones said he first looked at the record of those who supported military personnel -- especially those who return home with injuries like his.
"What we need in this country isn't someone who can stand up here and speak fire and brimstone for the purpose of speaking fire and brimstone, but someone who's worked with people in their party, and the other party, to get things done," he said. "The VA isn't there, but it's in a better place where we have much more opportunity to get it there because of Senator Marco Rubio's work."
Before launching into his rally speech, Rubio first thanked the military men who endorsed him.
"By the way, I am so honored to be joined here by these three incredible heroes -- not just veterans, American heroes," he said. "And I thank God for them and their service. Thank you very much."
Toni Parsons, 84, attended the rally decked out in Rubio paraphernalia. The Bradenton resident said she was impressed by what the military veterans had to say.
"I'm very proud of them," she said.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.