DURYEA, LUZERNE COUNTY — Mehmet Oz pitched his medical background and conservative values to veterans Friday, calling a vote for him a rejection of the “status quo” that he blamed for many of the issues veterans face.
He pledged to push to increase access to mental health resources, reduce backlogs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and fight for “medical freedoms.”
“If you’re not happy with where we’re headed, I’m the guy for change,” Oz said at a roundtable event at the VFW in Duryea.
It was led by State Treasurer Stacy Garrity, a Republican who served in the Army Reserve, and gathered together a dozen retired military service members, along with corrections officers and representatives from the VA.
Oz introduced himself as a child of Turkish immigrants whose family rose to success in the United States after his father received a scholarship to attend medical school here.
“What you all fought to preserve is that American dream,” he said. “That’s the American dream that I don’t feel is being passed along as effectively as it should.”
Oz has crisscrossed the state in recent months, dropping into barber shops and town picnics and hosting roundtables with voters on various issues. He’s highlighted those stops on social media and in press releases to draw a distinction between him and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee, who is approaching three months of being off the trail since his May 13 stroke sidelined his in-person campaigning.
Fetterman’s campaign announced Friday that Fetterman would appear at a rally in Erie on Aug. 12, the first public event since he won the primary election.
A large portion of the panel was spent discussing how vaccine mandates and COVID-19 shutdowns affected service members.
“We’ve witnessed during COVID the twisting of science, the weaponization of science … to justify people’s belief systems,” Oz said.
Oz said he’s vaccinated and boosted and supports vaccinating older Americans but “vaccinating young adults and children does not make sense to me.”
James May, a U.S. Army officer and chaplain who is running for state representative in the Northeast, said he thought Oz’s celebrity, combined with his background in communication and medicine, would elevate his status as a freshman senator.
“As we look to 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 hourlong event listening to the veterans talk about issues such as lengthy 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 at times highly emotional, with stories about trauma, suicide, and drug use.
Jennifer Kania was moved to tears talking about her father’s struggles with depression and PTSD following his service in Vietnam. He took his own life 20 years ago. Kania now works helping 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’s on us.”
Oz said telemedicine could be a lifesaver for people who need mental health services, particularly in rural areas. He said as a heart surgeon he’s heard from veterans about their military trauma ahead of big surgeries.
Oz has military experience himself — he served 60 days in the Turkish military as a young man to maintain his dual citizenship. His service and ties to Turkey were heavily criticized in the primary but didn’t come up at the event, and one veteran dismissed that line of attack, saying “military is military.”
“It doesn’t matter what branch you serve in, what country. You’re still fighting,” said Mary Ann King, a retired U.S. Army sergeant on Friday’s panel.
The small crowd was extremely friendly toward Oz, who trails Fetterman by about 10 points in the most recent polls. He has aimed to win over more voters after a tough GOP primary.
Barry Casper, a retired Air Force officer, said he’s seen more people in his home county of Bucks come around to Oz in the last few months.
“You’re growing on us,” he told Oz. “People who were initially, ‘Oh I don’t know about Dr. Oz,’ they’re seeing he’s the real deal.”