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In the last few minutes of the first presidential debate, on September 26, John McCain made a statement that probably blew past most economy-obsessed Americans but stopped a lot of military veterans short.
Barack Obama had just remarked that he is approached all the time by Iraq War veterans who say they can't get help for post-traumatic stress disorder from the overwhelmed veterans' administration, something Obama vows to improve. When it was his turn to reply, McCain seemed incensed that Obama would dare intrude on his turf as perhaps America's most famous injured war vet.
"I know the veterans, and I know them well," he said, his voice shaky with emotion. "And I know that they know that I'll take care of them. And I've been proud of their support and of their recognition of my service to the veterans. And I love them, and I'll take care of them. And they know that I'll take care of them."
But he hasn't. McCain has had 25 years in Congress to help veterans, yet about all he's done is talk about his own experiences as a prisoner of war—and push our country to go to war again.
Veterans' groups are finally speaking out about their frustration with McCain, who rides on his reputation as a war veteran at the same time he has compiled a long record of opposing legislation benefiting vets.
McCain's campaign did not return a call for comment about his work on behalf of veterans, both regarding his voting record and his constituent services operations. The last time John McCain was in his adopted home state of Arizona to meet with veterans—this summer—he went to downtown Phoenix to court potential voters at the annual conference of the American Legion, the nation's largest and most prestigious veterans' organization.
During taped questions, McCain was asked about veterans' benefits. He began by telling Legion members about a 1789 quote from George Washington he carries with him to town hall meetings, reciting the line from memory: "The willingness of young Americans to serve their country at a time of war is directly related to the treatment the country accords to those who've served in previous wars."
No wonder military recruitment is down.
According to a consortium of vets' groups that compiles its own "wish list" budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs each year, the number of veterans seeking help increased 29 percent between 2006 and 2007. Yet funding hasn't increased to meet that. The Independent Budget consortium, a group made up of representatives of more than a dozen veterans' organizations, says veterans are shorted out of billions of dollars in services each year.
In the second presidential debate, McCain said that he supports a spending freeze that excludes veterans—but the truth is that McCain has voted against funding for health care and other services for veterans for years.
McCain didn't support a measure that would have closed tax loopholes to fund improvements at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., though he surely must have wished he had when he saw the headlines last year, documenting the deplorable conditions at that hospital. He has voted against help for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. He has voted against programs to provide housing to low-income and special-needs veterans. He did not support the latest GI Bill.
Brandon Friedman is a former Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; he's now vice chairman of a national veterans' support group called Vote Vets, an organization devoted to electing veterans—with one notable exception—to public office.
Friedman calls McCain's statements in support of vets "a slap in the face." He says: "Coming from a guy who's kept us stuck in Iraq at the expense of the fight against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan—and who opposed the new GI Bill—[such comments don't] carry much weight. Those are empty words. John McCain is all talk when it comes to supporting veterans, and his voting record shows it."
Historically, it's been difficult for anyone to question McCain's status as a patriot. Or, because he was tortured in North Vietnam, to challenge him on anything at all.
Even his most vicious detractors can't take away the fact that John McCain suffered for his country. But there's also no denying that McCain, unlike most of his fellow vets, didn't need a government safety net when he returned home from the Hanoi Hilton.
His grandfather was a Navy admiral. His father was the commander of U.S. Naval forces in Europe and, later, the Pacific during the Vietnam War. John III landed softly in the arms of a well-to-do family and, later, his even wealthier second wife. John McCain never needed to line up at the VA to see a doctor; he's had the finest medical care money can buy. He never needed help to pay the rent or find a job.
McCain arrived in Arizona in the early 1980s with his POW story and money from his beer-heiress second wife. He took advantage of both to get elected to Congress and has used his military record to get ahead ever since. Although McCain himself has stated in the past that military service isn't a job requirement for commander in chief, his own time in the Navy—particularly as a POW—has served as the hallmark of his presidential campaign.