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He skated for years on his military record, but now his record in Congress on veterans' benefits has caught up with him. That started in earnest last year, with the scandal at Walter Reed.
McCain actually stood up and took the blame, that time.
"I will take responsibility for being a member of the Armed Services Committee and not knowing about it and not doing anything about it," McCain told The New York Times in March 2007, adding, "I apologize for my failure" to act, and "I should be held accountable."
He should. As an Army hospital, rather than a VA facility, Walter Reed actually falls under the purview of his Armed Services Committee, rather than Veterans Affairs.
And yet, McCain voted against a 2006 Senate measure that would have closed tax loopholes for the very wealthy to devote $1 billion to failing veterans'-health facilities, including Walter Reed.
After McCain stood up at the first presidential debate and pledged his undying love for the nation's veterans, quiet complaints about his lack of support for veterans got a lot louder.
Until the 2008 presidential race, the only veterans really harping about McCain were from a group called Vietnam Veterans Against McCain, and you only need to visit their website, vietnamveteransagainstmccain.com, to see how fringe its members and their complaints can be. They've called McCain the Manchurian Candidate and disparaged the senator for ignoring their efforts to find missing POWs in Vietnam. McCain has never been particularly patient with them, either—he famously made the mother of one missing POW cry at a congressional hearing in the early 1990s, and engaged in heated arguments with others. They will never forgive him for voting to normalize relations with Vietnam.
But the new round of complaints is a different story. It's not only about a difference of opinion over how the war in Iraq is being handled, though that's part of it. It's a story about how the soldiers are treated once they come home.
Vote Vets' Brandon Friedman has documented and circulated dozens of instances since 1987 in which the senator has voted against what adds up to billions of dollars in funding for veterans for health care, counseling, and other benefits. McCain has voted to outsource VA jobs held by blue-collar veterans and supports privatizing health care for veterans—very unpopular positions among many vets.
More famously, he actively opposed the most recent GI Bill, stating that its education benefits were so generous that he worried it would encourage military personnel to leave the service. Even his conservative colleague and ally, John Warner, the Republican senator from Virginia, supported the bill, but McCain wouldn't budge; he didn't bother to show up for the final vote.
When Barack Obama criticized his vote on the GI Bill, McCain responded with a press conference, in which he said: "I believe that I have earned the right to speak out on veterans' issues. As a matter of fact, I've received the highest award from literally every veterans' organization in America."
While it's true that veterans' groups have honored McCain for his service in Vietnam, few, if any, are praising him for his service to veterans while in Congress, particularly in the past several years. Most vet special-interest groups decline to officially take sides (even Vote Vets hasn't made a presidential endorsement).
Vote Vets is among many veterans' groups to note the discrepancy between John McCain's talk and his actions.
In both 2006 and 2007-08, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America gave McCain a "D" for his record on key congressional votes.
The Disabled American Veterans scored him at 20 percent in 2006; 25 percent in 2005; and 50 percent in 2004.
And the Retired Enlisted Association gave him a 0 in 2006 and a rating of 18 percent in 2004.
These are all the most recent rankings released by the groups.
Another vets' organization, Veterans for Common Sense, posted this comment on its website earlier this year: "John McCain is yet another Republican former military veteran who likes to talk a big game when it comes to having the support of the military. Yet, time and time again, he has gone out of his way to vote against the needs of those who are serving in our military. If he can't even see his way to actually do what the troops want, or what the veterans need, and he doesn't have the support of veterans, then how can he be a credible commander in chief?"
The special-interest groups aren't the only ones taking notes on McCain's voting record.
John Adams retired last year as an Army brigadier general. His last assignment was as deputy U.S. military representative to NATO in Brussels. The first thing he did when he moved to Tucson was sign up as the head of Arizona Veterans for Obama.
Adams is onto McCain too.
"It's really disingenuous for him to say that he has taken care of veterans in any way. His voting record shows that he hasn't."
And then there's Don Johnson.
Johnson, 40, is a veteran of the first Gulf War. He took a bullet in the leg and has been up and down on his luck ever since. He's currently sleeping in the overflow lot at the downtown shelter, spending days at the Arid Club, which holds meetings of 12-step programs.