Vets Vs. McCain

The hypocrisy of the war hero

The story was a good one, but McCain didn't ingratiate himself to all the veterans he met. Harry Seggie, who spent time in a World War II prison camp while in the Army, remembers encountering the future presidential contender at the local Disabled American Veterans club, shortly after McCain arrived in Arizona. He was there the day McCain stopped by to sign up for the club.

"I didn't have too long of a conversation with him; just spoke to him, this and that," Seggie says, recalling it was clear McCain was there to run for Congress. McCain made a definite impression on the vets that day. Seggie, for one, didn't care for him: "He seemed like a foul-mouth to me."

McCain emerged from a crowded Republican Party to take the congressional seat he'd come to Arizona to claim. From the start, McCain toed the GOP line—even if it meant crossing his fellow vets. In 1983, he was the featured speaker at the state Disabled American Veterans convention. Before he spoke, the DAV's state commander took the stage to sharply criticize the Reagan administration's lack of support for veterans' benefits, despite campaign promises to the contrary.

Larry Morris was frustrated by a lack of help from McCain: “I did better on my own, just writing letters to the secretary of the Navy.”
Jamie Peachey
Larry Morris was frustrated by a lack of help from McCain: “I did better on my own, just writing letters to the secretary of the Navy.”
Andrew Vera says that McCain’s Arizona is not a good place to be a vet.
Jamie Peachey
Andrew Vera says that McCain’s Arizona is not a good place to be a vet.

Instead of standing up for veterans' benefits, McCain rose to defend Reagan.

Larry Morris, a Vietnam veteran who has lived in Arizona off and on since the early 1980s, remembers attending another meeting, this time at the Phoenix Vet Center in 1984. McCain was there, too. The topic: suing the government and chemical companies over the use of Agent Orange. Morris recalls that McCain was not in favor of the national class-action suit that, ultimately, was filed and settled many years later for more than $100 million.

"He stood up and voiced his opinion," Morris says. "His opinion was that it was unpatriotic to sue the government."

Morris continues: "There was a lot of booing and hissing, and I think it was at that point that the suggestion was made that Congressman McCain leave."

Like John McCain, Larry Morris comes from a military family. His father was an Army sergeant, his mother an Army nurse. Morris remembers living in Germany just after World War II, seeing what remained of the concentration camps. The image stuck with him forever, he says, but that's not why he joined the Navy on his 17th birthday. He did it because, as the eldest, he was already working to help support his seven siblings. As a Native American, Morris's father had been unable to rise above his low-paying rank.

Morris landed in San Diego after two tours in Vietnam, with shrapnel in his arm (he says the wound was never was officially treated, that a medic dumped some iodine on it and dressed it). Parasites from his Navy days irritate his digestive system to this day, and he has a constant ringing in his ears that doctors speculate was caused by a 40-pound brick that fell on his neck and shoulder, knocking him to a lower deck on the ship on which he was stationed.

Morris was released from the Navy 45 days early after complaining of nightmares. There was no treatment offered at the time for post-traumatic stress disorder; the doctor just gave him some tranquilizers. He still has nightmares, more than 40 years later.

After some false starts over the years, Morris tried in earnest in 2004 to get better health care from the VA. He visited McCain's Tempe office but was told that without a Purple Heart, nothing could be done. Like many Vietnam vets, Morris doesn't have his medical records from Vietnam. He has other medals but no Purple Heart.

McCain's office could have written a letter or made a phone call, but all Morris got was a list of addresses.

Ultimately, he says: "I did better on my own, just writing letters to the secretary of the Navy."

It's taken years, but where Morris's low-priority status once forced him to wait up to six months for a doctor's appointment at the VA, he's now at the top of the list. The tiny apartment he shares with his wife, Deirdre, in Surprise is stacked with boxes of letters and other records from his VA battles.

Larry Morris wasn't at the American Legion convention this summer, but he probably would have appreciated the irony of a statement McCain made there about veterans' benefits. When asked about the backlog of unresolved benefits cases at the VA (like Morris's), McCain called it a "national disgrace" and replied that maybe it's unfair that the burden of proof to receive government benefits is on the vet.

Instead of the vet's having to prove he's disabled, McCain said: "Maybe sometimes we oughta have a more balanced situation where the government has to prove that they're not. You see my point?"

Andrew Vera isn't surprised that it's hard for a vet like Morris to get by. He says it's even harder for soldiers who served more recently.

Vera, 29, grew up in south Phoenix. He enlisted in the Navy shortly after 9/11, knowing the country was going to war. He was in Iraq for the invasion in 2003, assigned to the highest-level triage unit in the Middle East. There was no burn unit anywhere in the region, he says, so his unit created a makeshift one.

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