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It was Vera's job to track patients. "I saw most of the initial injuries," he says, including those of Lori Piestewa, an Army soldier from Tuba City, the first Native-American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military.
He wrote down information about each casualty by hand, because there was no other method; eventually, he built a database.
Vera slept in his gas mask and boots for weeks. He completed two tours in Iraq, leaving the Navy in 2005 and returning home to Phoenix.
It's not a good place to be a veteran, he says.
"Phoenix is a scary place. It's not a military town, and a lot of guys come out here—there aren't a lot of jobs out here. It's warm, but Phoenix and Arizona, there isn't a structure for these guys, for young veterans to be caught and effectively spoken to and get help. And I guess for a lot of young guys, they're not going to get help."
At first, he didn't know he needed it. Family and friends pointed out his behavior: Vera was drinking heavily. He switched jobs often and found himself in confrontations with co-workers. He couldn't communicate; he wasn't socializing.
He approached Senator John McCain's local office for help, with no luck.
Vera is careful not to bash his fellow vet—at least, not too much.
"John McCain, his staff has really tried to be a source of information and a source of assistance, but I think that, over the past five or six years, his office has become overwhelmed," he says. "There's a case overload. Clearly, running for president is what his priority is now."
So Vera went to Congressman Ed Pastor's office, instead. (He'd worked for Pastor, a Democrat, previously, doing constituent services.) And although Vera's a smart, well-connected guy, it still took him 10 months to qualify for benefits from the Veterans Administration, which diagnosed him with a full-blown case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"In the military, they tell you what to do and they give you the services because they want a fit force," Vera says.
Once he got home, he adds, things changed. He's now a member of Vote Vets.
Things changed drastically for Brian Callan when he came home, too.
Callan, a veteran of the first Gulf War, was shot by police in the parking lot of a Toyota dealership in Phoenix in 2001. It was obviously a suicide; Callan egged on the cops.
He had been diagnosed with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and his family felt strongly that he didn't get adequate services from the VA; an examination by the Voice's sister paper, Phoenix New Times, of medical records and a comparison to recommended treatment protocol confirmed that.
Callan's mother, Jerri Glover, who now lives in New Mexico, recalls that Brian was a big fan of John McCain. He wrote the senator letters on random topics such as the collapse of Enron. Two months after his death, Glover approached the senator's local Veterans Affairs staffer, Tom McCanna, and asked him to help her get the information she needed to file a tort claim against the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Phoenix. The family felt strongly that poor medical treatment led to Callan's behavior and ultimate death.
She still has a copy of the typewritten letter she sent to McCanna, dated November 14, 2002. After she didn't hear from McCain's office, she put a sticky note on the letter: "McCanna never followed thru—did not receive forms."
The mother tried the local Veterans Administration office, with no luck. Finally, a friend of Brian's spent hours on the Internet and found the forms. The claim was denied.
Glover was disappointed, and not, she says, because she wanted the money for herself.
"I really wanted to sue the shit out of the government and then start up a clinic to help the PTSD vets," Glover says. "That was my whole idea. I did not want other guys to suffer like Brian did, in not getting any help."
She's quick to add that later, when she couldn't get the Navy to release Callan's medical records, McCain's office finally expedited the request. But what the Navy finally sent was a mess, with pages missing and out of order, barely usable.
"When I received them, it was a farce."
"They can spend a billion a week on a war, but they can't spend whatever it takes to heal the [people] they've ruined?" Glover says.
"It just makes you lose faith," she adds. "I just thought that his office would help represent his constituent who was so loyal to McCain. And to his country."
John McCain's treatment of his constituents is best described as benign neglect. For years, many Arizonans have referred to their senior senator as "the senator from Washington, D.C." He's more interested in the national platform than the home trenches.
But it's on the national stage where McCain's performance on behalf of veterans has been the most disappointing to his fellow veterans.
Since 1987, McCain has voted against dozens of measures designed to assist veterans. Most recently, he skipped the vote on the Webb-Hagel 21st Century GI Bill, which funds higher education for post-9/11 veterans, with a sliding payment scale depending on length of duty and disabilities sustained.