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Alfredo Gutierrez was a longtime McCain fan; the two met when McCain first arrived in Arizona, and although they're on opposite sides of the aisle, the former majority leader of the Arizona State Senate always spoke highly of McCain—mainly because both men served in Vietnam.
But Gutierrez is furious with McCain over his voting record, particularly on the GI bill.
"I came back from the Army and if it wasn't for the GI bill, I surely wouldn't have made it through college. The only way I got started and I ran for office was because I could afford a house because of the GI bill," Gutierrez says.
"So this guy who has built a whole political career on his status as a veteran and a POW, he'll vote to send the guys to war," he continues, "but he won't vote for the GI bill. That's pretty amazing. It's stunning stuff to me. It's the height of hypocrisy."
And, he adds, it goes beyond the GI Bill. "His voting record is abysmal."
Here are just a few examples of pro-veteran legislation that didn't get McCain's support:
• January 2008—McCain didn't vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, which included an increase in basic monthly pay for active military by 3.5 percent and permitted vets who are 100 percent disabled to get both retirement and disability pay.
• October 2007—He didn't vote on another version of the Defense Authorization Act, which included billions of dollars in veterans' health-services funding.
• February 2006—He voted against the amendment proposed by Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, which would have appropriated the aforementioned $1 billion for hospital improvements at places like Walter Reed, and also included $14 billion for the Veterans Benefits Administration for Compensation and Pensions for 2006–2010, and $6.9 billion for the VA for medical care for 2006–2010.
• November 2005—He voted against an amendment that would have provided $500 million each year from 2006 to 2010 for "readjustment counseling, related mental health services, and treatment and rehabilitative services for veterans with mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance use disorder."
• October 2005—McCain voted against an amendment that would have required that funding for the VA health administration be increased each year to adjust for inflation and the number of veterans served.
• March 2004—He voted against closing tax loopholes to create a reserve fund to allow for an increase in medical care for veterans by $1.8 billion.
Perhaps McCain simply considers his votes against veterans another sign of his maverick status. It's a classic case of his personal brand of political chutzpah, because every politician knows sucking up to the vets is a foolproof way to curry favor.
During the Keating Five hearings, McCain's then-Arizona Senate colleague and fellow Keating Fiver, Democrat Dennis DeConcini, actually called an Arizona veteran to testify on his behalf, describing all the help DeConcini's office had given him over the years as an example of positive work on behalf of a constituent.
That's not McCain's style, particularly post–Keating Five. He's abandoned constituent services for the national stage, and you could call it principled if not for his backpedaling. This isn't a guy who's shown the veterans a lot of love, despite what he says.
And, really, the whole scenario has given McCain an Achilles' heel.
Far be it for anyone who hasn't been through what he's been through to question the senator's patriotism. But in this case, he's running up against people with similar biographies who are questioning him, particularly his loyalty to them.
Like Constantine O'Neill. He spent 22 months in a German prison camp during World War II. At 88, O'Neill is admittedly very emotional, and a lifelong Democrat. He made headlines recently in Arizona for lambasting a Republican congressman, John Shadegg, after Shadegg used the O'Neill's image in a campaign ad.
"McCain is, as far as I'm concerned, a jackass. He's not for the veterans. He never has been for the veterans [in] legislation that he's gone for . . . I would not recommend him for anything to anybody."
When O'Neill is questioned, though, it's not so much that McCain has voted against veterans, or not supported O'Neill in particular efforts, or even that the senator's a Republican. It's that McCain hasn't come calling. For years, O'Neill says, the national POW group he belongs to has invited McCain to speak at its annual convention.
"He never does," the other former POW says. "He's too busy."