Vets Vs. McCain
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.
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.
When asked to talk about his feelings about McCain, Johnson did his homework. Not only did he go to the library to research the senator's voting record, he took it upon himself to conduct an unofficial survey of his fellow homeless veterans, including a Vietnam vet named Nick, who hasn't voted in 20 years but registered this time so he can vote against McCain.
As for Johnson, he wrote a poem to express his feelings:
An officer and a gentleman,
Standing on a soapbox,
Crying, I'm a POW and a Vet.
But you haven't done anything for us yet.
You claim Stars and Stripes, freedom for all,
Unless you are homeless, have suffered a fall.
Why must you lie for political gain?
Do you have an answer, Mr. McCain?
In August, a Gallup poll showed McCain well ahead of Obama among vets (mainly, the pollsters said, because McCain is a Republican). But also in August, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that Obama had received about $74,000 in political contributions from active military personnel, compared with McCain's $16,000.
If nothing else, John McCain's voting record on veterans' issues is truly a stunning example of hypocrisy, coming from a guy who owes his fame to his celebrity status as a former POW.
In an effort to rehabilitate himself after the Keating Five scandal and show he wanted to stop government overspending, McCain made Arizona a sacrificial lamb, refusing to request or support any earmarked spending. Every year, millions of dollars are appropriated to specific projects in individual states. Some boondoggles, to be sure, but also some good programs, including many for veterans. Citizens Against Government Waste, which has made McCain its poster boy, publishes a list every year of earmarks, programs the group and McCain dismiss as pork.
There are no projects marked "Arizona" in the list of veterans-related "pork" that Citizens Against Government Waste has listed for the past several years, but there are dozens of programs in other states designed to help veterans.
For 2008 alone, the list included:
• $277,000 to train veterans to be teachers in Pensacola, Florida
• $196,000 for a computer lab for disabled veterans in Providence, Rhode Island
• $196,000 for renovation, construction, and build-out for a low-income veterans' housing program in southeastern Massachusetts
• $147,000 for construction of affordable housing for homeless veterans in San Diego
• $196,000 for housing homeless veterans with special needs in Denver
McCain voted against it all, just to make a point.
Point taken. The saying goes: "Hate the war, love the warrior." In McCain's case, it almost seems reversed.
John Adams, of Arizona Veterans for Obama, recalls that in the second presidential debate, McCain called for a spending freeze on just about everything but veterans' services. "His record belies the fact that he would promote veterans' affairs expenditures," Adams says. "John McCain's record shows that he has been untrustworthy."
About McCain's love for the war, his celebrated support of the troop surge in Iraq when so many others shunned the idea, Adams says: "We ought not to fight wars unless we have to. The lesson of the surge is not that we've been able to limit violence. . . . It's that we've been able to delay our withdrawal by another two years."
The surge that McCain has backed, Adams adds, has cost the United States $10 billion a month and at least another 600 lives.
In his memoir Faith of My Fathers, published in 1999 as his first presidential bid went into full swing, McCain admitted that he received better treatment than his fellow Hanoi Hilton prisoners, because of his father's status at the time as a Naval commander. Not that prison camp was a walk in the park for McCain; to the contrary, to this day you can see the scars of war as he makes his way across a stage to speak.
But McCain doesn't dwell in his books on how much his life was different from the lives of his fellow soldiers—after the war.
McCain endured painful physical therapy in his quest to fly again, but he didn't have trouble getting treatment. His biggest career challenge was persuading his military bosses to allow him to study at the War College; as he wrote, he pulled strings with now-Senator Warner, his father's old friend as secretary of the Navy, when he was told his military rank didn't qualify him for the placement he wanted.
McCain had come home in 1973. By 1980, after a prestigious stint as a Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate, he'd met a much younger and richer woman, Cindy Lou Hensley; ended his first marriage to Carol McCain, who had herself been gravely injured in a car accident while he was in Vietnam; and taken off for his new home, Arizona.
He'd also given up the military for a career in politics.
He was pretty much a one-note wonder in a crowded campaign in 1982 for the congressional seat being vacated by John Rhodes.
"Thanks to my prisoner of war experience, I had a good first story to sell," he and Mark Salter wrote in a later memoir, Worth the Fighting For, published in 2002.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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