"War hero" McCain voted against healthcare funding for veterans in 2003, '04, '05, '06 and '07. Now veterans are confronting him on his record.
When retired Army First Sergeant Wes Davey arrived, in uniform, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul to deliver a letter to fellow veteran John McCain, it didn't take long for him to be turned away. "They wouldn't even meet me," he said later, standing on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol, on what was to be day one of the Republican National Convention. Instead, the 28-year veteran of the Army Reserve and former St. Paul police officer was escorted off the premises.
Davey had come to the site of the RNC along with 60 fellow members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who marched in formation, chanting cadences and leading hundreds of peaceful fellow protesters, including members of Veterans for Peace, Gold Star Families for Peace, and others who came to stand in solidarity with the veterans. Unlike IVAW's action in Denver a few days earlier, in which they scored a conversation with Obama's national veterans liaison, Phil Carter, who said he would try to set up a meeting with the campaign to discuss their goals of immediate withdrawal, benefits for veterans, and reparations for the Iraqi people, IVAW's objectives when it came to McCain were slightly more modest. "We actually chose not to pressure him on the issue of withdrawal," T.J. Buonomo, one of IVAW's Philadelphia-based organizers said. "There's nothing that's very controversial about the things we were asking. There's nothing that's very controversial in asking that people get the discharge they deserve, that people with PTSD not have it held against them."
Indeed, the letter from IVAW, addressed to The Honorable John McCain, focused on the medical needs of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that McCain has never flinched from supporting. "It is often said that a nation's character can be judged by how it honors its veterans," the letter read. "… We honor veterans by offering them full benefits, adequate healthcare (including mental healthcare), and other long-term supports."
"Enclosed with this letter is a list of recommendations which we believe will support those veterans still serving and those veterans who have taken off their uniforms and re-entered civilian life. It is our belief that most Americans would endorse these recommendations as we hope you will after careful thought and consideration.
Prior to the RNC, IVAW had mailed, faxed, and personally delivered invitations to the McCain campaign to meet to discuss the recommendations. Yet the campaign ignored them, refusing to send anyone to meet with Davey, let alone address IVAW as a group. For the man who has built his presidential candidacy almost entirely on war hero mythology, McCain's snub was only the latest in a series of refusals to acknowledge the needs of a new generation of veterans. His record has become an ugly symbol of the hypocrisy of the Republican party.
IVAW members seemed unfazed at McCain's snub that morning. "I was really delighted to hear that the police went and escorted (Davey) out," former Marine Sgt. Liam Madden smiled wryly, "He was either going to get arrested or he was going to be escorted."
"I'm not surprised that McCain is not responding," said Rebecca Hansen, an IVAW member from Madison, Wisconsin. " … I don't think (Republicans) want the American people to know that vets and active duty soldiers are not in support of the war anymore."
As for Davey, a 28-year veteran with a child who has served two tours of duty in Iraq, he shrugged. "It looks bad on them, not on us."
"If McCain says the VA's not working, it's in part because he hasn't funded it properly."
With the presidential election kicking into high gear and McCain's love affair with the press (reportedly) waning, the media has yet to take McCain to task for his dismal record on veterans' issues. McCain's opposition to Virginia Senator Jim Webb's GI Bill earlier this year -- which sought to provide veterans with college educations and which finally passed in May -- was just one of many displays of indifference the senator has shown towards soldiers returning from the wars he so unyieldingly supports.
In the spring of 2006, McCain voted against two components of an emergency Iraq supplemental that would have provided more funds for veterans' healthcare. One was an amendment to increase funding for medical services by $1.5 billion, "to be paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes." (That amendment, very similar to a 2004 amendment McCain also voted against, failed, 54-46.) The next month, McCain joined a handful of senators who voted against providing $430 million to the VA for "outpatient care and treatment for veterans."
But it was the Webb GI Bill that met with the most outrage, not only offending veterans, but galvanizing them. In April, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America delivered a petition signed by 30,000 veterans to McCain's office, urging him to get behind the GI Bill. McCain refused, and on the day of the vote, rather than vote "nay," he skipped it altogether. (Incredibly, McCain later went on to applaud and take credit for the new law, saying that the educational opportunities it represented were valuable in "incentivizing people to stay in the military" -- a complete reversal from his earlier stance.)
Not surprisingly, McCain has reacted aggressively when confronted on his record. Responding to criticism from Obama on the GI Bill this summer, McCain sneered and pulled his POW trump card: "Unlike Senator Obama, my admiration, respect and deep gratitude for America's veterans is something more than a convenient campaign pledge. I think I have earned the right to make that claim." Faced with veterans who question his record, McCain has responded with similar pique. At a town hall meeting this summer, McCain made a show of selecting a self-identified veteran from the audience, who ended up questioning the senator's lack of support for the Webb GI bill, along with other legislation. " … We haven't heard an explanation of why you voted against your colleagues' proposals to increase healthcare funding in 2004, '05, '06, and '07, when we had troops coming back from two wars," he said. McCain's response was defensive and convoluted:
"Uh, my friend, I … all I can say is I don't know what you're pointing to but I received every award from every major veterans' organization in America. I've received every organization in America, their awards … Now, sir, I don't…I don't know what you're referring to …"
When the questioner elaborated -- "…The votes were proposals … by your colleagues in the Senate to increase healthcare funding of the VA in 2003, '04, '05 and '06, for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and you voted against those proposals. I can give the specific Senate votes, the numbers of those Senate votes, right now ... " -- McCain's reply was sarcastic: "Well, I thank you and I'll be glad to examine what your version of my record is."
More recently, McCain has been promoting his plan to privatize veterans' healthcare, one that has been widely criticized by the same veterans' groups whose support he lays claim to. "We need to relieve the burden on the VA from routine health care," he said in a speech the National Forum on Disability Issues in July, arguing that veterans' needs would be more effectively met by private hospitals. Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, recently told Think Progress that McCain's plan was no substitute for the funding the VA desperately needs. "Sen. McCain has consistently voted against expansion of VA funding," Reickhoff said. "So if he says the VA's not working, it's in part because he hasn't funded it properly."
There's no question the Department of Veterans Affairs has serious problems. Its hopelessly inadequate care and, worse, shocking maneuvering to block veterans' benefits has generated a lot of bad press, most recently in a devastating exposé in The Nation, which chronicles the attempts of some veterans to sue the VA for the benefits they deserve. Among the materials in the packet prepared by IVAW for McCain were a book excerpt and a news article that described the lethal role of the VA in the deaths of two Iraq war vets, both of whom hanged themselves after months of struggling with alcoholism, depression, and PTSD. Both soldiers had repeatedly turned to the VA, only to be turned away, at the very moment they were in the most dire need of help. With veteran suicides set to break record numbers this year, the need to provide veterans with adequate, reliable healthcare could not be more pressing.
"People are so afraid to speak the truth"
Sitting on the Capitol steps after the march, Rebecca Hansen, who served as a specialist from 1995 to 2004 but never deployed, explained the primary reason she was in St. Paul. "Basically because I've seen a lot of my friends come home that aren't getting their needs met … It's just gotten to the point where some people are so frustrated, it's impairing their life. They can't lead a normal life." For many, the frustration compounds a sense of betrayal from realizing that the war in Iraq was waged on false pretenses. ""It's not the war that they told us we'd be fighting," says Hansen. "We're not fighting for freedom. We're taking other people's freedom."
Her feelings echoed what many members of an older group of veterans had said the day before, at a heavily policed march through downtown St. Paul and organized by Veterans for Peace. Leah Bolger, a 20-year Navy veteran, came to St. Paul from Corvallis, Oregon. She served from 1980 until 2000 in four different countries and is now among the leadership of Vets for Peace. Dressed in a T-shirt and baseball cap, Bolger was wearing two stickers featuring two numbers: 4,150 and 1,255,026. The former, she explained to me, is the number of U.S. fatalities in Iraq. The latter is the best estimate of how many Iraqis have died. "Not one of these people is a baby," she said, pointing to the 4,150 number. "I think if we had our senators showing big pictured of dead babies, the world would immediately demand an end to the war." Of course, in an election season, showing concern for dead Iraqis is likely to result in accusations of being unpatriotric. "That's the problem; people are so afraid to speak the truth," says Bolger. "This world does not revolve around the United States of America. Until we start valuing all of humanity like our own, I don't think you can appeal to people's best selves."
Perhaps the most arresting image among the marchers at the RNC -- both at the Vets for Peace march and the IVAW march, among numerous other demonstrations -- was that of Carlos Arredondo and his wife, Melinda, who walked behind a flag-draped casket with military fatigues dog tags, and a pair of boots resting on top. Arredondo's son, Marine Lance Corporal Alexander Arredondo was killed in Najaf in 2004; his parents had driven from Massachusetts to Minnesota with the casket sticking out from the back of the car. "We purposely rode for 24 hours," Melinda told me, "so that people who want to forget and instead go shopping can't." Particularly, she said, "our audience is people who justify the war … and the Republican party itself." Carlos and Melinda are members of Gold Star Families for Peace; they told me that Alex had been targeted by military recruiters since he was a young teenager. He signed up at 17 and, according to Melinda, "September 11th happened two weeks later." Alex fell into three categories that are targets of military recruiters, Latinos, kids with divorced parents, and poor people. "Alexander fell into the trap of all three."
Another father, Juan Torres, whose son, Juan Torres Jr., was killed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, told me that his son had not died in combat. He died in the shower from a gunshot to the head. The U.S. military deemed it a suicide, but Torres believes his son was murdered. Carrying a sign with his son's picture, along with one that read "Bush-McCain The Same," Torres said that he supports Obama, "but not 100 percent." "We're here to stop the war in Afghanistan, too."
As the march winded down and the protesters were blocked off by police at Washington and 6th, I asked Melinda what she thought of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who often invokes her son's military service in her pro-war speeches. "I say God bless her son," she said. "And I hope that she does not become a Gold Star parent."