By Alan Prendergast
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And now veterans groups are finally speaking out about their frustration with McCain, who rides on his reputation as a war veteran while sitting on a long record of opposing legislation that would benefit vets.
The last time McCain was in his adopted home state of Arizona to meet with veterans, he didn't visit the Justa Center. He went to downtown Phoenix this summer to court potential voters at the annual conference of the American Legion, the nation's largest and most prestigious veterans' organization.
During a question-and-answer session, McCain was asked about veterans' benefits. He began by reciting a 1789 quote from George Washington that he trots out at town hall meetings: "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 one group 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 didn't increase to meet that. The Independent Budget Consortium, made up of representatives of more than a dozen veterans' organizations, says veterans are shorted billions of dollars in services each year.
McCain stood up in the second presidential debate, on October 7, and told the American people that he supports a spending freeze that excludes veterans. But the truth is that he has voted against funding for health care and other services for veterans for years.
The senator didn't support a measure that would have closed tax loopholes to fund improvements at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. 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 and is now vice chairman of a national veterans' support group called Vote Vets, which is devoted to electing veterans — with one notable exception — to public office.
McCain's statements in support of vets are "a slap in the face," Friedman 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 then 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 the government's 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 new beer-heiress 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 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. At his Denver appearance last Friday, he proclaimed that he'd been serving his country since he was seventeen.
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.
That time, McCain actually stood up and took the blame.
"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."
And he should. As an Army hospital, rather than a VA facility, Walter Reed actually falls under the purview of McCain's Armed Services Committee rather than Veterans Affairs.
Yet McCain voted against a 2006 Senate measure that would have closed tax loopholes for the very wealthy to devote $1 billion to failing health-care facilities for veterans, 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 suddenly got a lot louder.
Until the 2008 presidential race, the only veterans really harping about him were with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against McCain, who called McCain "the Manchurian Candidate" and disparaged him for ignoring their efforts to find missing POWs in Vietnam. McCain has never been particularly patient with them — 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.