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If you want to know what it's like to be a veteran in John McCain's home state, stop by the Justa Center

If you want to know what it's like to be a veteran in John McCain's home state, stop by the Justa.

On a Thursday morning, a volunteer named Twyla stands in front of a group of clients at Justa, a day program for homeless seniors in Phoenix, explaining what she's brought from the food bank.

"I hope that those of you who don't have many teeth, that you'll be okay with the salad," she says. "And cake for dessert!"

Scott Ritchey rolls his eyes good-naturedly as he passes through the room, where the fluorescent light doesn't do any favors for the dirty linoleum and the worn-out, mismatched couches. For the past three years, this decrepit little building near the Arizona Capitol has been a godsend for about a hundred homeless seniors who have nothing to do with their days, after waking up at the nearby shelter. About half of them are veterans.

There's a special unit reserved for veterans at the shelter, but the waiting list is long, so many vets sleep in a parking lot euphemistically called "the overflow." Justa gives them a mailing address, a place to shower, access to the Internet and phone, lockers to store their belongings.

When Ritchey, a Methodist minister, started the program — which operates on about $260,000 a year, all from private donations — one of the first things he did was call the local office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to get some help for the vets.

It took a year for anyone to show up. And in three years, Ritchey says, the VA has yet to place a single Justa Center vet in housing. There are programs in town that offer housing for veterans, but they've got to prove they're employed.

"You're 82 years old," Ritchey says. "You don't need to work."

Almost all of his clients have diabetes; many have dementia. Add untreated depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and you have a bad situation — particularly when you have to battle the VA's bureaucracy. Ritchey regularly finds vets napping on the floor by the Coke machine; the sleeping area is too dark and claustrophobic, they tell him.

Ritchey's careful not to place direct blame on the VA, which he describes as "underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed," but he's clearly frustrated.

Michole Felder, a Justa job counselor, isn't as careful. He looks over at Ritchey and asks, "Can I be honest?" Ritchey nods.

"The VA doesn't do shit," Felder says. He doesn't know of any vet who's gotten a job placement through the agency.

Bobby Collins is a homeless Vietnam vet who shows up at Justa from time to time. He's been waiting for a benefits check from the VA for eight months. Collins was shot in the throat in Vietnam, and his leg is full of shrapnel. He's got two Purple Hearts, but he didn't claim his medical benefits for years — he didn't need to; he had steady jobs as a welder and a carpenter. Then, last Thanksgiving, he came to Phoenix and couldn't find work, and quickly found himself homeless. Now he needs the money.

The people at the VA are very nice, Collins says, but the bureaucracy is impossible. They've told him he'll get his money. He doesn't understand why it's taking so long.

Collins says he's working hard to not be bitter, but when he arrived in Phoenix and saw what few services there were for him as a veteran, he got mad at John McCain.

"I have a lot of respect for Senator McCain as a war hero," he says, but "I would never vote for a veteran who lets veterans in his state be treated this way."

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 it stopped a lot of military veterans short.

Barack Obama had just remarked that he's approached all the time by Iraq War veterans who say they can't get help for post-traumatic stress disorder from the overwhelmed VA, something Obama vows to improve. When it was his turn to reply, McCain seemed incensed that Obama would dare intrude on McCain's 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's had 25 years in Congress to help veterans, yet nearly all he's done is talk about his own experiences as a prisoner of war — and push the country to go to war again.

Listening to McCain, you'd think he's been the veterans' greatest champion. But an examination of his record both in Washington, D.C., and Arizona just doesn't bear that out. (McCain's campaign did not return a call for comment about the work he claims to have done on behalf of veterans.)

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.

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' 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 position on the GI Bill, McCain responded with a press conference, at 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, but it's one of many veterans' groups to note the discrepancy between John McCain's talk and his actions.

In both 2006 and 2007-2008, 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.

Another organization, Veterans for Common Sense, posted this comment on its website earlier this year: "John McCain is yet another Republican...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. He moved to Tucson and signed up as the head of Arizona Veterans for Obama. "It's really disingenuous for him to say that he has taken care of veterans in any way," Adams says. "His voting record shows that he hasn't."

And then there's Don Johnson.

A veteran of the first Gulf War, Johnson 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 and 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 twenty years but registered this time so he can vote against McCain.

In August, a Gallup poll showed McCain well ahead of Obama among vets (mainly, the pollsters said, because McCain is a Republican). More recently, a non-scientific poll released by Military Times showed that vets preferred McCain three to one to Obama. That would be a coup for McCain, although those surveyed by Military Times were older, whiter and more senior in rank than the general armed-services population. But the Center for Responsive Politics reported this summer 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 a stunning example of hypocrisy, since he owes his celebrity status to his time as a 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 are boondoggles, to be sure, but others are good programs, including many for veterans. Citizens Against Government Waste, which has made McCain its poster boy, publishes a list every year of programs the group and McCain dismiss as pork.

There are no projects marked "Arizona" in the veterans-related "pork" that Citizens Against Government Waste has listed for the past several years, but the list targets dozens of programs in other states designed to help veterans.

For 2008 alone, the list included:

• $196,000 for housing homeless veterans with special needs here in Denver;

• $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 buildout for a low-income veterans' housing program in southeastern Massachusetts;

• $147,000 for construction of affordable housing for homeless veterans in San Diego.

McCain voted against them all, just to make a point.

In his memoir Faith of My Fathers, published in 1999 as his first presidential bid went into full swing, McCain admitted that he'd received better treatment than his fellow Hanoi Hilton prisoners because of his father's status at the time as a high-ranking Naval commander. Not that prison camp was a walk in the park for him — to this day, you can see the scars of war as he makes his way across a stage to speak.

But in his books, McCain doesn't dwell 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 during Warner's time 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 (landed through his father's influence), he'd met a much younger and richer woman, Cindy Lou Hensley; ended his first marriage to Carol McCain, who herself had 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.

McCain emerged from a crowded Republican Party to take the congressional seat he'd come to Arizona to claim. From the start, he 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 one 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 was ultimately filed and settled many years later for more than $100 million.

"He stood up and voiced his opinion. His opinion was that it was unpatriotic to sue the government," says Morris. "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. He joined the Navy on his seventeenth birthday to help support his seven younger siblings (one of whom is longtime Colorado AIM activist Glenn Morris).

After two tours in Vietnam, Morris landed in San Diego with shrapnel in his arm. (He says the wound was never officially treated, that a medic dumped some iodine on it and dressed it.) Parasites from his time in the Navy irritate his digestive system to this day, and he has a constant ringing in his ears that doctors speculate was caused by a forty-pound brick falling 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 forty years later.

After some false starts over the years, in 2004 Morris tried in earnest 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.

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. Asked about the backlog of unresolved benefits cases at the VA, McCain called it a "national disgrace." Instead of vets having to prove they're disabled, McCain said, "maybe sometimes we oughta have a more balanced situation where the government has to prove that they're not."

Andrew Vera isn't surprised that it's hard for a vet like Morris to get by. He says it can be even harder for soldiers who served more recently.

Vera 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 who was 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 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."

Vera did — eventually.

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 Arizona congressman Ed Pastor's office. It took another ten months for Vera to qualify for benefits from the VA, 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, though, things changed.

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. He was a big fan of John McCain, and wrote the senator letters on random topics, such as the collapse of the Enron Corporation. Two months after his death, Callan's mother 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 had 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."

Callan's mother also tried the local Veterans Administration office, with no luck. Finally, a friend of her son's spent hours on the Internet and found the forms. The claim was denied.

"It just makes you lose faith," she says. "I just thought that his office would help represent his constituent who was so loyal to McCain. And to his country."

For years, many Arizonans have referred to their senior senator as "the senator from Washington, D.C." John McCain has always been more interested in the national platform than the home trenches.

But it's on the national stage where McCain's performance has been the most disappointing to his fellow veterans.

Since 1987, McCain has voted against dozens of measures designed to assist veterans. Here are 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 receive 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 funding for veterans' health-care services.

• 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.

On a Friday afternoon at the Justa Center, almost every seat in the house is taken. One woman sleeps sitting up, a half-full plastic cup of water in her hand.

Ralph Holland is here. He's waiting to hear about his VA benefits. Gray-haired, in a baseball cap, with tattoos for his Navy service and his daughter's duty in the Marine Corps, Holland served two tours of duty in Vietnam but waited until he broke his hand many years later to go to the VA.

For a long time, he didn't want to admit that he'd been to Vietnam — he figured everyone would think him a baby-killer or a drug addict. But now Holland's down on his luck, so he's put in for some help. The only program the VA has available, he says, is for vets with substance-abuse issues, one of the few problems that Holland doesn't have.

He figures it will be a while — if ever — before he gets help from the VA.

"Their way is to put you off until you either die or go away," he says. "That's the consensus of just about every vet I've talked to."

Contact the author at editorial@westword.com.