Obama, McCain, and Our Veterans

For those that did not tune in to the Democratic convention before prime-time, they may not know that Barack Obama’s name was placed in nomination by a man who identified himself as “a life-long Republican and an Iraq war veteran.” His name is Michael Wilson; he served as an Air Force medic. Wilson told the delegates assembled for the roll call of states, “I’ve seen war up close. Not as a political slogan, or some think tank theory.” That experience has made him seek “a president who will respect our veterans when they get home.” This was a sentiment I heard echoed repeatedly on Wednesday (8/27) in a series of interviews that I had with people who were present at a gathering co-sponsored by Blue Star Families for Obama and IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America).

The event was organized to assemble care packages for the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Michelle Obama, accompanied by her mother and two daughters, was present.

Laura Dempsey, Co-Founder and Co-Chair of Blue Star Families for Obama, explained that her organization was comprised of military families that had started a grass-roots community. Their slogan is “Pro-Military, Pro-Obama.” Dempsey’s husband is an Army major, and she spoke about why military families needed to look closely at Obama, to understand why he was a “better fit.”

Obama voted for the GI Bill signed into law on June 30, 2008; McCain did not. (Obama was one of the 57 co-sponsors, along with Biden and a host of other Democratic colleagues.) Obama voted to stop cuts in Tricare reimbursement, which is the military health care insurance system tied in with Medicare.

Dempsey said about meeting Michelle, “She’s the real deal. She’s going to use her position to advocate [for us].” The Obamas have pledged to create a “military families advisory board.” Dempsey added, “We honor McCain and his service, but we feel that Obama is paying attention.”

Lorin Walker, Alternate Delegate from Washington state who is on the Veterans policy team for Obama, had stronger words to characterize McCain’s voting record on the needs of those in the country’s armed forces. “His service to those who serve has been deplorable. His voting record stands at 20% pro-veteran.” Checking the Disabled American Veterans website, I was able to look up the voting history of elected officials to see how they fared on support of veterans’ issues. Broken down into viscerally effective charts and data documenting status, name of legislation, and date of vote, the tabulations are registered as “with us, against us, not scored.” The individual pages of Obama and McCain bore out Walker’s assertions.

Obama’s green vertical of “with us” loomed large. Perhaps the graph reflects the fact that Obama chose to serve on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee (McCain has never held a seat on the committee.). Looking through the voting records of numerous Senators and Congresspeople, I wondered how the Republicans have managed to sell themselves as the defenders of all things military (unless it is a reference to funding armaments budgets and not human resources). Questioning Walker on why she thought McCain – with such an abysmal voting record on veterans’ concerns – could present himself as the poster boy for the military, she acknowledged that it was very difficult to fight against the “Republican machine.” It is ironic that McCain’s lack of support for veterans, is in reality, at such odds with his projected “brand.”

There is a groundswell of veterans’ groups working to get out other messages. VoteVets and VetPAC (Veterans Alliance for Security and Democracy) are two of the high profile ones. The VetPAC website had a link to an article that originally appeared in Army Times, under the banner “Report: 8,763 Vets Died Waiting for Benefits.” When I asked Walker, who is also Vice-President of CLW-VETPAC, what had caused her to become so involved in veterans’ affairs, the conversation turned personal. She told me that her father, who had been serving in Viet Nam, went MIA in 1972. She appreciates that John McCain’s service was heroic, but feels that using his POW status as a political ploy is inappropriate. On McCain’s reversal on torture she said, “If you say it’s okay to water-board, you have broken faith with your own soldiers. When you torture, it gives them [the enemy] full license.”

Robert Franklin Frisby Jr., a thirty-year veteran who served in the Navy Dental Corp, also shared his thoughts on John McCain. He stated, “I respect what he went through, but perhaps that has jaundiced his opinion. I feel he’s pandering to the real conservative base. He’s not in touch with the needs of the folks fighting – reservists, guardsmen – and those who joined for education.” He paused and then continued, “People put their lives on the line and expect to have opportunities when they come back. These things need to be addressed.”

Frisby’s wife, Yvonne Marzett-Frisby, is a twenty-year veteran. “I was the first black female by direct commission to the Navy Dental Corp,” she told me proudly. Direct commission means that “your education isn’t paid for, you are recruited.” She said, “I was sworn in 1977, in Baltimore, in front of my high school student body with a Navy band playing. I had a wonderful career, but it’s never good to be first.” The concern she voiced was for spouses in the military who are doing simultaneous duty, and don’t always get coverage for their children.

A good number of the speakers on Wednesday night’s convention agenda included those addressing the subject of Veterans’ affairs. CSM Michele Jones (ret.), the first female Command Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army, told the delegates, “Senator Obama understands the veterans. He will fully fund the VA and have zero tolerance for homeless vets.” Rep. Patrick Murphy (Pennsylvania) talked about the track record of President Bush, drawing the picture of a Commander-in-Chief who was available for “photo-ops” but “AWOL” on follow-ups.

Tammy Duckworth, an Asian-American helicopter pilot who served in the Iraq war and is currently the Director of the Illinois Veterans’ Affairs Department, was on stage advising the audience that Obama would put “a 21st Century Veterans Administration into place. Earlier on MSNBC, she told Chuck Todd that four years ago she was watching the convention from Iraq. Even as Todd kept pressing her with questions about the surge, Duckworth stayed on point with her narrative that, “We need to make sure the government steps up and does their job.” The Illinois National Guard Major, who was awarded a Purple Heart, continued her conversation about how Obama has been working on vets’ issues, and said, “I don’t know of anybody more patriotic than Barack and Michelle Obama.” Duckworth has gone on the record refuting Republican tactics that convey, “either you agree with us on national security or you are not patriotic.”

Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director and Founder of IAVA, suggested that Duckworth was the “new face of veterans.” Rieckhoff, an Iraq vet who founded IAVA in 2004, has built an organization of over 95,000 veteran members, with supporters in every state. He told me that having Michelle Obama at the event (where 300 packages were put together) was “huge,” and that her round tables reaching out to military families “are of immense value.”

IAVA is a non-partisan organization, and Rieckhoff made it clear that he was “a political independent.” He was unequivocal in his pronouncement that “torture is not an American value, that it hurts our soldiers, and that it is a moral challenge for our country.” Rieckhoff was resolute in his position that “taking care of the troops shouldn’t be partisan.” His objective, he said, “is to keep them all in check.”

After the Labor Day holiday, as people start to focus on the election, they should pay sharp attention to the differences in what Obama and McCain propose to offer those who have served our country.

Hopefully, this November 11th, our veterans will have cause for celebration.

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