- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2008

‘08 ISSUES:

Presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain clash over the strategies being employed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the issues facing the nation’s veterans get scant attention on the campaign trail.

Veterans groups say neither candidate has aggressively promoted plans or debated how to address the needs of the growing number of veterans, including those with mental health problems, those with disabilities caused by war injuries and those who find themselves homeless.

“From my perspective, we’ve been at war for five years in Iraq and more than seven in Afghanistan, and 1.7 million have served in those two operations. The fact that we are not talking about their needs, yet we find time to stick a yellow ribbon on our car or wear a flag pin, I think it’s a real shame,” said Vanessa Williamson, policy director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in Washington.

“No matter who gets elected in November, we are going to have 1.7 million new veterans who need care and support.”

Although both candidates express policy positions on their Web sites, neither has made the needs of veterans a campaign centerpiece, even before the economic turmoil replaced the war as a top voter concern.

“I don’t think veterans issues are a swing vote in this election, but in reality, veterans issues are a very strong way to communicate core issues,” VoteVets.org co-founder Jon Soltz said about the need for heightened dialogue.

The military voting bloc represents 23.5 million veterans and 2.2 million uniformed personnel and their families, according to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW cited census data that showed 74 percent of veterans - compared with 63 percent of those in the general population - voted in the 2004 presidential election.

Veterans group leaders say mental health is a key issue, with 300,000 veterans reporting post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. They say the next president also should ensure that the nation’s 170 Veterans Affairs hospitals can provide cutting-edge care and not always under a cash crunch.

IAVA in New York recently issued a congressional report card that graded each lawmaker’s votes in the current Congress on a wide range of issues facing veterans including health care, the new GI bill and support for homeless veterans. On the Democratic presidential ticket, Mr. Obama and running mate Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware both earned a B. Republican candidate Mr. McCain earned a D.

However, Veterans for Freedom, in its own analysis of Senate votes on veterans issues, gave Mr. McCain an A-minus and awarded Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden a grade of F.

IAVA found that the Illinois Democrat, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of the post-Sept. 11 GI bill, voted five of nine times in support of key legislation for its members.

Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, voted three of nine times in support of the measures, but did not sign up to sponsor the new GI bill that eventually passed. Both candidates missed votes on veterans issues because they were on the campaign trail.

Mr. McCain, who co-sponsored his own version of the GI bill and opposed the current legislation as it is written, was not present to vote on the measure, which extends college education benefits to members of the military who have been on duty since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He was attending a fundraiser.

Mr. Obama, who returned to Washington to cast a vote for the bill, which passed by a vote of 75-22, called out his eventual Republican presidential opponent.

“There are many issues that lend themselves to partisan posturing, but giving our veterans the chance to go to college should not be one of them,” he said.

Mr. McCain, who endured torture during his 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison camp and is a decorated war hero, replied with a pointed statement: “I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.”

Pete Hegseth, who heads the 30,000-member Veterans for Freedom group in Washington, favors Mr. McCain for helping right the course for American troops.

“We think Senator McCain has been much stronger. His support for the surge [of troops in Iraq] and his policies have changed bad approaches in the war and have laid forward a new strategy with a new general in General [David H.] Petraeus.”

He adds, “When it comes to mental health benefits and health care, there is no doubt that Senator McCain gets it. I think Senator Obama also understands that we need to take care of veterans when they come home.”

Mr. Soltz, whose nonprofit and political action committee Votevets.org promotes efforts to elect returning veterans to Congress, supports Mr.Obama.

“I do think Mr. Obama has been better on those issues. I’d like Mr. McCain to answer those questions and explain to the American public why today’s veterans don’t deserve the same benefits that he got. And I’d like Obama to actually hold John McCain accountable for those votes.”

Mr. Hegseth said the nation’s next commander in chief must make veterans a priority and invest in policies that he thinks have been successful in the last year and a half in Iraq. He has visited Iraq recently and said the situation is improving.

“We are on the verge of a very important strategic victory in Iraq. We can’t leave Iraq based on an arbitrary timeline,” he said. “I think we are so much closer today than a year and a half ago, and we don’t want to squander the incredible gains that we have made.”

He also argues that returning veterans must be treated in ways that honor their service. They deserve the nation’s respect, he said.

“Some in the media have tried to create a perception that veterans are victims of a war they don’t believe in, but the vast majority don’t feel that way at all,” he said. “Don’t treat our troops as victims. These are heroes, servants and warriors.”

• This article is part of a daily series called “Issues,” which will run every edition for the rest of the presidential campaign.

•Explore different election-night scenarios with our ‘Road to 270’ interactive electoral college map.

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