Friday, September 26, 2008

No Friend of Mine

John McCain's no friend to veterans
BY ROBERT DIAMOND


Friday, September 26th 2008, 4:00 AM

As soon as Thursday night, Barack Obama and John McCain are scheduled to meet for their first presidential debate. They will talk about national security, Iraq, Afghanistan, the strains on our military readiness and, I hope, they will talk about our veterans.
As both an Iraq war veteran and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, I am intimately familiar with John McCain's valiant and honorable military service. McCain, as far as I am concerned, is a true American hero. Unfortunately, his heroism in the Vietnam War has been allowed to morph into a patently false "record" - ceaselessly touted by his campaign - that McCain is a strong advocate for veterans. That could not be further from the truth.
Earlier this month, McCain delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention - the most important speech of his long political career. In a nearly 50-minute address, with millions of Americans watching, McCain could not find 10 seconds to talk about one of the most important issues facing this country - caring for our returning veterans. He did not mention the word "veteran" once.
In fact, the only time the issue of veterans came up during that speech was when McCain was interrupted by protesters from the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. McCain dismissed them as "ground noise and static."
Yes, that was just the convention - and, you might argue, more about symbolism than substance. But it only gets worse when one looks at McCain's voting record. The nation's largest Iraq veterans organization, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan organization, grades members of Congress on how they vote on legislation that "affect[s] troops, veterans or military families." This includes votes on such issues as expanded health care services for veterans and reservists, military death benefits, traumatic brain injury research and adequate rest for service members between deployments, just to name a few.
Of the 155 votes tracked by IAVA since 9/11, John McCain received a grade of "D." While no senator earned a grade of "A," Barack Obama got a "B ."
A separate veterans group, Disabled American Veterans - with over 1.4 million members - maintains a "Federal Vote Scorecard." DAV is also a nonpartisan organization and says the purpose of its scorecard is "simply to report the facts - how [legislators] voted on issues important to us and our members."
McCain's score in the last Congress? 20%. Obama's? 80%. (In the previous two Congresses, McCain's record goes a little bit higher - to 25% and 33%, respectively; Obama's is 92% for 2006; in 2004 he was not yet elected to the Senate.)
What led to these scores? Among other things, McCain's vote in March of 2006 against increasing veterans' medical services funding by $1.5 billion by closing corporate tax loopholes. Obama voted for it. Another was in April 2006, when McCain was one of only 13 senators to vote against an amendment to add $430 million for the Department of Veteran Affairs for medical services for outpatient care and treatment for veterans. Obama voted in favor of it.
But McCain says he has a perfect record on veterans issues. He said so on the campaign trail. FactCheck.org decided to examine this claim. What did it find? "[McCain] said that he had 'a perfect voting record from organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion.' But we called both of those groups, and they told us they don't even release congressional scorecards. In fact, the American Legion's constitution prohibits it."
My favorite was McCain's opposition to the new GI Bill that President Bush - after originally threatening to veto - signed into law this past June 30. The new GI Bill will cover veterans for the full cost of education at any public school in the country and many private schools (it's capped at the cost of the most expensive public school in the respective state). It provides upfront tuition payments directly to the school, a book/supply stipend of $1,000 per year and a monthly living stipend.
When it came time to vote on this legislation, McCain didn't show up. He stayed in California to attend a fund-raiser.
I would never challenge John McCain's proud record of service to his country. But his voting record has not helped address the shoddy state of our VA system, the lack of preparation to handle today's combat wounded who have returned home with blast-trauma injuries or the failure to provide adequate posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) screening and treatment for all our service members.
It's time for Americans to look past rhetoric and biography. In the past seven years, this country has sent our military to fight in two major wars. John McCain has stood up to defend those wars. He has yet to stand up for veterans once they've returned home.
Diamond, a native New Yorker, is the chairman of New York Veterans for Obama. He served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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