John McCains veterans problem

John McCain has developed a veterans problem.

In late May, McCain aided a Republican filibuster of the 21st Century GI Bill by refusing to return to the Senate for a key vote. In fact, McCain claimed the bill’s generous provisions to aid veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan — additional health care, educational opportunities and other resources — were bad because they would give incentives for troops to leave the military.

In fact, Time magazine reported that McCain has voted favorably on veterans issues only 30 percent of the time, while Barack Obama has supported them 90 percent of the time.

The battle over the GI Bill spurred veterans like Purple Heart recipient Christopher McGurk, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, to join the Obama campaign.

Last week, he was part of a media teleconference showcasing the “Next Greatest Generation of Veterans for Obama.”

McGurk told reporters, “I support Sen. Obama because he’s supporting us.”

He cited Obama’s work on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and his support for new funding for veterans’ health care and the GI Bill.

“Thanks to the new GI Bill, I now have opportunities I did not have before,” the former infantry staff sergeant added.

Veterans also say McCain’s poor judgment on the Middle East has caused them to back Obama.

In a TV ad released by VoteVets.org, Iraq veteran Brandon Woods reminds viewers that McCain told the public that he would support troop withdrawal if the Iraqis asked us to leave, but once the Iraqi prime minister called for a withdrawal timetable McCain changed his tune. “Sen. McCain would occupy Iraq indefinitely against their wishes,” the former Army captain says. “That’s not what freedom means; that’s not what we fought for.”

Former Army Ranger Collin McMahon of Savannah, Ga., a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, told reporters during the teleconference that his endorsement of Obama was based on the Illinois senator’s “strategic clarity and good judgment,” qualities which he said McCain lacks.

McMahon, a former sergeant, saw Obama’s promise to combine economic aid, multilateral alliances and military action focused on the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks as a better choice than what McCain offers.

Drew Sloan, a former infantry officer and Afghanistan and Iraq veteran from Aspen, Colo., said, “The threats that face us today are diverse and complex, and a Cold War mentality is not the place to look for the answers.”

“I am supporting Sen. Obama because I think he gets it,” Sloan added. “He understands that in the 21st century, it requires two plans: one to win the war, and one to win the peace.”

John McCary, a former Army intelligence specialist in Iraq, said he thinks Obama “understands the kind of strategic vision we need to be successful in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where we have an ongoing counterinsurgency.”

“The tools we need to be successful there,” McCary noted, based on his personal experience, “are not those of greater force implements or larger guns, but marshaling tools like cultural understanding, alliance building, marshaling resources like civilian reconstruction.”

McCary highlighted his personal struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and Obama’s support for him. “This draws me completely, naturally to the senator, because I think he’s the kind of leader we need to support these sorts of efforts,” McCary said. “And I believe he will stand by us.”

Other veterans say that while they respect McCain’s military record, it is not a good basis for deciding who should get your vote for president.

“This election is not just about Senator McCain’s veteran record,” said McGurk. “The election is about health care, energy, a wide spectrum of different issues.”

In an ad by the newly formed AFL-CIO Union Veterans Council, electrician and Navy veteran Jim Wasser says, “Every vet respects John McCain’s war record. It’s his record in the Senate I have a problem with.”

Wasser, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, points to McCain’s agenda of big tax breaks for corporations, job-draining free trade agreements and other anti-worker policies.

AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Council President Mark Ayers, a former Navy pilot who is chairing the federation’s veterans group, said in announcing the initiative, “Not only has McCain voted the wrong way on veterans issues — such as opposing increased funding for veterans’ health care the last four years in a row — but he also doesn’t support middle class people’s issues.”

Among other things, McCain favors taxing workers’ health benefits, Ayers noted.

In addition to the national Union Veterans Council, state councils have been launched in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Ohio and West Virginia. Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and other states are expected to form councils shortly.

jwendland @politicalaffairs.net