Fighting a New War

Marching solemnly – some on foot and others in wheelchairs – they led the hundreds of thousands behind them past the police, past Madison Square Garden and through the sun-baked streets of New York City.

In this election season where as much seems to be riding on the past as the future, a collection of veterans groups, whose service spanned battles from Vietnam to Iraq, converged on New York City on Sunday to demonstrate their unhappiness with the Bush Administration's war, its long-term deployment of soldiers and the treatment of those soldiers when they're finished fighting.

"We opposed this war when before it started and we oppose it now," said David Cline, president of the national group, Veterans for Peace, and a 57-year-old disabled vet himself. "Nobody should be asked to die for lies."

"We need to bring our troops home and treat them right when they come home," added Michael Hoffman, a marine who spent two months fighting in Iraq and founder of Iraq Veterans Against The War. "We're creating a whole new generation of disabled veterans and at the same time we're cutting their benefits!"

Certainly, the powerful presence of such groups in New York is a welcome boon to the Kerry campaign, still smarting from the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth commercials, which appear to have bruised Kerry's support among veterans. A poll released by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Election Survey on Aug. 26 found that despite a boost after the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry still trails President Bush by some 18 points among veterans.

Organizations such as Veterans for Peace hope to help close that gap.

"What John Kerry said in front of Congress in 1971 was beautiful and it was right on the money," said Cline in defense of Kerry's controversial testimony in front of Congress as a young man on the war crimes committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. "Some of us in the military came out of our experience thinking about what we went through, and we tried to draw some lessons."

Further, the emergence of other less openly partisan veterans organizations – which have grown increasingly critical of the Bush administration in recent weeks – are the latest indicators of a strong split within a 26 million strong voting bloc that has historically voted staunchly Republican. (A recent Annenberg poll found that 37 percent of vets considered themselves to be Republicans while 23 percent said they were Democrats.)

Operation Truth – founded by veterans from the current war and designed to provide direct media exposure to the experiences of soldiers in Iraq – held a press conference on Aug. 24 both to announce their inception and also to criticize the way the war is being waged. The conference featured former Minnesota Governor and Navy Seal Jesse Ventura, who told reporters, "The use of the National Guard is wrong. They did not sign up to go occupy a foreign nation. In many cases, these men are doing things they were never trained to do. It's dangerous for them and for the war itself."

The Veterans Institute for Security and Democracy, whose advisory board boasts numerous high ranking retired generals such as members General Joseph P. Hoar, a retired Commander of U.S. Central Command and former Bush-turned-Kerry supporter General Merrill McPeak, an ex- Air Force chief of staff, is explicitly non-partisan, says coordinator Acie Byrd. But while the group's members hail from both side of the aisle, it is abundantly clear that these ex-soldiers are anything but pleased with their commander-in-chief.

"We haven't taken a vote but the majority of us are angry with Bush and his administration" says Byrd. "We know the Republicans are not addressing issues important to veterans. This doesn't necessarily mean all of us will be voting for Kerry, but we think the public needs to know about the problems."

A press release from the group predicts that the Republican National Convention will be nothing more than a "four-day infomercial" designed to boost the president's credibility.

On Sept. 1, the Veterans Institute for Security and Democracy will hold a three-hour panel discussion in New York City. According to the organizers, the forum will "provide counterpoint to Republican pronouncements on foreign policy, national security, and veteran's issues."

Steve Robinson, a veteran of the first Gulf War and the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, is one of those speaking at the Veterans Institute's panel. Robinson says the veterans' advocacy group is not aligned with any political agenda but wants "to focus on the facts."

"Veterans from the current war are languishing in medical hold facilities, and they're getting low-ball disability ratings," Robinson said. "There's a lack of focus on real issues like this, the under-funding of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the commitment we need to make towards our soldiers when they come home."

Many of the veterans groups in New York this week cite the Bush administration's November implementation of the 'stop-loss' decree – which prevents soldiers from retiring or leaving their units 90 days before deployment and 90 days after returning home – as evidence of its disregard for the well-being of soldiers.

They are also concerned about possible cuts in funding of the VA – word of a possible $910 million cut has been denied by VA Secretary Anthony Principi – and that the planned massive reorganization of its hospital system in order to recoup money, which critics say will ultimately close down medical facilities in areas where they are needed most.

The Kerry campaign has, in turn, also accused Bush of ignoring the plight of uninsured veterans and claims that 20 percent of reservists and their families lack adequate health care coverage. For his part, the president has refuted allegations of neglect. In a recent letter to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush claims that increased funding of the VA under his watch has allowed the agency to enroll 2.5 million more veterans for health services in addition to expanding grants to homeless veterans.

The claim has had little effect on the veterans groups in New York City, who plan to make the case this week that the Bush administration has not done nearly enough to insure the safety of soldiers abroad and at home.

It remains to be seen whether they will garner sufficient media attention when the RNC rolls out its own heavy hitter veterans such as Senator John McCain, who addressed the Convention on Monday night. Nor is it clear whether these groups will have a significant impact on the veteran vote in November.

"Kerry has made some inroads with veterans groups because he has the advantage of not being the incumbent, he can promise to strengthen the VA and also because Donald Rumsfeld has had such a rocky relationship with the military," said Peter Feaver, Political Science Professor at Duke University. Feaver is also a Lt. Commander with the Navy Reserves, a member of the National Security Counsel under President Clinton and an expert on veterans‚ issues. "But most of the polls still give Bush the advantage," he said.

Groups such as Veterans For Peace that are openly campaigning for Kerry, however, remain optimistic. "They're a lot of veterans who have progressive instincts despite the stereotypes about our political affiliations," David Cline said. "The government turned their back on us when we came home, and we're not about to let that happen again."

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