Friday, May 2, 2008

John McCain Adores the War and Ignores the Warriors

John McCain Adores the War and Ignores the Warriors

By Aaron Glantz
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Everyone knows McCain is a former prisoner of war, but did you know he refuses to support a bipartisan effort to modernize the GI Bill and has voted against nearly every effort to increase funding for healthcare and disability benefits for wounded soldiers? Did you know that Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) gave him a D+ when they scored his voting record (whereas Obama got a B+ and Clinton an A-). Do you know that he voted with the interests of Disabled American Veterans (DAV) only 20 percent of the time?

Take a moment to look at his record:

In 2005 and 2006, McCain voted against expanding mental healthcare and readjustment counseling for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts to expand inpatient and outpatient treatment for injured veterans, and proposals to lower co-payments and enrollment fees veterans must pay to obtain prescription drugs.

"There was an effort to increase the budget for veterans' healthcare beyond what President [George W.] Bush had requested as part of his budget," DAV spokesperson Dave Autry explains. "The idea was to increase funding for veterans' healthcare by cutting back on tax breaks for the wealthy. The proposals were pushed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans in almost straight party-line votes."

In other words, John McCain's votes indicate he would rather give tax cuts to the rich than care for wounded veterans (Neither McCain's campaign office, nor his Senate press secretary responded to telephone and email inquiries for this story).

McCain's vote also helped defeat a proposal by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow that would have made veterans' healthcare an entitlement program like social security, so that medical care would not become a political football to be argued over in Congress each budget cycle.

Up until recently, these votes hadn't haunted John McCain. Reporters habitually rehashed his story of heroism four decades ago without looking at his voting record in the present. But now that he's the presumptive Republican nominee for president, a coalition of veterans groups, liberal activists, and Democratic PACs have decided to target McCain over his failure to support S.22, a bipartisan effort to improve the GI Bill.

The bill, by Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., would bring back WWII-era measures that provided vets with full college tuition along with room and board. Right now, those vets who try to use the GI Bill to attend school are eligible to receive only $1,100 a month for a maximum of three years. It is an amount that doesn't come close to covering the cost of a modern college education.

So far 57 senators have signed on as co-sponsors. But the bill remains nine votes short of the supermajority necessary to kill a filibuster.

"It's time for Sen. McCain to stand up for veterans and be a leader," the chairman of VoteVets, Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz, said in a statement. "The success or failure of this bill largely rests on his shoulders. He is the de facto leader of the Republican Party. If he signs onto the bill, it will pass and become law. If he doesn't support it, he needs to explain why he doesn't."

Earlier this month, VoteVets launched an on-line video and petition drive targeting McCain. The four-minute video was produced by Brave New Films (which brought us Outfoxed and Iraq for Sale) with funds from retired Gen. Wesley Clark's WesPAC. It features four veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan testifying on the problems they've faced with the current G.I. Bill.

"When I enlisted, I was under the impression that my college would be paid for, that I would have everything taken care of," Iraq war veteran Joshua Drake says in the video.

"The current G.I. Bill is inadequate," the former Navy corpsman added. "It hasn't kept up with the cost of inflation or the cost of tuition or the cost of books ... If I could talk to John McCain, I would try to appeal to him as a fellow veteran."

On April 29, more than 100 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans held a press conference on Capitol Hill with the same message, in an effort to turn up the heat on McCain and other lawmakers.

McCain's response has been to propose his own, less expansive version of the GI Bill. Last week, he introduced a bill entitled the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention, and Readjustment through Education Act, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Richard Burr, R-N.C.

Their bill would modestly increase the amount of money available to veterans using the GI Bill from $1,100 to $1,500 a month (still less than the cost of tuition at many public universities and still for only three years). The bill would also close some bureaucratic loopholes that cause GI Bill benefits to count as income, which disqualifies many needy veterans from student loans.

In announcing his bill, McCain made no mention of the more ambitious effort being championed by Webb and Hagel or the increasing attacks leveled at him by partisan and veterans organizations.

"We have an obligation to provide unwavering support to our nation's veterans, and that is precisely what this legislation does," McCain said in a statement (he was out campaigning and did not attend the press conference announcing the bill). "Men and women who serve their country in uniform deserve the best education benefits we are able to give them."

Veterans groups were unimpressed.

"Sens. McCain, Graham and Burr are shortchanging our veterans and undermining America's heroes as they reach for the American dream," said VoteVets's Soltz. "Frankly, it hurts to have two veterans, like Sens. McCain and Graham treat us like this. We would expect that they would have more honor than that."

Aaron Glantz is the author of two upcoming books on Iraq: The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans (UC Press) and Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations (Haymarket). He edits the website WarComesHome.org.

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