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Originally published Tuesday, October 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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McCain enjoys broad support among veterans

Nationally, McCain enjoys more support from veterans than does his opponent, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic nominee. Fifty-six percent of veterans prefer McCain compared with 34 percent who favor Obama, according to a Gallup survey taken in August, just before the candidates addressed the national Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

McClatchy Newspapers

COLUMBIA, S.C. — On a recent rainy Friday night, the presidential race came up at a Columbia American Legion hall.

The vets said it shouldn't surprise anyone whom they support: U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a retired Navy pilot, prisoner of war and the Republican nominee.

"You have to ask?" joked Ken Gehler of Columbia, a 70-year-old Vietnam War veteran and retired Army lieutenant colonel.

"He is a veteran and he understands how vets need to be taken care of, especially wounded ones," said Karl Bowers of Columbia, a 66-year-old retired Air Force major. "He's got enough experience to carry us through."

Nationally, McCain enjoys more support from veterans than does his opponent, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic nominee.

Fifty-six percent of veterans prefer McCain compared with 34 percent who favor Obama, according to a Gallup survey taken in August, just before the candidates addressed the national Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

But that doesn't mean McCain automatically wins support from every veteran.

Last month, three members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars sat around a table at that group's state headquarters in Lexington. One supports McCain, one supports Obama and one was undecided.

Al Landsperger, a 53-year-old Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm, said he was torn.

"The age issue with McCain is a concern," he said. "Obama worries me over his lack of experience. I never thought of the president as on-the-job training."

Mariann Larson of Elgin, the 70-year-old chaplain of the South Carolina VFW Auxiliary, said she wants McCain in the White House.

"Give me a POW anyway," she said. "He knows what war is all about and the pain and suffering associated with it."

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However, Rodney Burne, a 60-year-old Vietnam War veteran, said McCain hasn't used his combat experience to make good judgments about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama was the first candidate to support a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, and he has stood by his position, Burne said.

"I felt from Day One we shouldn't go into Iraq," Burne said. "Before this country ever goes to war again, they should do their homework and analyze all of the outcomes before they decide anything.

"We're trapped as far as our military strength. It's putting us in a potentially difficult and dangerous situation."

Still, Burne estimated that 90 percent of his VFW colleagues would disagree with him.

When it comes to the issues, almost all the veterans were more concerned about troops serving in combat than themselves. They especially want proper mental-health care for troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We have a terrible time treating PTSD," Burne said.

Landsperger also was concerned about the lengthy, multiple combat tours U.S. troops must serve.

The sentiments were the same at the American Legion, where today's veterans talked about the importance of helping tomorrow's veterans.

But they also want victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Larry Crowe, 52, who served in the South Carolina National Guard, that means staying in both countries even if it means a long-term presence like the United States has in South Korea.

"Let's don't pull out, where we are, too soon," said Crowe, who did a tour of duty in Bosnia in 1997. "We need to stay in Iraq until we're comfortable about leaving."

— — —

What the candidates propose

Sen. Barack Obama

— Allow modest-income veterans to enroll in the VA health-care system.

— Improve polytrauma vision impairment; more resources for prosthetics, spinal-cord injury, aging and women's health.

— Order the military and VA to coordinate medical care and other services.

— Fully fund the VA.

— Add claims workers to the VA.

— Transform the VA to an electronic, paperless system.

— Improve mental-health treatment and traumatic brain injury care.

— Expand Vet Centers.

Sen. John McCain

— Fully fund VA health-care budget.

— Create Veterans Care Access Card to allow veterans to receive care outside the VA system when needed.

— Foster greater cooperation between the Defense Department and VA.

— Make sure veterans receive easy-to-understand information about their rights and benefits.

— Expand health-care education for families caring for injured and ill veterans.

— Improve training for VA claims assistants.

— Automate the VA system.

— Partner with veterans' service organizations.

— Simplify the Defense Department retirement system.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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