“We want to be sure that those who served in harm’s way aren’t left behind on the battlefield,” said Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd (see pic), a U.S. senator from Connecticut. “The old line in basic training is you don’t leave a buddy on the battlefield. The battlefield doesn’t end when you return from the theater of conflict; the battlefield for our 24 million veterans is going on here today.”
The event was intended to raise money for veterans and provide Democratic presidential candidates a forum to share their platforms for vets. Dodd was the only presidential candidate who spoke at the event; other candidates sent high-level representatives. The Aug. 13 forum was supposed to be nonpartisan, but Dodd quickly established a partisan tone, which the rest of the speakers emulated in a blistering critique of the Bush administration’s neglect of veterans.
“I’ve spent four different occasions on the Senate floor just to get body armor for those serving in Iraq, only to be defeated every single time by the Republicans, who could not come up with the votes to support the body armor or compensate the families and communities who purchased body armor for their loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Dodd, a National Guard veteran. “The Don Rumsfeld line, ‘You don’t get the Army you deserve, you get the Army you got,’ reflects this administration’s attitude toward our young people, which they placed in difficult situations without even the most basic protection. This is deeply disturbing to me, and when I hear comments about how much they care and compare this with the actions of this administration, these words ring hollow.”
A number of veterans at the forum said they have grown tired of politicians paying lip service without ever producing results. They also feel the media have neglected their concerns. Joe Stutler, an Army veteran from Cedar Rapids, said he was looking for two things: honor and respect. “All the benefits in the world are available and possible, but not until Americans realize that without veterans, there is no America. Somebody has to defend us; we’re called and we go. There should be some honor and respect in that,” Stutler said in response to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s solicitation for veteran concerns. Vilsack was speaking on behalf of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
“If Americans began honoring and respecting that service, there would be no talk of a draft, because people would be fighting to get in instead of clamoring around in an RV around the green zone in Iowa thinking that’s a patriotic duty,” Stutler added, before setting his sights on the media or in this case, the absence of the media. “I don’t see a room full of media here, but I saw it for labor, GLBT and minorities. Where’s the respect from Americans for veterans?”
The forum’s speakers tailored their speeches to address veterans’ feelings of governmental neglect once they’ve fufilled their contracted service obligations. Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden (see pic), who spoke on behalf of his father, Sen. Joe Biden, had this to say: “All of you veterans went over to war and served without talking about what you did and what medals you won. You came home and went about your business.” The younger Biden is a captain in the Delaware National Guard, which is scheduled to deploy to Iraq sometime next year. “But what you haven’t done is you haven’t forgotten. You’ve kept the covenant. Whether you were drafted or volunteered, it doesn’t matter; you did what your country asked for you.
“The first thing my father would do as president is honor the covenant you made, so you’re not caught like so many Korean and Vietnam veterans in between the greatest generation and this Iraqi war generation,” Biden said. “We cannot forget the people in the middle, and must honor all veterans of foreign wars.”
Speaking on behalf of candidate John Edwards, Major Gen. Youngman reiterated Edwards’ campaign platform of honoring "our sacred contract" with veterans. “Edwards believes we need to fully fund the VA, and the reason this isn’t happening is because of the annual dance that goes on in Washington,” Youngman said. “Bush sends over a VA budget that everyone knows is far from adequate, then we hear some speeches on the congressional floors, and then Congress adds a few amendments, then they turn around and send out campaign mailers saying they’re fighting for veterans in Washington.
“John Edwards understand there’s more to patriotism than waving a flag and sending somebody else’s children to war. He understands there’s more to taking care of our veterans than getting together with veterans for a photo opportunity,” Youngman said. “The mindset that has been in place since this war started is that a soldier expense has been treated as a labor expense, and it’s something we try to reduce. That kind of mindset says it’s OK for the secretary of Defense to send out letters of condolences to families, who just had the devastating loss of a loved one, signed by a signature machine.”
The presidential forum reached the emotional apex when New Mexico Gov. Richardson’s representative, Rick Bolanos (see pic), took the stage and shared his thoughts on his Vietnam War experiences and the Swift Boat Veterans, who disputed 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry's heroics in Vietnam. Along with his three brothers, Bolanos stepped up and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. They were the only four brothers in America serving simultaneously in Vietnam.
“When I saw people wearing purple heart band-aids, I thought to myself, that’s really cruel,” Bolanos said, before retelling a Vietnam War story. “While serving in Vietnam, my brother and I saw a young Marine fall down as he cupped his hand to his throat. When his hands fell down, we saw blood spurt from his neck. He fell and bled to death right in front of our eyes. When we asked the medic what happened, he told us that a small piece of shrapnel had severed his artery. What would this administration and the Swift Boat Veterans have said had he survived? Would they have denigrated his service if had come back and run for president of the United States?”
With his hands and voice trembling with emotion, Bolanos continued his story. “And what would this administration and the Swift Boat Veterans have said to my best friend, Mack, who I held in my arms as he looked up and said, ‘Rick, don’t let me die.’ For that one instant I wanted to exchange my life for his, and I was angry at my God for the first time, because I didn’t have enough hands to cover all the wounds he had to stop the bleeding.
“I ask you as a veteran, what would the administration and the Swift Boat Veterans have said had Mack come back and run for the president of the United States? This administration and these people do not have the right to pit one veteran against another. They don’t have the right to denigrate a veterans’ service, because not one of them -- not Karl Rove, not President Bush, not Dick Cheney -- ever answered their country’s call.”