McCain appeals to veterans

Addressing a national veterans’ convention in Las Vegas on Saturday, Republican presidential candidate John McCain criticized his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, for not supporting last year’s temporary buildup in troop levels in Iraq.

"The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines," McCain told about 3,500 fellow members of the Disabled American Veterans at Bally’s Las Vegas. "This is one of many problems in the shifting positions of my opponent, Senator Obama."

Obama, who has advocated setting deadlines for bringing home American troops, opposed the so-called troop surge when it was proposed, predicting that it would not have the desired effect of quelling violence in Iraq. McCain supported it despite its unpopularity at the time.

"It was a clarifying moment," said McCain, a Navy veteran and former prisoner of war. "It was a moment when political self-interest and the national interest parted ways."

The troop increase has been credited with reduced levels of bloodshed, but Obama has since said a combination of factors, not just the surge, were responsible.

"Senator Obama still can’t quite bring himself to admit his own failure in judgment," McCain charged, adding that the episode showed Obama lacked "the judgment to be commander in chief."

McCain devoted the bulk of his speech at the disabled veterans’ annual convention to outlining proposals for reforming veterans’ health care. Though McCain said he wouldn’t be signing the group’s "Stand Up for Veterans" pledge, he said, "I give you my word that as president I will see that these obligations are kept."

The scandal that revealed shocking lapses in outpatient care at Washington, D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center was "a disgrace unworthy of this nation," McCain said. "Americans who fought to defend this nation should always rank among the highest of national priorities."

McCain said he would "make sure that Congress funds the VA health care budget in a sufficient, timely and predictable manner." Those are buzzwords for the veterans, who blame problems with VA funding and services on the fact that its budget comes from discretionary rather than mandatory federal funds. As a result, the agency’s funding is often late and subjected to political pressures.

McCain said that although he supported adequate VA funding, it must not be burdened by wasteful earmarks.

He also called for creation of a "Veterans’ Care Access Card," which he said would allow vets to get health care outside VA facilities if time, distance or availability of specialists made it difficult to access the VA system. The idea of such a card is opposed by the veterans group, which does not want veterans’ care in the hands of private companies.

"This card is not intended to either replace the VA or privatize veterans’ health care, as some have wrongly charged," McCain said in his speech. "I believe the VA should always be there to provide top-quality care for our veterans."

McCain further advocated reforming the system to improve treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and to increase services available to growing numbers of female veterans.

A Democratic disabled veteran who responded to McCain’s speech on behalf of Obama’s campaign criticized McCain for his support of the health care card idea, saying vets want to be treated by the VA, with their "buddies," and what’s needed is VA expansion rather than alternatives.

Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois former congressional candidate who lost both legs in Iraq, also criticized McCain for not supporting the "New G.I. Bill," an expansion of veterans’ education benefits that became law earlier this year. Obama supported the legislation, while McCain, who had opposed it, was not present for the vote in the Senate.

"When the time came to cast a vote on the most important piece of legislation to improve benefits for veterans, Senator Obama was there for us," Duckworth said. "Senator McCain did not show up."

Duckworth, now director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, was honored as the Disabled Veteran of the Year at the convention.

Obama, vacationing with his family in Hawaii, addressed the convention Saturday morning in a videotaped speech.

McCain has gotten low marks from the disabled veterans group in the past, earning the lowest grade in the Senate in the group’s 2006 rankings, a 20 percent score.

The grade was largely because of McCain’s votes against bills that included VA funding because of his opposition to wasteful spending. Obama got an 80 percent score.

Joe Violante, the organization’s legislative director, said it has good working relationships with both presidential candidates in the Senate.

"He is a fiscal conservative," he said of McCain. "The biggest problems we’ve had with him have been issues about increased funding for the VA."

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

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