Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards, who was on Barack Obama's vice presidential shortlist, spoke along with four veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars Tuesday evening at an event at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.
Edwards, who represents Crawford, Texas, one of that state's most conservative districts, is a long time advocate of improved benefits for veterans, and a recent outspoken opponent of the Bush administration's initial bailout plan. Edwards made it clear that Obama is the clear choice when it comes to challenges facing returning veterans of current and future conflicts in this century.
"It may surprise the American public to know," Edwards said, "that the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) give John McCain a lifetime voting record of 41%. I know that if I had brought home a 41% as a kid, my parents would have given me a strict talking to."
Edwards added that while he respects McCain's service to this country, "respect does not buy better health care."
Edwards has chaired the Veterans Administration appropriations committee for two years and pointed out that in those past two years, with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, Congress has appropriated more money for the VA than it had in the past twelve years under a Republican-controlled Congress.
He also stressed that Obama's personal record was far better than McCain's.
"When Illinois vets were threatened with having their disabilities payments lowered, Obama stepped in. When the VA stopped payments for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) Obama stepped in. And Obama will make sure that we have a fully funded Veterans Administration program when he is elected."
Edwards added that, given $700 billion government "bailout" of Wall Street, Obama's proposed programs might need tweaking, but the VA would not be one of them. "That is something to which he is fully committed."
Kayla Williams, author of I Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, spoke frankly and openly about her experience dealing with the VA after her husband Brian McGough's traumatic brain injury. McGough, who was also a speaker at the event, seemed fully recovered, but recounted his nearly two-year odyssey through the system after serving three tours of duty. Both husband and wife were articulate in their support of Barack Obama.
"The Bush administration was not prepared to handle the occupation [of Iraq]" said Williams, "and it was not prepared to handle those with traumatic brain injury." She added that there was a time when she was between job offers and caring for her husband and both of them were on unemployment, and that her GI benefits did not even begin to pay for graduate school. "John McCain never supported the post 9-11 GI Bill. He said it was too generous. That was a real slap in the face."
Her husband, McGough, added that he was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center and getting substandard care when the hospital was asking for more money and McCain voted it down. "It's hard enough to ask for help and McCain's suggestion that the private sector pick up the slack would make it that much harder. The private sector doesn't understand how to treat blast injuries. I know. I asked."
Seth Lovell, who lives in Staunton and with his twin brother served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that he came to his political consciousness late. But coming home and trying to get his GI benefits for his education woke him up. He went to work for Senator James Webb of Virginia and then quickly became an Obama supporter. He said that fighting in both places let him see where the real war needed to be fought.
A Korean War veteran in the audience pointed out that the GI Bill which sent World War II veterans to college created the middle class in the United States and returned seven fold back to the country. "Those who went to college got better jobs and paid more taxes because of higher salaries due to better jobs," the man said. "It just makes sense to give them the benefits they deserve."
Said Edwards, "We need to keep our promises to those who kept their promises to us. With an all volunteer military, it is important to attract and keep the best and the brightest. Kids watch how we treat our veterans. And we need to keep our promises to them. This is not just about the past. It's about the future."
There are 2,000 volunteer veterans in Virginia trying to get the word out about both Obama's record on and commitment to America's veterans. Each Monday evening they meet in Democratic headquarters statewide to organize calling, canvassing and letter-writing campaigns to get the word out to veterans and citizens alike who might still think that John McCain's record on veterans issues is superior.
Virginia is a key battleground state. And, as Edwards said more than once: "In this election, as Virginia goes, so goes the nation."