09/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

John McCain And The Vets

When Senator John McCain takes the stage at Bally's Convention Center in Las Vegas on Saturday, his audience -- those among the several thousand members of Disabled American Veterans (DAVs) who can -- rise to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation. At the end of McCain's speech, the audience, except for some African Americans, rise again. The Las Vegas Sun, however, reports that the veterans give McCain "a tepid reception." Maybe Messers Coolican and Mishak, the Sun's reporters, have seen too much Cirque du Soleil. The cavernous casino hall is air-conditioning frigid and dimly lit like the Bally's slots down the hall, but the response to McCain is hardly cool. In the way of small political news 2008, the Sun's take is picked up by a few blogs and passed around as first-hand observation. And so a rich and complicated story is flattened and misconstrued.

A 2008 irony is that McCain's and Obama's journeys to their respective conventions have been compelling dramas, and yet less than three months before the election many in both parties are less than certain, sometimes to the point of disenchantment, about their standard bearers. Just a few miles from Bally's Casino, the day before McCain's speech to the DAV, Hillary Clinton spoke on behalf of Obama to a small crowd in Henderson, where most of the audience were her supporters, not reconciled to her loss. Even though a dozen waiting in line to get into the event told me that they planned to vote for McCain, I wondered how many of these assertions would carry as far as the voting booth come November. Similarly, at Bally's the next day, long-time Republicans and Independents (many veterans seem to be Independents) find themselves with no good choices.

Like the Sun reporters, I spend some time with Leroy Hendershot, a former Marine who fought in Vietnam. When I ask him if he's a McCain supporter, Hendershot says, "Not as much as I used to be. Well, let's put it this way. Eight, nine, ten years ago, I'd have been on his bandwagon in a heartbeat, but over the last seven years John has been lettin' us down." Hendershot is referring to legislation on veterans' benefits, and like everybody else at the DAV Convention, which naturally is composed of activists on behalf of veterans, he knows chapter and verse on a McCain decade of congressional votes. So I ask Hendershot if his disenchantment with McCain means that he will go for Obama. "No. I'm an Independent. I was for Romney. I still love John McCain. I think he's great. I just don't trust him." I ask Hendershot if his lack of enthusiasm for either McCain or Obama means that he might not make it to the polls in November. "Oh, absolutely I'll make it to the polls. I'm just not sure I'll vote for John McCain. I'm waiting for the debates. He was my hero, in a lot of ways--but then certain veterans' bills came up and he voted against them."

Over a morning and afternoon with the members of the DAV, I listen to many with Hendershot's dilemma. Verne, a veteran who was wounded on Corregidor in 1945 -- "when we took it back" -- says he is thinking about not voting at all. Like Hendershot, he had been for Romney. "I'm pretty much undecided, because the only way I'm going to vote for John McCain is if he picks Mitt Romney for a vice president. If he doesn't pick Romney, I don't see an honest politician in the whole bunch -- either Obama or McCain." Verne and his wife Jean distrust McCain's promises to do more for veterans. "As soon as he's in office, he'll forget all about us," Verne says. The younger man sitting in front of us turns around, nods and motions to me to listen to Verne. He works with the Veterans Administration and therefore is officially non-partisan, he tells me as I introduce myself. Nevertheless, Verne, Jean and he-who-shall-be-nameless from the VA are quick to stand when McCain enters the room. As fellow veterans, they are saluting McCain's service and sacrifice. It has nothing to do with politics. The odd corollary to this respect is the distrust, which in the end seems to stem as much from McCain's having gone over to the brass as from his votes against spending bills. The activists of the DAV are not former colonels and lieutenant-colonels. These are the lesser officers and ordinary ranks who in military culture regard their superiors with more than a little skepticism. When Verne takes off his DAV cap and points out the bars that represent his Purple Heart and Bronze Star, I realize how many of the tiny rectangles of unadorned purple fabric I've already seen that day and not recognized.

The vets in Las Vegas hear the same candidate who spoke to the La Raza Convention in San Diego, a man who sometimes seems to have a political death wish -- as if McCain wouldn't be authentically himself unless on any given day he were rubbing some group of people somewhere the wrong way. Therefore, he tells his audience, "Exactly because funding VA programs command [sic] bipartisan support, some in the Congress like to attach unrelated appropriations and earmarks to VA bills. . . . It it's me sitting in the Oval Office, at the Resolute desk, those wasteful spending bills are going the way of all earmarks straight back to the Congress with a veto." This is not what disabled veterans who have devoted considerable time and energy to securing more money and treatment for younger disabled vets coming out of harm's way today want to hear. If it takes "a million bucks to fund a Woodstock museum" (a favorite McCain bete noire), these vets would likely rustle up the mil themselves to get better mental health care from the VA. It's McCain's lack of support for previous VA funding bills that is causing DAV activists like Leroy Hendershot to think long and hard about voting for the Senator in November.

Not that there aren't plenty of McCain supporters at the DAV, because of course there are -- as well as more than a few forthright adherents of Barack Obama, who has addressed the convention in a video during the morning. But indecision is in the air. Wheeling out of the morning session, Fanny says, "I think it's so early. I want to wait until it gets a little closer and listen to all the rhetoric and then make my decision. I really don't vote party. I vote issues. But Senator McCain having been a POW, that's a win win for him." Fanny's caution, in what I've begun to call the summer of skepticism, particularly among Independents, is typical not only of veterans but also of the campaign trail everywhere. This caution is a corollary of change, and there's change in the air, more than just in the language of an Obama speech.

The women veterans at the DAV Convention make it clear how much change is going on in their organization. Patricia from Oregon says of the DAV leadership, "They used to go behind closed doors and smoke cigars and drink whiskey and stuff." But now more women are volunteering, and Patricia herself is thinking of running for first woman's national commander. It's clear from the phalanx of old white guys sitting on the podium and waiting for McCain that they have until now run the Disabled American Veterans. There should be more African Americans and Hispanics in attendance, given their numbers in the military. But they, like the women, are bringing change. Talking about her women's veterans group, Patricia says, "We're getting bigger all the time. A lot of Iraq, Afghanistan veterans. I'm from Vietnam. I was at the Pentagon. When I went in in '74, it was like everybody said you're either a prostitute or a lesbian. It's changed a lot. I'm fifty-three now -- I'm a lot more proud. I used to be kind of embarrassed. But I'm proud now. And the sad thing -- I live out in Oregon, there's not a lot of veterans' organizations out there. A lot of people in Oregon don't even know what a veteran is."

John McCain speaks to the issues of women in the armed forces. "The growing ranks of women in uniform have left the VA lagging behind in the services it provides," he says. In Las Vegas, he rolls out his plan for a Veterans Care Access Card, which will afford women better medical options "while the VA improves capacity and expands services." The idea is to provide care in the private sector for veterans who live far from a VA facility (a real problem in big states like Texas) or who need certain treatments and care in which the VA does not specialize. "This card is not intended to either replace the VA or privatize veterans' health care, as some have wrongly charged," McCain says. In fact, even as McCain is speaking, Tammy Duckworth, an Army captain and Black Hawk pilot who lost her legs to a grenade in Baghdad, and who had just been honored by the DAV as Disabled Veteran Volunteer of the year, calls McCain's plan only "a plastic card option that will lead to privatization." Duckworth, who ran as a Democrat for Congress from Illinois, clearly is delivering a partisan response. Nevertheless, the veterans in the DAV are not enthusiastic about McCain's proposal. After all, for each of them, a life's work centers on the VA. And change is threatening.

So for the veterans, John McCain represents both too much change and not enough. For Patricia, who plans to vote for Obama, McCain is the Old Guard she saw too much of at the Pentagon. "I said to my boys, if we ever get a draft, I think you should go to Canada, and they're like, 'Mom'!" Patricia says. "But I don't want them dying on some foreign soil over there -- Iraq is just another Vietnam. But when you're young, you don't understand it. You know, I worked with all the jerks in the Pentagon -- the officers, the generals, the commanders, they make these decisions." Patricia sighs. "I can't trust anybody anymore."

Kay, who served in Navy Intelligence for twenty-two years and in Desert Storm, is more typical of the veteran who comes to a McCain town hall meeting -- the veteran for whom McCain's military service adds meaning and luster to his or her own sacrifice. "I was a classified librarian back in the late 70s and early 80s," Kay says, as she wheels her chair out of the auditorium. "And when he [McCain] was repatriated, I held all his documents in my library. . . . I had the classified library. And his [McCain's] book was tremendous, but what isn't in his book and what can't be talked about is just" -- she pauses -- "incredible. He is just, ah, a remarkable person with what he had to live through and what I was privileged to be able to see -- it's incredible."

Sherry from Wisconsin embodies the change in the DAV and the military as a whole. A twenty-year veteran, she served in Guyana, Cuba, the Philippines and Operation Desert Storm. She tells me how she came to be shot. "When the Marines were being bombed in Beirut, I was on the 141s -- we're bringin' special oil from America for the New Jersey's guns -- every time they fired once, it took thirty quarts of oil to cool the barrel down -- we brought the oil, so the Lebanese sent a sniper to kill us -- it just so happened that that was my lucky day -- it was by a sneeze. My momma always told me never to sneeze in somebody's face; I was going to sneeze, turned my head, and as I turned my head, the trajectory of the bullet took a piece of my ear." Then Sherry tells me about one of the times she was knifed. "This little guy in the Philippines, couldn't have weighed more than a hundred pounds -- I didn't think he could cut me, but he did. So I picked him up by the scruff of his neck and broke it." Why aren't we allowing women officially into combat? This has to be the most interesting question of the day.

The second most interesting question is who will get the votes of the Independents at the DAV like Sherry. She is experiencing the summer conundrum. For Sherry, Obama is a Muslim (thank you, David Remnick: "it's in the magazines now") and McCain has lost touch with "the common man." Nevertheless, Sherry, like all the vets I meet except for Verne, will somehow work her way out of her dilemma. "I value my right to vote, and I will exercise it one way or another. . . . People don't realize one vote counts. I tell people: Vote! Or I'll beat ya!"