11/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Obama Is Winning Veterans

Colin Powell's announcement on Sunday that he is supporting Barack Obama for President dominated the news, as well as it should. The chattering class appears to regard it a one-off event. But is it?

Far removed from the public glare, Obama has, for some time, been meeting with retired senior officers and other influential veterans and gaining their confidence.* Some, including Powell's longtime chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, are actively campaigning for Obama.

Colin Powell made up his own mind, but the support of veterans backing Obama - Wilkerson included -may have been among the factors that led to Powell's stunning announcement.

Obama began meeting with veterans more than a year ago, before he emerged as the likely Democratic nominee. These were not the typical grip-and-grins of a photo op. The meetings entailed lengthy discussions of substantive issues - not just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but force structure, military recruitment, health care for wounded veterans and nuclear proliferation. The result: retired senior officers, who were largely nonpolitical or politically inclined to the GOP, began to see that Obama was no ordinary politician, that he was well-versed in international relations, military affairs and a broad range of issues that affect the security of our nation.

Some of those veterans have since stepped forward and taken an active role in the Obama campaign. The most visible manifestation came at the Democratic Convention in August, when 20 generals and admirals appeared together in support for Obama.

I saw it on display in Fairfax, Virginia, this past weekend. Now granted, this is Northern Virginia, which Joe McCain (brother of John) recently declared "communist country." It is also a section of the Commonwealth that McCain aide, Nancy Pfotenhauer, disdained as not part of the "real Virginia."

Yet, Virginia it is, and the "Veterans & Military Families Rally for Obama," which attracted 200-250 people on Saturday, appears emblematic of the inroads Obama is making into a community that had, in the past, been highly resistant to Democratic presidential candidates.

David McGinnis, a retired Army brigadier general and combat infantryman, spoke of meeting Obama for the first time and spending three hours discussing a broad range of military issues. "Here's a man who wanted to learn how to be commander-in-chief and was willing to listen and was willing to be held accountable," he said. "That's what you want in a leader."

McGinnis was also impressed with Obama's efforts on behalf of veterans dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse and homelessness.

James A. Kelley, a retired Army major general, cited Obama's support of greater funding for the Army and increased intelligence assets, both of which McCain opposed. Obama voted for "up-armoring vehicles and personnel gear," Kelley said. "Senator McCain voted against that."

In his final assignment, Deputy Commanding General of the Third Army in the Middle East, Kelley met Obama when the senator visited Kuwait in 200Na5. He recalled Obama's meeting individual soldiers, shooting baskets with them and taking the time to meet them in small groups or one to one. No cameras, no reporters. Obama stayed until the last soldier left.

"I'm not for this war," Obama told Kelley at the time, "but I am for these soldiers. I will support them."

Obama made good on that promise. Disabled American Veterans, a nonpartisan charitable organization that works on behalf of severely wounded veterans, gave John McCain a score of 20 out of a possible 100. Obama earned an 80.

Larry Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, served as chief of staff when Colin Powell was Secretary of State. In European and Asian capitals, he said, "they do not judge us by our rhetoric anymore. We have failed the international community with our words. They know President Bush lied when he said we do not torture. Waterboarding has been torture since the Spanish Inquisition."

He went on to say: "We've had no leadership for eight years. Think about that. The only leadership we've had is that of Dick Cheney behind the scenes corrupting our Constitution, corrupting everything we believe in and advocating publicly for torture."

Later, in response to a question, Wilkerson added: "The Vice President of the United States not only lied to the American people and to the Congress of the United States, particularly a man named Dick Armey [the Texas Republican who was then the House Majority Leader], but he also lied to the President of the United States. And all of this is going to come out because in our country you can't keep secrets - not for very long. And historians and others are going to find this presidency and this vice-presidency, as I said before, the most unprecedentedly incompetent, secretive and abusive of power in our history."

Paul "Bud" Bucha never rose beyond the rank of Army captain, but he has something few veterans possess: the Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded for his extraordinary courage as a young infantry officer in Vietnam. Bucha later taught at West Point and still teaches young men and women embarking on military careers about character and leadership. (He had recently returned from a visit with cadets at the Air Force Academy, which happens to be my alma mater.)

Bucha said of Obama: "This is a man that understands uniting and honor. He says there is nothing more they must do who serve abroad to come home with honor. There is nothing more that we can add or we can subtract to what they have done. They are already owed their full honor. So, it is wrong to say someone must surrender to allow us to win before they can have honor."

Later on, he added: "The wonderful thing about Barack Obama, he started out with this word, hope. What more gracious, wonderful thing to base a campaign on. Hope. Not destruction of the opposition, but hope."

In previous elections, the GOP seemed to have a lock on the votes of veterans. The remarks I heard in Fairfax suggest that change may be coming. Veterans are looking for more from their politicians than "Support Our Troops" magnets. They want leaders who understand the challenges we face and will not squander the lives of our armed forces on the next neocon wet dream of a cakewalk in some foreign land. They want a president who recognizes, as Obama has, that the nation has a solemn obligation to care for soldiers wounded in battle and to support the families of those who die in service to our country.

Near the end of this event, Larry Wilkerson, a self-described lifelong Republican, who became familiar with the Democratic party when he campaigned for Jim Webb's 2006 Senate race, had this to say: "Let me tell you that I have found a collegiality, a warmth, a compassion, a humanity in your party that I never found in mine."

If Democrats live up to the promises Obama has made to our soldiers, the shift I glimpsed in Fairfax last weekend could ultimately alter the political landscape.

Doing the right thing. What a concept. What a way to drive a spike through the ugly heart of Rovian politics.


* Go to 33:40 of the video of the event. That's where Brigadier General David McGinnis begins to talk. At 35:02 he starts talking about meeting Obama with 13 other officers early this year. Of that group, 11 of them signed on with Obama. Wilkerson, Kelley and Bucha also talk about meeting with Obama. As noted in the piece, Kelley first met him in 2005.