Editorial Column: Iowa Veterans Want U.S. Out of Iraq, Turn Toward Democrats

Huffington Post

Iowa veterans have some advice for the presidential contenders: The Republicans should no longer take the military vote for granted, and candidates from both parties should be wary of politicizing the war in Iraq.

Over the past three days, citizen journalists from OffTheBus checked in with more than 30 VFW and American Legion posts around Iowa. They interviewed some of America’s most vigilant members of the military about the role foreign policy credentials might play in Thursday’s caucuses. The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto propelled foreign and military policy to the forefront of campaign issues.

While many of the veterans interviewed were reluctant to say who they support, overall themes emerged: disenchantment with the status quo and the American political system with a fervor that could be good for the Democrats.

An uneasiness seems to permeate VFW Post 5256 in Keokuk, Iowa. Harold Price, a disabled Vietnam veteran, said he believes the candidates are “taking it seriously” this election cycle, but that he and many of the veterans at his post are concerned – mostly over the war in Iraq and the healthcare system.

“We don’t believe in being in Iraq,” said Price. “It’s another Vietnam.” Although respectful of the fragility of the situation he said “There’s just no end to it. I would like to see, and I think the other officers would, a gradual pullout. “Don’t keep sending them back to Iraq when it’s a lost cause.”

Price declined to comment on specific candidates, although his discontent with the current leadership was unmistakable.

Cory McKevitt of Okaboji, Iowa just finished basic training with the Iowa National Guard. He is 18. Not even alive at the time Price was fighting in Vietnam, McKevitt is frustrated – so much so that he’s unsure whether or not he’ll even vote.

“I want to get this war over – that’s my main thing,” he said. “We went over there, and did what we had to do, and now we just need to get out.”

As a soldier in the Guard, McKevitt was similarly uncomfortable naming candidates that appealed to him. But he was clear in his assertion that the next president of the United States must bring the troops home.

Pat Brimeyer, who served in Army Special Services in Vietnam, wants the troops home. Her husband Charlie served with the 4th Army Engineers in the same conflict and is now the executive director of the Dubuque County Veterans Commission Office.

“Individuals, families, employers and the state of Iowa are suffering,” said Brimeyer. “We’ve had a high proportion of misuse of our [National Guard and Reserve] units here in Iowa. This bogus war is not what these units were set up to do, nor what the members volunteered for.”

Like Price in Keokuk, Brimeyer too speaks with contempt for the manner in which veterans’ benefits are being handled.

“The biggest complaint is about the length of time veterans have to wait for results regarding their veterans’ benefits,” she said. “The high rate of Iowa military personnel serving in the Middle East has meant a higher rate of benefits claims. Des Moines,” she said, “can no longer handle the load so it has been ‘farmed out’ to other states, who don’t really want to do it.

“What is really sad,” said Brimeyer, “is when people die while waiting for their claims to be completed and the families are left with nothing.”

Brimeyer said she is unsure what the outcome of the Iowa caucuses will be. “We Iowans don’t think much of politicians or the media,” she said. “Some of us have personally denied answering polls just to keep the pols guessing.” Brimeyer started out supporting Obama, but said she “switched to Hillary when Michelle gave out the ‘my kids say my husband stinks in bed in the morning’ statement.”

“I wouldn’t be dreadfully upset with any of the Democratic candidates,” Brimeyer said. “I hope they all get good positions in Hillary’s administration or stay in Congress.”

Not everyone we interviewed shared the anti-war sentiments of people like Price, McKevitt and Brimeyer. A few – like retired Marine Monte Alan Iverson – voiced frustration with the Democrats’ anti-war agenda. Iverson, who served two tours in Iraq, said he’s leaning toward the Republicans this campaign season “because they seem to support the military a lot more.”

“All the Dems talk about is pulling out of Iraq,” he said. “I am so sick of hearing them say this just so they can get a few votes. In this day and age we need a strong president.”

Al Cannistraro, Jacqueline Cotrell, Christine Escobar, Kim Farris, Mike Germain, Kerri Glover, Matthew Moll, Gale Walden, Ellen Emerson White, and Randy Wilkinson contributed to this story.

Though Iverson also declined to name specific candidates, the majority of Republican-leaning veterans we interviewed seemed most interested in John McCain, a veteran and former POW of the conflict in Vietnam.

“McCain is realistic,” said a retired Army Lt. Col. who declined to be named during an interview from VFW Post 130 in Fort Dodge, Iowa. “A lot of people realize he’s paid his dues. He’s paid his dues and knows what it’s like to serve your country.”

Commander Bill Gartner of VFW Post 2099 in Carlisle, Iowa says that while he thinks “McCain is one of them,” he hasn’t “heard a lot from veterans, really. Not like when John Kerry ran.”

Among the Democrats, the Fort Dodge veteran – who served in both Vietnam and Iraq – said that “Obama is in some ways on the right track” as well.

“I don’t see a strong candidate of choice.” But, he said, “I do think there’s more interest this time. We’ve got more candidates here…and a lot of veterans are paying closer attention. We have people fighting in Iraq and Congress is fighting, too, so there’s more involvement and more awareness.”

The man’s comment highlights a common theme among the veterans we interviewed: disgust with the American political system in general – a sentiment that seems to be working in the Democrats’ favor.

“Nothing makes us more angry than politicians using military members and veterans as political pawns,” said Brimeyer. “Vietnam vets were used as government ‘whipping boys’ and Iraq vets are used as ‘weapons’ to support patriotic fervor for whatever reason…Worse yet is the utterly detestable political use of vets against vets.

“Charlie and I will never forgive the Republican Party for allowing and supporting the ‘Swift Boat’ debacle,” she said. “Shame, shame.”

“Our Congress has been terrible,” said the veteran from Fort Dodge. “We have people fighting [in Iraq and Afghanistan] and Congress is fighting and can’t agree on anything.” A lot of veterans, he said “are against candidates that say we’re going to stop the war tomorrow, because we know that’s not how it’s done.”

A solid majority of the veterans we interviewed are additionally troubled by United States foreign policy, especially in regards to the Middle East.

“I think most veterans understand – especially war veterans – that war should be the last resort,” said Commander Gartner. “Diplomacy is probably first. Communicate. Make it work and be truthful about what you do.”

“It’s like a powder keg over there,” said the veteran from VFW Post 130 about the Middle East. Several of those we interviewed expressed concern over the unrest in Pakistan. Some mentioned Iran. Many – like Cory McKevitt – seem anxious and unsure over the prospect of change in American policy. “Probably,” he said, “We’ll just have to let it happen.”

Al Cannistraro, Jacqueline Cotrell, Christine Escobar, Kim Farris, Mike Germain, Kerri Glover, Matthew Moll, Gale Walden, Ellen Emerson White, and Randy Wilkinson contributed to this story.

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