Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a decorated Navy lieutenant who later protested the Vietnam War, urged veterans on Saturday to “get out there marching again” for better benefits.
On the anniversary of President Bush’s declaring an end to combat operations in Iraq, Kerry held a sometimes emotional breakfast meeting with about a dozen veterans at a the South City Diner in St. Louis.
“We haven’t even finished Afghanistan and we’re fighting a war — ‘Mission Accomplished’?” asked Fields Black, a 33-year-old former Marine who won a combat ribbon in the 1991 Gulf War.
He was referring to Bush’s flight-suited May 1 landing on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California, where he declared major combat operations over beneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.”
Rising U.S. toll in Iraq
But chaos and the U.S. death toll in Iraq have surged. Six months before the Nov. 2 presidential election, polls show the issue is almost as important to voters now as the economy.
April has been the bloodiest month for American forces in Iraq, with at least 136 U.S. troops killed. Nearly 740 American soldiers have died in the war, according to Pentagon figures.
Black, who requires an oxygen tank to breathe, said he had contracted emphysema and other respiratory problems during the first Gulf War, probably from inhaling oil fumes.
Tears welling, he told Kerry that eight months ago, doctors predicted he would die without a course of treatment he could not afford.
“You land on the aircraft carrier strutting your stuff and I have a hard time walking?” Black said. “How dare you? That’s how I look at the president, how dare you. Why didn’t you land a plane in Vietnam? Where were you then? Just how dare you. It amazes me how he does it with a smile too.”
Kerry listened, then got up, embraced Black and quietly promised to try to help.
The presidential election campaign turned into a spat this week over Kerry’s stint as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam and whether he did or did not discard his three Purple Hearts, Bronze Star and Silver Star during a subsequent antiwar protest in Washington.
Kerry dismissed the issue, saying Republicans were simply trying to change the subject because they had no record to run on.
“Americans aren’t listening to all that junk,” he told the men and women who chatted with him over pancakes and maple syrup. They served in Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War or the current conflict in Iraq.
But many of them raised questions about both Bush, who served in the Texas Air National Guard and did not go to Vietnam, and Vice President Dick Cheney, who received five draft deferments. The veterans argued that the Bush administration had neglected them and their issues.
“We really need to get back out there marching again,” Kerry said. “We fought for these things when we came back 35 years ago, and we’re going to fight for them again.”