WASHINGTON – About 30 years after the fact, Vietnam veterans are finally catching the eye of presidential candidates, as national security and the war on terror play critical roles in the 2004 presidential election.
But whether the Vietnam-era soldiers, or veterans in general, are a unified voting bloc remains to be seen.
"I'm not sure they can be characterized as a voting bloc because vets are a fair representation of the country as a whole — all socio-economic groups, all demographics, and they all have political stripes of their own as do all Americans," Dave Autry, deputy national director of communications for the Disabled American Veterans (search).
"The studies on this show that veterans normally lean Republican, sometimes heavily, but they are not a bloc," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics (search).
"The best the Republicans can do among all veterans will be something like 70-30, 65-35. As you go up in rank, they become more Republican. As you go down in rank, they become more Democratic. There is a significant racial divide here as in all segments of society," Sabato said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (search) estimates approximately 25 million veterans are currently living, making up about 13 percent of the population age 18 or older. Approximately 70 million people — veterans, family members and survivors of veterans — are potentially eligible for VA benefits and services.
In the Feb. 17 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary, exit polls showed that veterans made up about one-fifth of the electorate. Veteran voters gave a slight edge to John Kerry (search) over John Edwards (search), 41 to 36 percent, closely reflecting the total vote margin of 40 to 34 percent, respectively.
Throughout the primaries, Kerry has made his military service and veterans issues a centerpiece of his campaign, pressing his Vietnam and postwar protest record and repeatedly thanking the "band of brothers" from his Vietnam days who have stood alongside him as he campaigned.
Kerry also has railed against President Bush, whom he accuses of underfunding veterans programs and generally taking old soldiers for granted.
"I'm tired of these politicians who show up when the bagpipes are wailing and the flags are at half-staff, and they talk about heroes in America. Then they go back to Washington, and when the flags are at full-staff again and the bagpipes have stopped playing, they forget," the four-term senator said in Wisconsin on primary day.
Since the start of the election season, Democrats have deliberately increased their focus on veterans. Recognizing the need to up their appeal to veteran voters, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi vowed a "solemn pledge to those who serve in uniform" in her prebuttal to Bush's January State of the Union address.
In addition, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Bob Graham of Florida and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland have touted their party's commitment to veterans during public speeches in Congress and at party-sponsored events.
"The presidential campaign is the first time I can remember that vets have become an issue of national debate. Any time an important issue gets into the public arena that hasn’t been there, it is a good thing," Autry said
Meanwhile, the White House has argued that President Bush has taken considerable measures to increase assistance to veterans.
In the president's proposed fiscal year 2005 budget, Bush included a $500 million or 1.8 percent increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs (search). The White House said since 2001, the budget has added 40 percent in funding for veterans' medical care, enabling 1 million more patients to receive treatment.
But some veterans groups are critical of the direction Bush is pushing veterans policy and say the administration is not doing enough. According to the budget plan, veterans will have to pay higher premiums for health care. They add that efforts to add to the budget are mere baby steps to make up for a VA healthcare system that "has been underfunded for decades."
"We think the president's budget proposal shortchanges veterans. It underfunds the user fees and increased co-payments. Those are issues that we do not agree with, and we certainly hope Congress will not go along with the president," Autry said.
"What we have right now is a time when the administration is trying to balance the budget on the back of the veterans, and the Democrats are taking that opportunity to do things differently," said Lee Harris, spokesman for the American Legion (search), the nation's largest veterans' organization.
Sabato said Kerry's service record, which earned him three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star, will blunt some of the traditional GOP advantage with veterans. But his postwar record could deplete some of the support he could have gotten.
In 1971, Kerry also testified to Congress that American soldiers had committed atrocities such as rapes, beheadings and random killings of civilians, all with the tacit consent of commanders on the ground.
"[Soldiers] told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam," he testified.
"I can guarantee you before this campaign is over there will be a controversy over Kerry's throwing the medals over the wall," Sabato said in a reference to a Washington protest in which Kerry discarded his war medals.
Harris said that while it would be a mistake for any politician to ignore the issues concerning veterans, early indications for the Massachusetts senator don't bode well.
"There is a large flow of e-mails [from our members]. So far every one of them is wanting us to come out publicly and declare that John Kerry is not fit for service. Right now, the vocal people are very upset with the Kerry record of 30 years ago, [particularly about the] testimony to Congress on atrocities that are unsubstantiated," Harris said.
"Whichever candidate wins this fall is going to be influenced significantly by vets and active duty people," he added.