LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) said Thursday that President Bush broke faith with veterans who have been promised medical care even as he sent thousands of men and women into harm's way in Iraq.
"Here we are with an administration that is busy creating a whole new generation of veterans," Kerry said during a flag-draped forum at a center for aging associated with the Department of Veterans Affairs. "Veterans earned their health care ... it was a promise made by a nation. People who served their country, I believe, above all have a right to have that promise kept."
Kerry, concluding a four-day campaign swing focusing on health care, contended that Bush has cut funding for VA health programs and left hundreds of thousands of veterans without care. He called for mandatory funding for veterans health care and a series of cost-cutting measures to assist veterans and their families.
Prominent Kerry supporters, including former rival and fellow Vietnam veteran Wesley Clark (search), criticized Bush's own military record. After comparing Kerry's public service to his detractors, Clark said, "Some of them put on their cowboy boots and put their feet up on the desk."
Hershel Gober, who served as secretary of Veterans Affairs (search) under President Clinton, said far too little attention is being given to military personnel serving in the war on terror.
"This war is worse than Vietnam," Gober said. "These troops have the highest suicide rate of any war we've had."
Veterans at the forum told Kerry about their struggles to find help after they came home and complimented Kerry for his service in the Navy.
"It feels great to have somebody who has been in Vietnam and who has been to war," said one of the veterans, David Smith. "I've never had that before."
Clark and others contrasted Kerry's experience as a swiftboat commander in Vietnam to the National Guard service of Bush, who served stateside during the war.
"Can you imagine having a president who actually answered the country's call and went to war when our country needed him as a young man?" Clark asked during an airport rally.
"John Kerry, when he was a young man, he could have had an easy life, he could have worn cowboy boots," said Clark, a retired four-star general who, like Kerry, was wounded in Vietnam. "He didn't manage a professional sports team using some of his daddy's name. John Kerry took tough assignments."
In another reference to Bush, Clark said Kerry "could have chosen an easy life. Some people who went to Yale did." Both Bush and Kerry graduated from Yale University during the Vietnam era.
The Bush campaign responded to the criticism by noting that former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and 49 Medal of Honor recipients had endorsed Bush "because of his steady leadership and winning the war on terror."
Two Arkansas crew mates from his Navy service in Vietnam — Fred Short of West Little Rock and Drew Whitlow of Huntsville — joined Kerry at the opening rally.
"When we came together on that boat we came from different backgrounds, different beliefs, different religions, different parts of the country, we had different twangs in our voices," Kerry said. "We were all Americans on that boat."