WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidates promised on Wednesday to provide better health care for military veterans, saying troops returning from Iraq have received shoddy care under the Bush administration.
Democrat Barack Obama said he's tired of officials who talk about supporting the troops but don't provide adequate health care.
"They don't do anything except slap a yellow ribbon on the back of their SUV," the Illinois senator said during a parade of Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls appearing before the nation's largest firefighters union.
"When our veterans come home, I don't want them forgotten in run-down buildings," Obama said to loud applause from the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The union counts about 1,000 members fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many more who have returned from the war and continue to serve in the National Guard and Reserves. Revelations of poor outpatient care at Walter Reed Medical Center clearly has touched a nerve.
"An issue like that resonates with us like it does with any other community that has a lot of veterans and that has sons and daughters serving in the war," said Brad Tenney, an officer with the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was heartbroken to learn that returning soldiers were languishing at Walter Reed. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, said Walter Reed is a symptom of problems throughout the Veterans Administration that he would address.
"We have got to stand by the men and women who have worn the uniform of the United States of America, including many heroes in this room," Edwards said.
Clinton broadened her message to include health care for firefighters and police officers, as well as veterans, saying they'd become invisible to the government. She tapped into some resentment against President Bush by accusing his administration of failing to provide for the very firefighters he stood with in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"It's great for photo ops, but how about taking care of the people who have taken care of us across the country," the New York senator said, drawing a standing ovation.
Republican John McCain, who did not address the controversy over veterans' health care, used his speech to defend the administration's decision to increase troop levels in Iraq.
"The war has not gone well. We failed early on to recognize that we faced an indigenous and foreign insurgency in Iraq," the Arizona senator said.
Gen. David Petraeus, Bush's choice for top military commander in Iraq, "was ordered to Baghdad to execute a new strategy that realistically addresses the threats we face there," McCain said to polite applause. "The hour is late but we must try. We must."
Republican candidates Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia, and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California also did not mention Walter Reed. But Gilmore promised, "We're going to follow a policy under my administration that's going to be supportive of the troops."
Obama was applauded when he said the war needs to end, but the audience was silent when Gilmore said he opposes Democratic efforts to cut off funding for Bush's troop increase to try to help stabilize Baghdad.
"I support that surge," Gilmore said, but not a single firefighter clapped.
The union invited candidates from both parties to address its presidential forum — unusual for labor events that tend to by dominated by Democrats.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the leader in polls of Republican voters, has been feuding with the firefighters over recovery efforts at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attacks and did not attend the forum.
Others who were scheduled to address the forum were Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.