LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) said Thursday he offers more to military veterans than "wrapping yourself in the flag," pledging to mandate funding for veterans health care in response to what he said were broken promises by President Bush.
Kerry said that while Bush talks tough about patriotism and honor, he shortchanges veterans by cutting their programs. Concluding a four-day campaign focus on health care, the Massachusetts senator proposed a series of cost-cutting measures to assist veterans and their families.
"I will see to it that the first definition of patriotism is not talking about it, not wrapping yourself in the flag," he said. "It is keeping faith with those who have worn the uniform."
Kerry said Bush is quick to send soldiers in harm's way but slow to offer them help when they return.
"Here we are with an administration that is busy creating a whole new generation of veterans," he said. "They don't seem to understand that today's soldiers are tomorrow's veterans."
After returning to Washington in the afternoon, Kerry went to Capitol Hill to see images of abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers. Lawmakers saw the photographs and videos in private session on Wednesday. Kerry left without commenting, and aides said he might talk on Friday about what he saw in the private viewing.
In Little Rock, Kerry drew a receptive audience at a care center for the aging that is affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs (search). "It feels great to have somebody who has been to Vietnam, who has been to war," said David Smith, a veteran. "I've never had that before."
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark (search), a fellow Vietnam veteran and once a rival for the Democratic nomination, contrasted Kerry's decorated Navy service with Bush's service in the National Guard as they campaigned in his hometown.
"John Kerry has been in the company of heroes his whole life. He saw real action, he was in combat virtually every day. When you've done this, you don't have to go around saying you're a leader," Clark said.
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.
When asked whether he would choose Clark as his running mate, Kerry praised the former NATO commander but declined to commit himself.
"I have huge respect for General Clark. I have affection for him," Kerry said. "I have promised I'm not going to discuss publicly the how, why, where. I'm going to pick somebody before the convention."
The Bush campaign said the president has nothing to apologize for regarding veterans funding and noted 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."
"John Kerry's attack on the president's strong record of providing for our nation's veterans is at odds with reality," Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said. "While the president has increased the VA health care budget by over 40 percent since taking office, John Kerry offers nothing but personal attacks."
Kerry told television affiliate KTHB in Little Rock he had spoken to the father of Nicholas Berg, an American civilian who was beheaded in Iraq, but he declined to discuss details of the conversation with reporters.
"I know as a father how I would feel if it were one of my daughters or my stepson," Kerry said.
Berg traveled to Iraq looking for work as a civilian contractor and was captured by militants who said killing him was retribution for the U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners. His headless body was found Saturday in western Baghdad. Three days later, a videotape posted on an al-Qaida-related Web site showed him decapitated by hooded, armed men.
Kerry said he welcomed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's trip to Baghdad, but that it didn't change his fundamental view that Rumsfeld should resign.
"I'm glad the secretary of defense went there. The troop morale needs, I think, that kind of visit," Kerry said in an interview of Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" program. "I don't think it changes the dynamics of what America still needs to do to get to the bottom of this."