Sunday, September 07, 2003

Veterans Wondering about the Shrub-in-Chief

Forget the swing voters, Shrubya's alienating parts of his base. This could be a powerful group for the Democratic nominee. If Clark runs, it will be interesting to hear his message to veterans and see how it resonates. The Neocons may yet facilitate a realignment of the electorate-- not what they had in mind, however.

Rising Casualties in Iraq Prompt Memories That Generate Doubts

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2003

HOMESTEAD, Fla. ...The veterans ordering Budweisers across the bar from Farrell almost all point to a single statement that irked them above all others: They wish President Bush had never said the war was over, especially before Saddam Hussein is captured or killed. But their concerns do not stop there. They worry that U.S. troops have been asked to stay abroad too long, that the United States is ill-prepared to counter guerrilla tactics in Iraq, and that the military will be "bogged down" in Iraq for years to come without help from other nations.

The grumblings are a sign of growing discord from a group that has been strongly supportive of Bush throughout his presidency. Many veterans were gung-ho about the war in the beginning. But their unease about Iraq is coming when many of them are increasingly unhappy with the Bush administration and Congress about attempts to cut proposed spending increases for Veterans Administration health care programs and lengthy backlogs for doctor appointments. Advocacy groups say that more than 140,000 veterans have been forced to wait six months or more for routine doctor visits and that two-year waits for appointments with specialists are not uncommon.

"We strongly believe that Congress and the administration have to do better by veterans," said Dennis M. Cullinan, legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The benefits complaints combined with concerns about the conflict in Iraq are clear cracks in Bush's once solid standing with an important constituency.

"I think this could be Bush's demise," said "Fireman Bill" Marcollier, 56, a Vietnam veteran who describes himself as an independent who leans Republican. ...

The regulars at the VFW Post in Homestead are making political calculations, too. And the Republicans among them, in particular, don't like the conclusions. Farrell, who calls himself a firm "Irish Republican," wants the president to come up with a graceful exit from Iraq that will quickly stop the flickering images of soldiers being buried.

"You can't fight a living-room war," said Farrell, 52, who speaks in the thick Boston Irish accent of his youth. "Middle America is not going to have that; that's where the Democrats are going to get him." ...

Few in the room can dispute Burkett's matter-of-fact assessment of the risks of soldiering. But for most here, there is a good time for dying, a time when it makes sense, and a bad time. Now is one of those bad times, Marcollier said. He feels duped by the Bush administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, claims that have not been substantiated since Bush declared victory.

"I think Washington lied to us -- again," he said.

Dennis Nerney, a former Navy fireman, stews about the war while leaning into his engraving tools at a facility run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, where he now works. Sometimes they ask him to engrave signs detailing the current terrorism alert levels, the orange, red and yellow symbols of a new, edgier America.

"I hate to hear about those kids dying," Nerney, 55, said. "Sooner or later, this is going to come home to roost. . . . I think Bush's game is running out."

Your lips to God's ears, Dennis.

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