Kerry tells veterans he's better on security

Bush redeployment plan would send wrong signal to N. Korea, senator says

Election 2004

August 19, 2004|By Frank James and Rick Pearson | Frank James and Rick Pearson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CINCINNATI - Sen. John Kerry attempted yesterday to win the hearts and minds of the nation's veterans, a group that has traditionally tilted Republican, by appealing to their sense of patriotism and concerns about government benefits.

The Massachusetts senator also criticized President Bush's announcement this week to the same Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that he would reduce U.S. troop strength in Europe and Asia. "This is not the time or [the] way," Kerry said, noting that North Korea remains a threat.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Kerry's opposition to the redeployment represented a "20th-century, Cold War way of thinking."

The comments marked the third consecutive day that the campaigns traded charges over which man would do better as the nation's commander in chief during a time of war and changing military roles.

Kerry's speech in Cincinnati drew about 6,000 people, fewer than half the 15,000 attending the VFW's national convention. The audience offered polite applause.

But many veterans did not clap at some of Kerry's standard stump speech lines that usually draw applause, suggesting that numerous former warriors, many well into their 60s, were skeptical if not hostile. At least two men heckled Kerry.

One word explained the tough crowd: Vietnam.

Kerry's public protests against the Vietnam War as a young veteran newly home from Southeast Asia were a sore point for many veterans.

As a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry, a highly decorated naval officer during the war, testified before Congress, repeating allegations made by other soldiers of war crimes by U.S. servicemen.

"I can remember when we came back from service in what we all know was a controversial period of time," said Kerry, a longtime VFW member. "I didn't make it controversial; the war and the times were.

"And as too many of us know, it was a time when the war and the warriors became confused. I say to you with my experience: Never again in America should the warriors ever be confused with the war, and our nation should always be prepared to stand and say thank you."

Kerry campaign officials said they were pleasantly surprised by what they saw as a relatively warm response from an audience Democratic presidential nominees have been known to avoid.

The Kerry campaign separately disputed an allegation made by a group of veterans opposed to the senator's presidential candidacy that he never operated inside Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

In a new book, Unfit for Command, the veterans said "Kerry was never in Cambodia during Christmas 1968, or at all during the Vietnam War" and that he "would have been court-martialed had he gone there," The Boston Globe reported.

But the Kerry campaign said the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, is wrong and that Kerry was in Cambodia to drop off special forces on one mission and at the border on others.

Kerry also criticized the Bush administration, saying it had broken faith with veterans by reducing benefits.

As Kerry made his remarks, Bush launched a campaign bus tour through northwestern Wisconsin, where he and aides chided Kerry for "false attacks" on the president's record. The White House said it has nearly doubled funding for veterans during Bush's tenure compared with the eight years of the Clinton administration.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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