If you want to know what it's like to be a veteran in John McCain's home state, stop by the Justa Center in downtown Phoenix.
On a Thursday morning not long ago, a volunteer named Twyla stands in front of a group of clients at Justa, a day program for homeless seniors, explaining what she's brought from the food bank.
"I hope that those of you who don't have many teeth, that you'll be OK with the salad," she says, adding that she's also brought blueberry pomegranate juice. "And cake for dessert!"
Scott Ritchey rolls his eyes good-naturedly as he passes through the room, where the fluorescent light doesn't do any favors to the dirty linoleum and the worn-out, mismatched couches. For the past three years, this decrepit little building near the Arizona capitol has been a godsend for about 100 homeless seniors at a time who have nothing to do with their days after waking up at a nearby shelter.
On any given day, about half the participants are veterans.
When Ritchey, a Methodist minister, started the program — which operates on about $260,000 in private donations a year — one of the first things he did was call the local office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to get some help for the vets. It took a year for anyone to show up. And in three years, Ritchey says, the VA has yet to place a single vet from the Justa Center in housing.
Bobby Collins, 59, is a homeless Vietnam vet who shows up at Justa from time to time. He's been waiting for a benefits check from the VA for eight months. Collins was shot in the throat in Vietnam; his leg's full of shrapnel. He's got two purple hearts, but he didn't claim his medical benefits for years. He didn't need to — he had steady jobs as a welder and a carpenter. Then last Thanksgiving, he came to Phoenix and couldn't find work and quickly found himself homeless. Now he needs his money.
The people at the VA are very nice, Collins says, but the bureaucracy is impossible. They've told him he'll get his money; he doesn't understand why it's taking so long. Collins says he's working hard not to be bitter, but when he arrived in Phoenix and saw what few services there were for him as a veteran, he was mad at John McCain.
"I have a lot of respect for Sen. McCain as a war hero," he says, but "I would never vote for a veteran who lets veterans in his state be treated this way."
McCain has had 25 years in Congress to help veterans. Instead, he has regularly voted against plans to increase funding for veterans services, including proposals that would have improved conditions at veterans hospitals and increased rehab services for vets. Meanwhile, McCain has served as one of Washington's most vocal war hawks.
In the last few minutes of the first presidential debate, on September 26, McCain made a statement that probably blew past most economy-obsessed Americans, but it stopped a lot of military veterans short.
Barack Obama had just remarked that he's approached all the time by Iraq War veterans who say they can't get help for post-traumatic stress disorder. When it was his turn to reply, McCain seemed incensed.
"I know the veterans, and I know them well," he said. His voice shook with emotion. "And I know that they know that I'll take care of them. And I've been proud of their support and of their recognition of my service to the veterans. And I love them, and I'll take care of them. And they know that I'll take care of them."
Veterans groups are finally speaking out about their frustration with McCain, who rides on his reputation as a war veteran at the same time he's compiled a long record of opposing legislation benefiting vets.
McCain's campaign did not return a call Monday for comment regarding his voting record and his constituent services operations.
At the second presidential debate, on October 7, McCain told the American people that he supports a spending freeze that excludes veterans. Here are a few examples of pro-veteran legislation that didn't get McCain's support:
• January 2008 — McCain didn't vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, which included an increase of 3.5 percent in basic monthly pay for active military and permitted vets who are 100 percent disabled to get both retirement and disability pay.
• October 2007 — He didn't vote on another version of the Defense Authorization Act, which included billions of dollars in veterans health services funding.
• February 2006 — He voted against an amendment proposed by Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, that would have appropriated $1 billion for hospital improvements at places like Walter Reed Army Medical Center and also included $14 billion for the Veterans Benefits Administration for Compensation and Pensions for 2006-10 and $6.9 billion for the VA for medical care for 2006-10.
• November 2005 — He voted against an amendment that would have provided $500 million each year from 2006 to 2010 for "readjustment counseling, related mental health services, and treatment and rehabilitative services for veterans with mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance use disorder."
• October 2005 — McCain voted against an amendment that would have required that funding for VA health administration be increased each year to adjust for inflation and the number of veterans served.
• March 2004 — He voted against closing tax loopholes to create a reserve fund to allow for an increase in medical care for veterans of $1.8 billion.
Brandon Friedman is a former Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; he's now vice chairman of a national veterans support group called Vote Vets, an organization devoted to electing veterans — with one notable exception — to public office.
Friedman calls McCain's statements in support of vets "a slap in the face." He says, "Coming from a guy who's kept us stuck in Iraq at the expense of the fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan — and who opposed the new G.I. Bill — [such comments don't] carry much weight. Those are empty words. John McCain is all talk when it comes to supporting veterans, and his voting record shows it."
Until the 2008 presidential race, the only veterans really harping about McCain were from a group called Vietnam Veterans Against McCain, and you need only visit their website, vietnamveteransagainstmccain.com, to see how fringe the group's members and their complaints can be. They've called McCain "the Manchurian Candidate" and disparaged the senator for ignoring their efforts to find missing POWs in Vietnam. McCain has never been particularly patient with them either — he famously made the mother of one missing POW cry at a congressional hearing in the early 1990s and engaged in heated arguments with others. They will never forgive him for voting to normalize relations with Vietnam.
The new complaints, though, focus on bread-and-butter issues. It's not only about a difference of opinion over how the war in Iraq is being handled, though that's part of it. It's a story about how the soldiers are treated once they come home.
Another vets organization, Veterans for Common Sense, posted this comment on its website earlier this year: "John McCain is yet another Republican former military veteran who likes to talk a big game when it comes to having the support of the military. Yet, time and time again, he has gone out of his way to vote against the needs of those who are serving in our military. If he can't even see his way to actually do what the troops want, or what the veterans need, and he doesn't have the support of veterans, then how can he be a credible commander in chief?"