The head of a nonpartisan group dedicated to helping American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today criticized Republican nominee John McCain’s opposition to the recently signed GI Bill, predicting that his opposition would haunt him at the polls this November. The comments came as Republican delegates to the GOP national convention put together care packages for soldiers serving in Iraq.
“We were baffled by Sen. McCain’s position,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “Not only because he’s a veteran, but because he has a son in the Marine Corps and a son at the Naval Academy. And he’s a guy who went to school on Uncle Sam’s dime.”
The bipartisan bill expanding education benefits for veterans was passed in the Senate in May by a vote of 75-22, despite the opposition of both McCain and President Bush.
Concern over retention
Critics of the bill argued that its sweetening of veterans benefits — any solider serving three years in the military after 9/11 would receive from the government tuition and expenses at a four-year public university — would damage efforts by the Pentagon to retain GIs.
“I really can’t understand [McCain’s opposition],” Rieckhoff said. “It’s such a position against veterans. The GI Bill has done more than any single piece of legislation to help older generations of veterans. There was an argument made by some at the Pentagon that it would hurt retention, that if the benefits were too good, people would leave. But over 70 percent of people leave after their first enlistment anyway. We argued, and rightfully so, that it’s going to be a huge increase to recruiting and we’ve already seen that in the first couple of months that it’s been law.”
Rieckhoff, who served as a first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in the Iraq war from 2003 to 2004, said McCain’s record on veterans’ issues is poor.
“It’s going to be an issue that’s going to haunt McCain throughout this election. All the way up through November, veterans are going to be aware and watching his position on not only the GI Bill, but all veterans’ issues, and he doesn’t have a great record on VA funding, on the GI Bill and a lot of other issues important to veterans. So he’s going to have to do a real U-turn, I think, if he’s going to get more votes from the young veterans, especially.”
Republican delegates to the convention put together 200 packages to be sent to soldiers in war zones. The packages contained moisturizers, trail mix, DVDs, tissues, candy, antibacterial wipes, toothpastes and handwritten notes from the delegates.
IAVA held a similar event in Denver, the site of the Democratic convention.