By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Instead of standing up for veterans benefits, McCain rose to defend Reagan.
Larry Morris, a Vietnam veteran who has lived in Arizona off and on since the early 1980s, remembers attending another meeting, this time at the Phoenix Vet Center in 1984. McCain was there, too. The topic: suing the government and chemical companies over the use of Agent Orange. Morris recalls that McCain was not in favor of the national class-action suit that, ultimately, was filed and settled many years later for more than $100 million.
"He stood up and voiced his opinion," Morris says. "His opinion was that it was unpatriotic to sue the government."
Morris continues, "There was a lot of booing and hissing, and I think it was at that point that the suggestion was made that Congressman McCain leave."
Like John McCain, Larry Morris comes from a military family. His father was an Army sergeant, his mother an Army nurse. Morris remembers living in Germany just after World War II, seeing what remained of the concentration camps. He joined the Navy on his 17th birthday to help support his seven younger siblings.
Morris landed in San Diego with shrapnel in his arm after two tours in Vietnam. (He says the wound was never officially treated, that a medic dumped some iodine on it and dressed it.) Parasites from his Navy days irritate his digestive system to this day, and he has a constant ringing in his ears that doctors speculate was caused by a 40-pound brick falling on his neck and shoulder, knocking him to a lower deck on the ship on which he was stationed.
Morris was released from the Navy 45 days early after complaining of nightmares. There was no treatment offered at the time for post-traumatic stress disorder; the doctor just gave him some tranquilizers. He still has nightmares, more than 40 years later.
After some false starts over the years, Morris in 2004 tried in earnest to get better healthcare from the VA. He visited McCain's Tempe office but was told that without a Purple Heart, nothing could be done. Like many Vietnam vets, Morris doesn't have his medical records from Vietnam. He has other medals but no Purple Heart.
McCain's office could have written a letter or made a phone call, but all Morris got was a list of addresses.
Ultimately, he says, "I did better on my own, just writing letters to the secretary of the Navy."
It's taken years, but where Morris' low-priority status once forced him to wait up to six months for a doctor's appointment at the VA, he's now at the top of the list. The tiny apartment he shares with his wife, Deirdre, in Surprise is stacked with boxes of letters and other records from his VA battles.
Larry Morris wasn't at the American Legion convention this summer, but he probably would have appreciated the irony of a statement McCain made there about veterans benefits. When asked about the backlog of unresolved benefits cases at the VA (like Morris'), McCain called it a "national disgrace" and replied that maybe it's unfair that the burden of proof to receive government benefits is on the vet.
Instead of vets having to prove they're disabled, McCain said, "maybe sometimes we oughta have a more balanced situation where the government has to prove that they're not."
Andrew Vera isn't surprised that it's hard for a vet like Morris to get by. He says it can be even harder for soldiers who served more recently.
Vera, 29, grew up in south Phoenix. He enlisted in the Navy shortly after 9/11, knowing the country was going to war. He was in Iraq for the invasion in 2003, assigned to the highest-level triage unit in the Middle East. There was no burn unit anywhere in the region, he says, so his unit created a makeshift one.
It was Vera's job to track patients. "I saw most of the initial injuries," he says, including those of Lori Piestewa, an Army soldier from Tuba City, the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military.
He wrote down information about each casualty by hand, because there was no other method; eventually, he built a database.
Vera slept in his gas mask and boots for weeks. He completed two tours in Iraq, leaving the Navy in 2005 and returning home to Phoenix.
It's not a good place to be a veteran, he says.
"Phoenix is a scary place. It's not a military town. And a lot of guys come out here; there aren't a lot of jobs out here. It's warm, but Phoenix and Arizona, there isn't a structure for these guys, for young veterans to be caught and effectively spoken to and get help. And I guess for a lot of young guys, they're not going to get help."
Vera did — eventually.
At first, he didn't know he needed it. Family and friends pointed out his behavior: Vera was drinking heavily. He switched jobs often, and found himself in confrontations with co-workers. He couldn't communicate; he wasn't socializing.
He approached Senator John McCain's local office for help, with no luck.