By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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• January 2008: McCain didn't vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, which included an increase in basic monthly pay for active military by 3.5 percent and permitted vets who are 100 percent disabled to receive 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 funding for veterans healthcare services.
• February 2006: He voted against the amendment proposed by Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, which would have appropriated the aforementioned $1 billion for hospital improvements at places like Walter Reed and also included: $14 billion for the Veterans Benefits Administration for Compensation and Pensions for 2006-2010; and $6.9 billion for the VA for medical care for 2006-2010.
• November 2005: He voted against an amendment that would've 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've required that funding for the 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 by $1.8 billion.
Perhaps McCain simply considers his votes against veterans another sign of his maverick status — a classic case of his personal brand of political chutzpah, because every politician knows sucking up to the vets is a foolproof way to curry favor.
During the Keating Five hearings, McCain's then-Arizona Senate colleague and fellow Keating Fiver, Democrat Dennis DeConcini, actually called an Arizona veteran to testify on his behalf, describing all the help DeConcini's office had given him over the years, as an example of positive work on behalf of a constituent.
That's not McCain's style, particularly post-Keating Five. He has abandoned constituent services for the national stage, and it could be called principled if not for his back-pedaling. This isn't a guy who's shown veterans a lot of love, despite what he says.
The whole scenario has given McCain an Achilles' heel.
Far be it from anyone who hasn't been through what he's been through to question the senator's patriotism. But in this case, he's running up against people with similar biographies who are questioning him, particularly his loyalty to them.
Like Constantine O'Neill. He spent 22 months in a German prison camp during World War II. At 88, O'Neill is admittedly very emotional about veterans issues, and a lifelong Democrat. He made headlines recently in Arizona for lambasting Republican Congressman John Shadegg after Shadegg used O'Neill's image in a campaign ad.
"McCain is, as far as I'm concerned, a jackass. He's not for the veterans. He never has been for the veterans [in] legislation that he's gone for . . . I would not recommend him for anything to anybody."
When O'Neill is questioned, though, it's not so much that McCain has voted against veterans, or even that the senator's a Republican. It's that McCain hasn't come calling. For years, O'Neill says, the national POW group he belongs to has invited McCain to speak at its annual convention.
"He never does," the other former POW says. "He's too busy."
On a recent Friday afternoon at the Justa Center, almost every seat in the house is taken. One woman sleeps sitting up, a half-full plastic cup of water in her hand.
Ralph Holland, 61, is there. He's waiting to hear about his VA benefits. Gray-haired, in a baseball cap, with tattoos for his Navy service and his daughter's duty in the Marine Corps, Holland served two tours of duty in Vietnam but waited until he broke his hand many years later to go to the VA.
For a long time, he didn't want to admit that he'd been to Vietnam — he figured everyone would think him a baby-killer or a drug addict. But now Holland's down on his luck, so he's put in for some help. The only program the VA has available, he says, is for vets with substance-abuse issues, one of the few problems that Holland doesn't have.
He figures it will be a while — if ever — before he gets help from the VA.
"Their way is to put you off until you either die or go away," he says. "That's the consensus of just about every vet I've talked to."