The fabled moment of the 2004 Democratic primary campaign came when James Rassmann appeared at an Iowa rally in January to thank John Kerry for saving his life in Vietnam 35 years ago.
An emotional Rassmann described an injured Kerry who put his own life at risk -- "he could have been shot and killed" -- to turn his boat around and pull him out of the water. Even though he's a longtime Republican, Rassmann said, he plans to vote for his Kerry this fall. "I'd be very, very surprised if anything he told you was not the truth," he declared with conviction.
According to pollster John Zogby, Kerry's campaign is hoping there are a lot more Rassmanns out there -- that is, veterans who want to send one of their own to the White House this fall. "It's a group that can clearly be picked off," he says. While veterans usually respond to Republican appeals to family values and patriotism, Kerry is making significant inroads into that support.
"The Vietnam veterans are a brotherhood -- all veterans are a brotherhood -- and this is a brother," Zogby said. "If [the Bush campaign] is not worried, then somebody is not paying attention."
A huge voting bloc
If the 2004 election is anywhere near as close as 2000, veterans could indeed make the difference in choosing a president.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 26 million veterans, about a third of whom served in Vietnam. Add family members to that number and you get a huge voting bloc that could determine the outcome. Steve Thomas, a spokesman for the nonpartisan American Legion, is delighted that his constituency is finally getting the attention they deserve. "It's helpful that among the spate of issues being discussed, the treatment of American patriots will be among them," he said.
More importantly, Kerry is finally giving Vietnam veterans a platform. "They're eating it up because no one has ever done it before," said Douglas Brinkley, the author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.
Kerry has promised to be a "veteran's veteran" if elected. But he also has more going for him besides the appeal of electing a decorated serviceman. Many veterans are also unhappy about the Iraq war. Bobby Muller, who heads the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and has endorsed Kerry, says, "We're hearing from so many of our guys that might traditionally be conservative guys [that] the war in Iraq has really pissed them off."
Muller points out that the war strikes especially close to home for Vietnam vets: "For the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans, having gone to war was the most significant experience in their lives, as it clearly has been for Kerry." Watching the conflict in Iraq "brings back an awful lot of bad memories of another failed war."
Tapping into the alienation
There are other reasons veterans are unhappy with Bush. Reserve officers resent being stuck with extended tours of duty because the military is stretched so thin. Older veterans are irate that the president ignored their needs in his budget. Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Commander in Chief Edward S. Banas Sr. has blasted Bush's 2005 budget as "further [evidence] that veterans are no longer a priority with this administration." He called the 1.8 percent increase in veteran's medical care funding "a disgrace and a sham."
As The American Legion's Thomas succinctly puts it, the budget "offered much for defense [but] offered very little for the defenders."
Kerry has been quick to tap into this growing alienation and has already set up a massive veterans outreach effort in more than half the states.
In the days before some of the recent primary contests, veterans called other veterans to get them to the polls. The veteran community is "very well organized institutionally in the way you think about, say, churches on the right," Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said. "It'll be a key organizing part of his campaign."
It's the reason why Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a triple amputee who lost his seat in 2002 after Republicans painted him as soft on security, has been by Kerry's side at victory rallies. Kerry has openly declared his intention to rely on the same "band of brothers" that helped him survive Vietnam to get him into the White House.
A new compact
To seal that support, Kerry has promised to make a "new compact" with veterans to provide mandatory funding of veterans health care; not overstretch the military; fully account for missing POW/MIAs; and protect family members who lose a loved one. "This nation made a sacred covenant with those it drafted and those who enlisted," his Web site says, "but the truth is that every day in America the treatment of too many veterans is breaking that covenant."
Now that retired Gen. Wesley Clark has left the presidential race, Kerry has the decorated veteran label all to himself. And there is no doubt that it is a formidable weapon in his armory. Republicans know they'll have a hard time painting Kerry as a "Massachusetts liberal" who is soft on defense and national security (he's no Michael Dukakis in a tank).
When the Washington Times ran a '70s photo of Kerry and Jane Fonda at an anti-war rally on its front-page, it raised eyebrows but did not appear to have any lasting impact -- even before it was proved to be a forgery. Brinkley contends that many veterans are more concerned about medical benefits these days than Kerry's anti-war activities.
Even conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer has conceded that Kerry "may have won the war issue" because of his military service and also because Bush spent all of his post-Sept. 11 capital on Iraq.
No higher duty
The Democrats have clearly been emboldened by the veterans' support. And it doesn't help that Bush has spent the last month trying to account for his whereabouts in the National Guard during Vietnam. Even though the White House produced Bush's pay stubs and a record of a dental exam, there is still no serviceman who has verified that Bush was there for the critical five-month period that is under scrutiny.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who accused Bush of being AWOL (absent without leave) during Vietnam, says he looks forward to a debate between Kerry and Bush.
Bush's service record has become a political liability during a wartime election. In 2000, an entire night of the Republican National Convention was devoted to honoring the nation's military and its veterans, which included 1996 candidate Bob Dole, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.
"A president has no higher duty than to keep the peace and protect American lives," Bush told the crowd that night. "Morale in our military today is dangerously low. Our men and women in uniform need better pay, better training and better equipment. As commander in chief, I will rebuild America's military and strengthen our alliances."
This time around, any such ceremony would only underline the hollowness of Bush's rhetoric.
It is no wonder that Kerry has only three words for George Bush: Bring it on!
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill, a Washington D.C.-based newspaper where this article first appeared.