Ben Smidt

This is the fifth in a series discussing the two presidential candidates’ stances on issues directly or indirectly affecting college students and university campuses.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign brought Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland to Madison Tuesday.

Speaking to a group of local veterans, the former Georgia senator accused Bush of under-funding health-care benefits for veterans.

“[Bush] is driving more and more veterans away from the health-care system in the VA,” said Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in combat. “John Kerry has an answer: mandatory funding for the VA health-care system, and if you have a need, you get it covered.”

Both President George W. Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry have heavily courted the veteran vote this year, and perhaps with good reason.

According to 2000 census data, there are more than 26 million civilian veterans in the United States — voters who could tip the scales in what is widely expected to be a very tight race.

Kerry, a veteran of the Vietnam War, has made his military service a central tenet of his campaign, saying his experience gives him a vital perspective in knowing whether going to war is necessary or not.

Veterans traditionally tend to lean right politically, however, so whether Kerry’s military experience and agenda can make inroads with the group is uncertain, according to University of Wisconsin political science professor Charles Franklin.

“The thing that makes [veterans] more conservative than others is that, except for during Vietnam, it’s been a volunteer army,” Franklin said. “So they want to be in the military and they have a set of values positive towards the military, which the Democrats have not appealed to in the last 30 to 40 years.”

Kerry does have a leg up on Al Gore, who was a military reporter during Vietnam, due to his combat experience, Franklin added.

The Bush campaign has said the president is committed to supporting the nation’s veterans. Bush’s 2005 fiscal-year budget proposes to increase funding for the Department of Veteran Affairs to $68 million, up from $48 million in 2001. The proposal includes a 40 percent increase to veterans’ medical-care spending over 2001 levels.

“The president’s commitment to the men and women who stand on the front lines of freedom is clear,” said Bush-Cheney ’04 Wisconsin Veterans State Chair Ray Boland in a statement. “As former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, I can tell you that 20,000 more Wisconsin veterans were receiving health care at the end of 2003 than in 2001.”

A potential wildcard in the veteran vote is Kerry’s testimony before Congress against the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.

In a new documentary, “Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal,” a group of POWs blame Kerry’s testimony for prolonging their captivity and suffering. However, Madison resident and Vietnam veteran Will Gilmore believes Kerry’s testimony actually accelerated the end to the war.

“The only thing that would have resulted from staying longer in Vietnam is that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., would have been longer and higher,” Gilmore said. “I have no doubt in my mind the reason I rotated home early was because of the war protests.”