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Candidates Battle For The Veterans' Vote


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. The 2012 election, despite the best efforts of both campaigns, appears to be an extremely close race. So, every vote counts. As tens of thousands more men and women are expected home from Afghanistan, the battle for the vet vote is warming up. Next week, both presidential candidates will address war veterans at their national convention in Reno, Nevada. For more on what veterans want to hear from the two men who want to be president, I'm joined by Tom Tarantino, an Iraq Army vet and a legislative director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Welcome.

TOM TARANTINO: Thanks for having me, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: And by Genevieve Chase, who is the founder and executive director of American Women Veterans and a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Ms. Chase, welcome to you.

GENEVIEVE CHASE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Tom, could I start with you. Have the veterans of American wars, do you think, traditionally been served well by their governments?

TARANTINO: Well, it's gotten a lot better, I would say, over the past decade. But traditionally, you know, veterans issues tend to fall by the wayside. And I think our biggest fear nowadays, since there is such a divide between the civilian population and the military population is that, you know, things like veteran unemployment, things like making sure that the GI Bill isn't being taken advantage of by predatory schools, things like the alarming suicide rate and the lack of mental health care are going to get pushed to second- and third-tier issues. And I think it's, you know, it's really important that the American public understands that veterans' and military issues aren't niche issues. They're issues that affect, despite being such a small population, affects everyone's lives. It affects the entire country. Because veterans don't go home to small military communities. They come home and we are spread out all over the country.

WERTHEIMER: Genevieve, from your conversations with veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, do they feel that they have been well treated?

CHASE: I think for the most part, veterans understand that the Veterans Administration is doing as much as they can. Unfortunately, it really isn't enough. You know, veterans who have immediate needs and issues that need to be addressed rather quickly. And with the backlog at the VA and not being able to get appointments when they need them, you know, they sort of feel like somebody's dropping the ball somewhere in the government and in American society. And so, you know, I was speaking to a veteran who served 20 years and retired who did five deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and, you know, he knows that he needs some assistance. And when I asked him had he been to the VA, he said yes, but it takes so long to get an appointment. So, it was disheartening for me as an advocate. You know, I testified a couple of years ago about the Veterans Affairs system and medical care and mental health care. It's disheartening to see that we're still hearing that from our vets.

WERTHEIMER: Tom, can I just ask about the downturn in the economy and veterans. Do you think they were hit harder?

TARANTINO: I think that, you know, they were definitely hit harder. And I think this actually tend to happen when the economy turns down. You know, veterans tend to feel a little bit more, I think especially in this generation, because this is the first generations of business leaders in this country that's largely never served in the military. Previous generations, the chances are the guy hiring you toted a machine gun around for a few years in his 20s and they were able to understand that hiring a vet is an investment because they had a cultural connection.

WERTHEIMER: But presumably they also understood that there was some sort of, I don't know, responsibility owed to veterans.

TARANTINO: Well, yes. There is a responsibility that we have to veterans, but really in terms of the business case for hiring a vet, veterans are an investment. You know, we've spent billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man-hours training people. And so what we need to do is be able to translate to a civilian employment community what these skills mean. What does being a platoon leader, a platoon sergeant, a squad leader mean? As well as translating the hard skills, so people like truck drivers and medics and welders can actually continue to do their job in the civilian world. Or, if they want to change careers, they got to make sure that the GI Bill is there for them and robust so that they can get the retraining they need.

WERTHEIMER: You know, I'm wondering if the returning veterans are paying any attention to this political campaign - listening to political speeches, listening to candidates. Well, I wonder if they think any of this is important to them. What do you think, Genevieve?

CHASE: I think that it's a huge discussion just in the veteran community. You know, even personally on my Facebook or on Twitter or among groups of veterans when you get us together, politics is a very important issue. we're very in touch and in tune and concerned with the way our country is going, specifically because we serve, you know, in the United States military and our commander in chief happens to be the president of the United States. So, you know, it is important to veterans.

WERTHEIMER: What do vets want to hear from these presidential candidates? What would move your folks to sign up with one candidate or the other, Tom?

TARANTINO: I think veterans want to hear specifics. We don't want to hear platitudes and we don't hear, like, sweeping statements of thanks. I mean, everybody's got a yellow ribbon on their car. We don't know a yellow ribbon on Air Force One. What we need is specifics. You know, how are we going to transfer into a 21st century VA? And if we are doing it already, how has that progressed? How are we going to make sure that the GI Bill is protected? How are we going to make sure that veterans, when they come home, are able to find jobs? What are their plans? What do they want to do? And what do they see as a vision in outcomes for the next four years?

WERTHEIMER: Genevieve, many of the veterans are very young people, and traditionally in this country young people don't always vote. What do you think are the chances that the returning vets your represent will be out there voting?

CHASE: I think in what I understand about the election process and in past elections, women tend to vote quite a bit. And, you know, it's something among our community in just in general as Americans, but specifically as military people that it's our one opportunity to affect some kind of change other than what we're doing through service. And, you know, when I was Afghanistan in 2006, there were some very contentious elections going on, and a lot of us were worried about being able to vote. Every unit has a voting assistance officer in the military. So, it's significant and it's important to us. And to go back and touch on a little bit what Tom was saying, absolutely, we want details and specifics. We are so tired of people saying in general broad-sweeping statements, like Tom said, you know, that we should support veterans. We want to know how you're going to do that. You know, either one of the candidates - and actually it should be both of them - should sit down and say, look, these are the biggest issues and how do you think we should fix them, and let's go from there. Rather than getting up and talking to us and about us, they need to be asking us. They need to be having these conversations. They need to be learning about what the actual real issues are.

WERTHEIMER: Genevieve Chase, she is the founder and executive director of American Women Veterans. Tom Tarantino is legislative director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Thanks very much for your time.

CHASE: Thank you.

TARANTINO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.