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Iraq War Veterans Take Sides in the Presidential Campaign

September 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: We get those two views from two officers who saw duty in Iraq last year.

Stan Coerr, a major in the marine reserves, was called to active duty last year. He fought in Iraq from March to May of 2003. He’s now San Diego co-chair of California Republican Veterans of America.

And Jon Soltz was an army captain who served in Iraq during the occupation, from May to September of 2003. He is now a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s also Pennsylvania state co- coordinator for the group Veterans for Kerry.

And gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Jon Soltz, let me begin with you. Why are you supporting John Kerry for president?

JON SOLTZ: Well, John Kerry’s the only one of the two candidates running for president who understands my war, the war I fought in Iraq, who understands what it’s like to be far from your family in a war that… let’s be honest, the truth has not been told. John Kerry’s the only one of the two candidates who has the ability to put our direction on course.

He’s the man who has the leadership and the character that we need. I want a commander-in-chief who knows what it’s like to be in combat like I was, who knows what it’s like to be far from your family and probably tell them things are okay when they’re actually not, and he’s the man who since he… I’ve come back with my experiences outlayed a plan to give us peace in Iraq… or a better opportunity for that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And Stan Coerr, you’ve reached the opposite conclusion. Why?

STAN COERR: I have. Margaret, I went to several different events, including California Veterans for Bush and California Veterans for Kerry.

I wanted to give each man a chance to prove to me he had what it took to lead this country as we head into a further asymmetrical world of the terrorist threat. And what I found was that John Kerry, in my opinion, is someone who needs to be president, not someone who wants to be president.

And that kind of person concerns me very much. I think George Bush has been resolute in his decisions about terrorism, in his decisions about what to do in Iraq and where to go from here. I feel that he will not waiver.

He’s made it very clear that he will stay the course until we get the job done we need to have done, and I think the families of those men and women who have been killed in Iraq are deserving of the honor of having the job done properly and finishing what we started before we bring our troops home.

MARGARET WARNER: So you agree, in other words, with the president when he basically implies that John Kerry would waiver in this war on terror and in Iraq?

STAN COERR: Well, I’m not really sure what John Kerry would do, because it’s very difficult to pin him down on what he actually believes.

I think all of us can agree that John Kerry served honorably and well in Vietnam. I think that the fact that he volunteered and then volunteered again for a very dangerous duty is commendable. And I think that his heroism is unquestioned.

What I do think is that his public service did not end in 1971. I think that his record in the Senate deserves some scrutiny, and I am questioning what he actually believes.

He has gone back and forth as to whether he supports the war or not, whether he supports a president who acts unilaterally or not. It’s difficult to pin him down, and in his speech today at the convention, he made it even more muddled as to what he would actually do as opposed to just saying he’s against whatever George Bush is doing.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Jon Soltz, what would John Kerry actually do, other than criticize what the president’s done?

JON SOLTZ: Well, I mean, the first thing we need to note here is that the president is a failed commander- in-chief. President Bush sent soldiers like me to die for weapons that we can’t find.

If that doesn’t prove that he’s failed his last four years as president, frankly, I’m not sure what does. Sen. Kerry is the only one of the two candidates who has the credibility to bring allies to our side.

Our force levels in Iraq are so high that soldiers like myself, who spent, you know, an entire year… or some of them have spent entire years in Iraq, have come home for a year, and are now going back. 43 percent of Operation Iraqi Freedom Three is going to be guard and reserve forces.

This president has broken this military. And John Kerry’s the only one of the two who’s given us any alternatives or any possibility of hope. He’s the one who supports increasing the size of the army by 40,000 soldiers, not President Bush.

He’s the one who has the credibility to go back to the world, because let’s be honest, the world isn’t against the United States; they’re against our president.

And I’ll tell you what, going it alone hurt soldiers like me. Going it alone burdened our American army to a point where we’ve had to back draft people in our military.

I went to war because of this backdoor draft. Even though my time was up, I still went, and I did my duty. But the American public has a right to know the truth about this war.

We can talk all day long about what Sen. Kerry said at the National Guard today, but, you know what, he leveled with the national guardsmen. He didn’t make any crazy attempts to link al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. He leveled with the soldiers and said, “you know, you guys are fighting hard.”

And I’m going to be honest with you, President Bush continues to mislead our country about the direction of our war. And he hasn’t even… this is a guy… this is a president who will not even support mandatory funding for our health care.

It was a dark day for me when I had to return home from the war in Iraq, have some bad dreams, go to my veterans hospital only to find out that the same man who sent me to war has turned his back on me when I came home, and decided that he was going to close our veterans hospital here in Pittsburgh on Highland Drive.

He’s turned his back on his veterans and he’s led our country in the wrong direction in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me…

JON SOLTZ: There’s only one course you can take, and that’s a new direction.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Stan Coerr’s view on both of those. First of all, Stan Coerr, a big part of — I don’t know if you heard — Sen. Kerry’s speech today was that the president not only didn’t level on why we went into war, but what he was saying today is he isn’t leveling today about how bad things are.

I mean, the president said two days ago, “our strategy is working in Iraq, is succeeding in Iraq,” and John Kerry said today, “look, Iraq is in serious trouble and the president hasn’t told the American people the truth.” What is your view of what’s happening in Iraq, and is the administration a, leveling, and, b, have a plan to stabilize it?

STAN COERR: Margaret, I think as in most political situations, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle, between what Sen. Kerry is saying and what President Bush is saying.

I don’t think all is bread and roses in Iraq. I would be naive to believe that things are going peacefully and beautifully everywhere American soldiers and marines have their boots on the ground.

However, I don’t think it’s completely coming unraveled either, as John Kerry wants us all to believe right up to the day that he stands for election this November.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and what about…

STAN COERR: I can…

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask about the second… oh, go ahead. Did you want to say more on that?

STAN COERR: Yes, ma’am. What I was going to say was that the question of internationalizing this situation, making it more multinational, I think has been answered.

I know this personally because when I was in the war, I was there with the British army, as a liaison officer between the U.S. Marines and British army forces. I also dealt with soldiers of many different countries, including some of the royal Ghurka rifles from Nepal. We now have 30 different nations represented there.

Now they’re not in large numbers, and we all understand that. There are two multinational divisions in the southern part of country, one led by the British and one led by the Poles.

And we don’t have as multinational a cast on this event as we did in Desert Storm, but I think it shows how resolute this leader is that he nonetheless is willing to put his reputation, his administration on the line, as is Tony Blair and to get the job done properly.

MARGARET WARNER: Jon Soltz, a big point of disagreement between the two is whether the war was properly planned for and whether the troops on the ground have what they need now, have and had and still have what they need now.

What was your experience on the ground there? And I realize you came home last fall, but…

JON SOLTZ: My experience on the ground was that, you know, we had a president who, prior to 9/11, his policies in Europe going against the Kyoto Accords, and deciding he wanted to build super-duper missile defense systems, had no credibility to build a coalition, spent our defense money on, you know, things like missile systems when we needed body armor and tanks.

My unit did not have body armor when we went to Iraq. When we got on the ground, I went from Kuwait to Baghdad in a convoy. Baghdad’s very different from the southern part of the country where there’s a British contingent.

Baghdad has lost… we’ve lost more American soldiers in Baghdad than any other place. That’s why we’re footing 90 percent of the bill for the war and 90 percent of the casualties.

And when we went to Baghdad, I heard my president tell our country that our mission was accomplished, and that same night I had two RPG’s flung at my convoy and one of my trucks blown up. He clearly wasn’t leveling with the American public. And then when I was in Baghdad, we started losing soldiers every day.

Every day we went out, there was combat. And when one of my soldiers died, I had to hear my commander-in-chief so eloquently entice my enemy with, “Bring it on,” a deep sorrow day for me as an officer inside Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me finish up by asking you, Stan Coerr, on this question of both men, both candidates this week made promises and pledges about what they would do for veterans, what they would do for active duty and reserves to ease the strain of all these deployments.

You’re out there talking to veterans and military personnel now in advance of the election.

How in general do those promises and pledges resonate? Do veterans and military personnel feel more needs to be done? Is John Kerry making any inroads there?

STAN COERR: Margaret, John Kerry’s not making inroads. And let me tell you why. I think most veterans, as I said before, along with the American people, honor what John Kerry did in Vietnam.

What they are unhappy about is what he did when he returned home, using Vietnam as sort of a springboard to political office. His testimony, which we’ve all seen on television before the Senate, about what he thought about the war, leading an anti- war effort.

I spoke several weeks ago at a convention here in Southern California alongside a retired three-star navy admiral who had been held prisoner in North Vietnam and said that he personally was tortured because of the comments John Kerry made, and the feeling among those being held was John Kerry has left us behind, he’s abandoned us. Now, let me move back to the present time.

What I always hear from the Kerry people, and sometimes from Kerry himself, is two sides to the same coin. The first thing I hear is, “we’re spending far too much money.” There’s far too much of our treasuries being looted for this war halfway around the world. The other thing I hear is, “we’re not spending enough money. Why don’t we have enough body armor? Why aren’t we giving more money to our troops?”

I think because of that sort of back-and-forth that Kerry is trying to have both ways, I think veterans are pretty well disgusted with him. I can tell you that I have a photograph of myself meeting Sen. Kerry, and the friends that I sent that photograph to think I’m a traitor.

They can’t believe that I would even shake hands with that man, and everyone I know, my peers and those I worked with, are all very strong Republicans and they’re Bush supporters in this specific campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: Jon Soltz, your response to that.

JON SOLTZ: If John Kerry is a traitor, then so am I. John Kerry fought for his right to come home and question his war in Vietnam; 12,000 Americans died after he testified in the senate. And I fought for my right to question this president’s policies in Iraq.

It was a dark day for me when I had to go to the hospital in Germany to see one of my soldiers who was blown up. For the first time in my life, you know, I cried in uniform. I had to look at this guy and I had to say to him, you know, “I hope that this is worth it.”

The fact of the matter is this administration is not being truthful with the war in Iraq. They’ve continually tried to tie it to al-Qaida. We’ve committed 85 percent of our ground army. Soldiers like me have died for weapons we can’t find.

And they let Osama bin Laden run around in Afghanistan with zero of our ten military divisions not allocated to that. They failed us. They failed our soldiers. They failed our men and women in uniform.

They won’t support mandatory funding for veterans health care. They won’t support, you know, giving Iraqi veterans more than a two-year claim against the VA system. We know that these soldiers are going to have problems with PTSD. They won’t sign a real concurrent receipt. They’re closing our veterans hospitals, and they’ve broken our army to a point where we had to stop loss people in past their time.

It is time for them to level with the American public. Until they level with the American public, we cannot win the war in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Jon Soltz, Stan Coerr, thank you both.