Some wanted answers about our purpose in Iraq. Some demanded action on life after service. But all brought their issues directly to the candidates over the course of an emotional two days.
"It's a real call to action," Clinton said after hearing stories of their struggles — both abroad and at home.
Obama sat down with these young veterans on Monday in Scranton, Pennsylvania, taking a break from canvassing this big-ticket primary state to address these soldiers and their issues. (For a lighter look at Obama's interaction with the vets, check out this video of him playing pool with them.) Clinton then greeted the young vets a couple of hours south in Lancaster on Tuesday, just before resuming her push for a Keystone State primary win. In Scranton, the scene was Whistle's sports bar, March Madness coverage droning on in one room, while these young soldiers aired their issues in the next. In Lancaster, it was the sprawling brewpub the Lancaster Brewing Company (less than an hour before a wedding reception took over the restaurant's back room). While the settings were different, concerns about physical, mental and transitional care for veterans were constant (fitting, with seven of these eight young veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder). In a particularly emotional moment with Obama, decorated vet Wendell Guillermo said his medals did little to make up for life with PTSD. "I would trade in my Purple Heart to get my life back to as normal as it can be," Guillermo said.
"Frankly, one of the problems of this war has been the lowballing of the cost of caring for our vets," Obama acknowledged. He pledged that all vets would be screened for PTSD within 30 days of returning from combat and noted that the stigma that surrounds PTSD, and all mental illnesses, is a roadblock to better treatment and understanding. He also pledged to reduce bureaucracy, help family support and provide transitional support.
"The thing that concerns me is that the unemployment rate among these veterans is actually higher than among those who never served," Obama said.
Clinton also called for additional support for returning veterans and pointed to a record that includes legislation requiring pre- and post-deployment examinations. "It's still not being used the way I had hoped," she admitted, "but it's on the books."
Pressed by one veteran, Herold Noel, who had also met with the senator in 2005, Clinton noted that she's worked with veterans groups as well as officials on the federal, state and city levels to get homeless vets off the streets. "The reason that I'm running for president is that we need to change from top to bottom," Clinton said. "I've tried to get more money into [Veterans Affairs], tried to get the system to respond to individual cases, and told the city and the state that they have to cut through the red tape. ... I'm not making any excuses, but I am saying there are all of these roadblocks."
She also pledged to fight for additional resources and support and suggested that her exit strategy could help to pay for it.
"When we pull out of Iraq, we'll no longer be spending 10 to 12 billion dollars a month there," she said, noting the need to fully fund the VA.
And, of course, that exit strategy (as well as Obama's) drew plenty of attention as well.
"There are no good solutions in Iraq," Obama said, while advocating an emphasis on diplomacy, humanitarian aid and an increased role for the U.N. "We can stabilize the region. It's not going to be ideal. It's not that we couldn't do what we needed to control Iraq. The question is, should we continue doing it?"
Clinton echoed a similar sentiment, lauding the troops for their heroism but noting that the time to bring them home has come.
"The Iraqis have been given the greatest gift you can give someone: the gift of freedom," Clinton said. "But we're not going to be able to solve their civil war. They have to solve it. ... We're not going to be here to referee your civil war."
She reiterated her plan to begin troop withdrawals within 60 days of taking office, noting that the time has come for Iraqis to build their own peace. "In my view, the U.S. military did its job. ... I'm just not sure how much more we can do for them."
But beyond policy and promises, these vets also had a chance to share personal stories — tales of bravery, strength and heroism in the face of unimaginable violence and trauma. They even found a few things to laugh about. Recalling his initial decision to enlist, vet Ernest Johnson said, "I wanted to sign up when I was 17, but my mom wouldn't sign me up."
"Yeah, moms are like that," Clinton joked.
And meeting the vets around a pool table, Obama breathed a sigh of relief after sinking the 3-ball into the side pocket, joking, "If I would have missed, it would be all over YouTube."
But more than the one-liners, the veterans appreciated the chance to bring their issues directly to the candidates. "I think it takes a lot of courage to sit down with a bunch of vets," said Ryan Grove, a medically retired Marine who lost a leg and severely damaged his other while serving in Iraq.
"I think that regardless of what happens, the platform we had here will help to spread the word about our issues," vet Chris Weimer added.
After watching "Choose or Lose Presents Clinton & Obama Answer Young Veterans,"head here for additional material, including profiles of the Iraq veterans featured in the show.