Jessica McDermott, who served in Iraq as a medical officer, was in Pennsylvania last week, participating in "Choose or Lose Presents: Clinton & Obama Answer Young Veterans," when she first heard about Senator Hillary Clinton's "misspoken" description of arriving under sniper fire at the Tuzla Air Base in Bosnia in 1996, which in recent days has become a black eye for the presidential candidate.
"As a combat veteran," McDermott said, "I feel that it is insulting that a politician would use their one- or two-day trip to a combat zone to relate to veterans."
So it should come as no surprise that McDermott, along with several other young Iraqi veterans who were participating in the forum with her, were even more insulted by Clinton's subsequent claims that she misspoke after video footage surfaced this week showing the senator's entourage exiting the rear of their cargo plane and walking calmly across the tarmac in Bosnia.
"I wasn't impressed," said Chris Weimer, 26, a Marine Corps sergeant who received a Purple Heart for wounds received while fighting in Iraq. "It seemed like a play to make herself seem like something she isn't: an American with the courage to risk the ultimate sacrifice for his or her country. She wanted to make it seem like she knew what it was like living in the same danger our troops face every day in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
"That angered me, because there is no way anyone can understand what it's like to live in a place where your life is at risk every second of every day unless you actually take the same risks your combat troops do."
Other veterans who participated in the forum share his feelings. "The speech was merely a [sensationalized] attempt at gaining legitimacy," said Ryan Groves, 27, a Marine who lost his left leg in combat. "I don't blame Hillary for trying to play that card, for she is a woman who is attempting to be the first female commander in chief of the world's most powerful military in the history of the world."
The young vets had largely positive comments regarding their interaction with Clinton during MTV's forum.
The reactions of these young veterans demonstrate the slippery slope that politicians walk when they use combat-zone trips to earn respect from those who might otherwise be skeptical of their experience in military matters. "Candidates obviously need to make a strong position on understanding what it means to serve in the military and, more importantly, serve the military in a time of war," Weimer said. "However, making false statements about being under sniper fire is definitely not convincing anyone that she has either the credibility or appreciation for what it is America's military lives with every day they are in a combat zone."
And with the next major Democratic primary in Pennsylvania less than a month away, young veterans are one group that Clinton is having trouble winning over in the battle for credibility on military matters. In town-hall speeches and televised commercials, the senator has tried to paint herself as having the foreign-policy experience to be a strong leader on the world stage. But whether or not she misspoke, the senator's Bosnia remarks are being viewed as an attempt to trump up her experience abroad as first lady in contrast to her rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Barack Obama.
So how should politicians show their support for the troops without diminishing the experiences of those who are actually fighting in combat? The vets we spoke with point to John McCain, who visited the Shorja market in Baghdad last April as part of a congressional delegation that was heavily protected by U.S. soldiers and helicopters.
"I was impressed by Senator McCain's trip to Baghdad," said McDermott. "First of all, he is a combat veteran, so it is not surprising that he was out of the Green Zone. And he was in his 'battle rattle,' which showed that he was conscious of the dangers around him, and which served as a good role model for soldiers." McDermott added that VIPs frequently travel to combat zones at night, when it is safer. So even though McCain wore body armor and was heavily protected, he still showed his solidarity with the troops. "I was just glad to hear that he was walking around in the daytime," she said, "security detail or not."
Weimer cited Senator McCain's recent trip to the Middle East as further evidence of his ability to win the kind of support of troops and veterans that has eluded Senator Clinton. "John McCain has proven in the past that he has been to [Iraq's] ground zero, and now has reminded us that he is not afraid to go back."
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.
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