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Vets Want Policy, Not Politics

Times have changed since Paul Cook returned from Vietnam in 1968.

To avoid inciting someone to spit or throw something, Cook was not allowed that year to wear his soldier's garb in the nation's capital.

The Yucca Valley Republican, a state assemblyman, is now a candidate for Congress, touting his military service and proudly wearing his full Marine Corps uniform on his campaign website.

"Colonel Paul Cook -- leadership, two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star," says one TV ad. "Now Cook's fighting higher taxes, to cap spending, pay down debt. ... Let's send him to Congress to fight for us."

Veterans are emerging as a significant political force this year because of their numbers, sacrifice, public popularity and the government's need to plan for serving troops returning from the Middle East as fighting winds down. California, for example, expects to see its 2 million veterans swell by 30,000 to 35,000 annually over the next few years.

"Among baby boomers, there's a real sense that our veterans who came home from Vietnam were not treated appropriately on a lot of different levels, and people don't want that to happen again," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic political strategist.

Politicians and veterans need each other this election year -- and both hope to benefit from the union.

In the battle between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, veterans are considered a potential key to victory in at least three swing states -- Florida, Virginia and Ohio.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed more than a dozen veteran-related bills this year, on issues from extending priority registration for college to allowing drivers of military commercial vehicles to qualify for a similar license as civilians.

"I've seen more and more veterans groups become active at the state Legislature, and increasingly, the state Legislature has been passing bills to help veterans," said Pete Conaty, a leading state lobbyist for veterans.

Candidates in numerous campaigns are tipping their hats to veterans -- or accusing opponents of dropping that ball.

Democratic congressional candidate Jerry McNerney, in one TV ad, touts his role in securing funds for a veterans medical center in San Joaquin County and legislation he carried to improve care for traumatic brain injuries.

"When it comes to veterans, no one fights harder than Jerry McNerney," the ad says.

Democrat John Garamendi's website says that California's veterans are "at a crucial fiscal crossroads" and that "it is now time for our president and Congress to step up."

Garamendi, in a TV ad, promoted his "perfect record" supporting veterans and blamed Republican Kim Vann for failing to save a Colusa County veterans hall. Vann contends the ad twisted her words and that veterans were offered use of another building after their hall had been condemned as beyond repair. The Garamendi campaign voluntarily pulled its ad off the air when another claim in it was discredited.

Vann and Ricky Gill, the latter McNerney's GOP opponent, received high-powered help recently in reaching out to veterans. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who chairs the House's Veterans Affairs Committee, joined the two local candidates for separate veterans forums in Dixon and Lodi, respectively.

Gill said he considers assisting veterans a "solemn duty" and will hire a full-time veterans liaison for his office. "I intend to make that a priority," he said.

Vann said she will push to make it easier for veterans to get certificates qualifying them for jobs that require skills they learned in the military, such as welding.

At her Dixon veterans forum, Vann heard veterans complain of high suicide rates, homelessness, vocational training that does not always lead to jobs, unemployment, substance abuse, high counseling caseloads and long delays in getting disability claims processed.

"With returning veterans, we're going to have a surge, so we'd better get our collective acts together very quickly and start changing how we're doing this, because what we're doing isn't working," she said.

In state and national capitols, however, appreciation for the nation's 22 million veterans often collides with bare government coffers and a foggy economic outlook.

Brown signed a state budget this year that contained startup funding for veterans homes in Fresno and Redding, but it was dropped from $10.5 million to $4.2 million in legislative budget battles.

Nationally, Senate Republicans killed a proposed $1 billion veterans job program last month, though Obama's first term in office saw businesses offered tax credits for hiring former soldiers and passage of a new GI bill to help pay college expenses for military members who have served since 9/11.

Politically, there is little downside to applauding veterans, campaign strategists say.

Soldiers are popular with the public, and honoring them can help polish a candidate's image. For politicians who criticized U.S. policy during the Middle East wars, supporting soldiers can blunt potential criticism, analysts say.

"It's more about telling the voters, most of whom are not veterans, who you are as a person -- what your values are, what you think is important," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant.

Public plaudits for veterans aren't always meant to pay dividends; sometimes they're simply a thank you by politicians who see that as the right thing to do, Sragow said.

Wayne Johnson, GOP strategist, said pro-veteran politicking is "part of the positive advertising toolbox" but may not be the most effective way to spend scarce dollars.

"Generally speaking, you want to draw a contrast between two candidates," he said. "You're not going to find a lot of candidates campaigning against veterans."

Tom Tarantino, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said it's not good enough for candidates to call soldiers heroes or for speakers at the Democratic and Republican national conventions to sing their praises, as occurred this year.

Don't tell us that you support veterans getting jobs -- tell us how you're going to get a business to hire one, Tarantino said.

"This is no longer an 'I support the troops' issue. We have a generation of veterans with very serious problems. ... How are you going to address these real problems?"

Mac Robertson, a 69-year-old Marine Corps veteran, attended the Dixon forum and concluded that Vann is sincere in supporting veterans.

"Unfortunately, as in any bureaucracy, you get up to the top and nothing gets done," he said.

Ray Simmons, a 56-year-old Navy veteran, said he doesn't count on politicians. "It just seems like they get to talk to a lot of people, get their ideas out, and get elected -- then we get lost again."

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