BATON ROUGE, La. -- An Afghanistan war veteran speaking at a Veterans Day ceremony took aim Wednesday at politicians who use soldiers' issues as a campaign pitch, a dig at governor's candidate John Bel Edwards, who has made his military resume a cornerstone of his election effort.
Mike McNaughton, a retired National Guard soldier who lost two fingers and his right leg when he stepped on a land mine, urged candidates in his speech at the Old State Capitol to "not use our veterans for promoting yourself" to get elected. McNaughton, outreach director for the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, supports Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the governor's race.
Edwards, a Democratic state representative who is in a tight runoff competition with Vitter, was in the audience for the event. McNaughton confirmed after his speech that his comments were directed at Edwards.
"We have veterans working on both sides for the governor's race. It gets to the point where we're separating in two different factions when you see the commercials and everyone is screaming foul on both sides," McNaughton said in an interview.
Edwards has highlighted his West Point degree and eight years of active duty as an Army Ranger, as he built his campaign on a message of personal integrity and service. He contrasts himself with Vitter, a long-time politician who was embroiled in a prostitution scandal eight years ago.
The Democratic candidate has referenced the West Point honor code in his speeches and in a campaign ad in which he said: "David Vitter wouldn't last a day at West Point."
A recent Edwards attack ad shows old photos of Edwards in his military uniform and says Vitter "chose prostitutes over patriots," missing a vote to honor soldiers because of a phone call from a prostitution service. Vitter apologized in 2007 for a "very serious sin" after he was linked through phone records to Washington's "D.C. Madam."
Edwards praised McNaughton's service on Wednesday -- and defended his campaign approach.
"The fact of the matter is (Vitter) missed a vote to honor deceased members of our military who were killed while on active duty. He chose to participate in extracurricular activities as opposed to that," Edwards said. "I'll let people decide for themselves whether that's a reflection on me for telling the story or on him."
The Edwards campaign said it removed an image of Arlington National Cemetery in the background of that ad after the mother of a soldier who died in a training mission earlier this year wrote a letter -- released by the Vitter campaign -- objecting to the inclusion of the cemetery in the advertisement and requesting the TV spot be pulled.
McNaughton raised objections to the Arlington image and the photos of Edwards in his military uniform in the campaign ad.
"I don't know John Bel Edwards personally, but he should know better, and his staff should know better," he said.
Vitter's campaign has circulated a letter from a retired Air Force brigadier general saying military regulations prohibit people from wearing their uniforms in campaign ads. Vitter cited the criticism in a debate this week, saying Edwards should take down the ad.
Edwards said he didn't violate regulations, and he noted U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, and other candidates have used photos of themselves in uniform in political advertising.
"The trouble that Sen. Vitter has with that ad has nothing to do with my uniform," Edwards said.