Democratic vets speak out in opposition to the war
PHIL AVILLO enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was 17 and volunteered for duty in Vietnam.
Last week, he joined a band of fellow Democratic veterans running for Congress at a news conference in Washington and savaged the Bush administration's Iraq war.
"The occupation in Iraq today is decimating the families of our military men and women," said Avillo. "Too many deployments. Too many separations. Too many dead and wounded."
"Oohrah," said the former Marines in the room.
"Whoah," the Army veterans added.
"It's always great to have a Marine go before you," said Jay Fawcett, up next at the podium in a crowded hotel conference room on Capitol Hill.
Fawcett, who won a Bronze Star for bravery in the first Gulf War, is an Air Force veteran running for the 5th District seat left open by the retirement of Colorado Rep. Joel Hefley. Like the others, Fawcett has his sights on a new mission.
Many of them won't make it to the summit in November, but "we will take the Hill," he vowed.
The veterans' feisty show was in keeping with the fight shown by the Democratic Party last week.
For most of September, President Bush had used his presidential megaphone to pummel the Democrats on national security issues. They looked lost, and more than a little gutless.
Last week, the Democrats finally struck back.
Three events set the stage. Bush's story line was muddied when he got in a messy spat with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Arizona Sen. John McCain and other Republicans over legislation to OK torture. The White House was compelled to declassify parts of a National Intelligence Estimate that showed the war in Iraq is fueling terrorism. And Bill Clinton went on Fox News and answered the libel that Democrats coddled Osama bin Laden before Sept. 11.
"You falsely accused me of giving aid and comfort to bin Laden," Clinton told the Fox host.
"I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him," Clinton said. "I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since. And if I were still president, we'd have more than 20,000 troops there trying to kill him."
Clinton's pugnacity lit a fire under the Democrats. On Monday, they staged an oversight hearing in a Senate committee room, inviting former U.S. military officers to testify about Iraq.
"I believe that (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld and others in the administration did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war in Iraq," said retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste.
On Tuesday, in an apparent breach of decorum, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took on the current secretary, Condoleezza Rice.
When the Democrats left office in 2001, they told the incoming Bush White House officials "that fighting terrorism was very important," said Albright. "Ask Secretary Rice how much attention they paid to terrorism in their first eight months."
Then Albright turned to Iraq. "It was not on our watch," she said acidly, "that the greatest disaster in American foreign policy has been launched."
And on Wednesday, former Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe reminded an audience of small-business owners in Washington that while John Kerry and Al Gore were serving in Vietnam, Bush skipped some of his National Guard duties in Alabama in favor of "driving around the hog farms with a six-pack of beer."
The representatives of the 51 Democratic veterans running for Congress brought more dignity to the debate, but showed no less willingness to challenge the GOP.
"The question we face is not whether or not we are facing evil, but whether or not we are competently fighting and defeating that evil," said Duane Burghard, a Navy veteran from Missouri.
Paul Bucha, a former paratrooper, received the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. He serves as an adviser to the Democratic veterans' committee.
"We stood silently when, in the last election, a group of people chose to castigate and cheapen the Purple Heart," said Bucha, referring to the "swift boat" attacks on Kerry's decorations for bravery.
"We were wrong because we were quiet at that time," said Bucha. "But never again."
John Aloysius Farrell is Washington bureau chief for the Denver Post.