Stars And Stripes Interviews McCain And Obama: Some Of What Was Said

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Stars and Stripes is the premier military-related 'daily' that began as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War. They resumed publication during World War I and again in World War II, having published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Sold at military facilities overseas, as well as distributed at no cost to service members in contingency areas, Stars and Stripes currently publishes different editions for Europe, Japan, Korea, Okinawa, and the Middle East. Here are excepts from two recent interviews.

A Quote From Each

McCain on VA: "...I would be opposed to imposing more financial costs" on veterans.

Obama on VA: "...There is a sense that somehow the job of the VA is to protect the treasury as opposed to make sure that those who served are getting treated..."

More From McCain

In an interview with Stars and Stripes on Aug 2, McCain was asked and answered, in part and abridged...

Q: I wanted to start in Afghanistan, because there has been a lot of attention there lately. You've talked about sending three combat brigades there, to amp up some of the efforts, but this week Secretary (of Defense Robert) Gates said there are still no plans to increase troop levels there. So, I don't know if you think we should be increasing those numbers right now, and I don't know how you plan on getting those extra troops there, where they're going to come from.

Sen. McCain: A lot will probably come when we draw down in Iraq. Plus, we are increasing the size of the military, and we are going to have to continue that effort.

Q: Iraq, I don't know how you picture Iraq going into the future. I don't know how long you think we'll have troops there, and if some day it will be like Germany or Korea, like all of our readers are used to: A semi-permanent, long-term force.

Sen. McCain: I think that's going to be the result of negotiations between the United States and Iraq. There are two examples in the Middle East. One is Saudi Arabia: They didn't want us to stay, so we left. The other is Kuwait. They asked us to remain there in a security arrangement, and that arrangement has been very helpful.

Q: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the GI bill. You didn't cast a vote on the final version of the supplemental bill that had the GI bill in there. How do you feel about the final product that came out? Because you were opposed to Sen. Webb's bill as written before the modifications there. I don't know how you feel about the final product.

Sen. McCain: The modifications, in my view, were vitally necessary. There were different studies that showed there would be a decrease in retention. The heart and soul of the military is the non-commissioned officer. And we need to have incentives for people to remain in the military.

Q: I wanted to ask about stop loss, which has been another big issue for our guys too. Do you think that's an appropriate tool for filling the gaps?

Sen. McCain: I hate it. So does everybody in the military. The way you cure the problem is by having a bigger military and succeeding and having victory in Iraq. It's a symptom of the problem of the mismanagement of the war by (former Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld, which we paid a very heavy price for nearly four years.

Q: The backlog in the VA system is still very sizeable and a concern to even many of the younger guys. I don't know how you're looking at the issue, and how you fix something that the current administration has really struggled with.

Sen. McCain: I think the best thing we could possibly do is focus military medical care and the VA on treating the wounds directly related to combat: PTSD, combat wounds which they are uniquely qualified, through years of experience, to address. I think in the case of veterans that have ordinary health care needs, routine health care needs, we should do everything we can to give them a card that they can take to the health care provider or doctor of their choice to get health care immediately.

Q: You brought up Rumsfeld, and I know you're a fan of Secretary Gates. I don't know if you've talked about keeping him on. Yesterday, he got some questions and seemed like he was counting down the days.

Sen. McCain: Secretary Gates has done a magnificent job and I can fully understand why he might feel that he's fulfilled his duties to his country. I'll just say I value his service and obviously I'm not so presumptuous to making those kind of decisions, but I would certainly want to make use of him in any possible way.

More From Obama

In an Aug. 6 interview with Stars and Stripes, Obama was asked and answered, in part and abridged...

Q: A lot of the issues we're been following for the military have been touched on, but not the specifics that we'd like. I wanted to start with Afghanistan, which you mentioned earlier today. You've talked about sending more combat brigades there, but in the last week Secretary of Defense (Robert) Gates said there's no immediate plan for that. I don't know if that's something we should be doing immediately, getting troops in there, and if so how can we do that in the next six months, seven months?

Sen. Obama: In speaking with the commanders in Afghanistan, as well as folks who are out in the field, the strong impression was that more troops are needed and that we are spread thin. It's not the only solution, but it is part of a more comprehensive focus on what I consider to be the central front on terrorism.

Q: You've talked about a drawdown. I don't know how you envision the long-term presence in Iraq. When you talk drawdown, are you talking eventually no troops in Iraq, or are you thinking something like Germany and Korea?

Sen. Obama: What I've said is that we need a residual force to start with. So, without putting a precise number or a precise time frame, I've set a series of missions that we're going to have to continue to perform for a decent stretch of time. There are tasks that we're still going to have to perform, and that means a certain number of troops. What those troops would be to accomplish those missions, I would leave up to the commanders, or I would at least consult closely with commanders in order to achieve the goals.

Q: The GI bill that just passed - I know you were a supporter of it ...

Sen. Obama: A strong sponsor, yes.

Q: I don't know if you have any concerns about retention related to that. A lot of military folks were concerned, even after the adjustments were made with transferability, about keeping the non-commissioned officer corps intact.

Sen. Obama: I feel very strongly that the strategy for maintaining the excellence of our all-volunteer forces can't depend on stinginess once they get out. We should give the same kinds of benefits that my grandfather got after World War II, when he got the GI Bill and the GI Bill paid for college.

Q: Last question is on the VA. There has been a backlog in that system for years and years, and this administration hasn't been able to deal with that. What would you change, how can you fix that system quickly?

Sen. Obama: Partly because my grandfather was a vet, and he instilled in me that we have a sacred trust to our veterans, I joined the veterans affairs committee the minute I entered the Senate. The first issues I worked on in the Senate were veterans issues. Eliminating the practice of charging wounded soldiers for meals and telephone calls at Walter Reed. Fixing the disability payment system in Illinois, where we were ranked 50th for 20 years in a row when it came to disability payments. So this is something I care deeply about. The backlog isn't a mystery. It has to do with not enough people evaluating these claims and not a good enough job keeping track of people's efforts, and not enough money in the system to pay these benefits in a timely way. So what's the fix? We need to have every record in electronic form - service records, medical records - so that the minute someone is discharged those records are immediately gone with the push of a button. They are immediately transferred to the VA. That right away would eliminate a whole host of delays, because if you talk to veterans they're trying to gather up forms. They apply, turns out they're missing a couple of records. They've got to go back. So just using technology would make a huge difference. We've talked about this for a long time, but the Pentagon, DoD and VA have not gotten a system that interfaces that works as quickly as they need to. So that's point number one. Point number two: We need more people to evaluate claims, a simple money proposition. Number three, I think we need to train people more effectively across various regions so that those who are evaluating claims aren't making it up as they go along. That's probably an overstatement; obviously, there's training and there's standards involved, but we're still seeing large discrepancies in terms of how claims are evaluated. And the fourth thing, maybe the most important, is a shift in attitude in the VA. I still think that there is a sense that somehow the job of the VA is to protect the treasury as opposed to make sure that those who served are getting treated with the honor and respect that they deserve. And that pervades a whole host of issues. The fact that we're still not adequately screening for post-traumatic stress disorder and giving folks the services that they need. The fact that homeless rates are astronomically higher than the regular population, and yet we don't have a comprehensive system to provide services for substance abuse, housing, job training. The fact that we're not working well enough with National Guardsmen and women and reservists when they're discharged for the transition back to civilian life, including working with them on employment issues. Many of them may have given up their job or have fallen behind in their job as a consequence of their service. But those all have to do with an attitude that I want to change when I'm commander in chief.

--- Regards, Walt Schmidt