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Veterans Group Speaks Out on War

VoteVets.org's Jon Soltz, at center, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, left, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. John Murtha, right, head  of the defense appropriations subcommittee, said yesterday,
VoteVets.org's Jon Soltz, at center, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, left, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. John Murtha, right, head of the defense appropriations subcommittee, said yesterday, "We need a vote that tells the president that his strategy is not working." (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Lyndsey Layton and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 8, 2007

When Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of "aiding the enemy," the Democratic senators gathered around him yesterday did not wince. Nor did Democrats object when Soltz, the chairman of a group called VoteVets.org, called President Bush and Vice President Cheney "draft dodgers."

In the United States Congress, where decorum usually holds sway, Soltz and his small band of veterans are saying things many Democrats would like to express but can't. And as the politics heat up over the Iraq war, Democratic leaders increasingly are being drawn to Soltz and his angry soldiers.

VoteVets.org appears to be the most active group trying to influence the debate about the president's plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq. Last month, it dispatched veterans to the home states of Republican senators waffling over resolutions on the war. Next, it ran a stark television ad on Super Bowl Sunday that drew national attention. And this week, group members crisscrossed Capitol Hill, trying to persuade lawmakers and their staffs to oppose the troop increase.

Their efforts are supported by a coalition of liberal groups that blocked the president's 2005 plan to privatize Social Security. But this new campaign could prove more difficult.

The veterans are selling a blunt message: The Bush strategy in Iraq is a failure, and adding troops sends more young men and women to their deaths. If you care about the military, they told lawmakers, vote against the troop increase. Legislators who are stalling debate on the matter are "cowards," they said.

This week marked their third pilgrimage to the Capitol. They met privately with the staffs of 11 senators, mostly Republicans. They talked strategy behind closed doors with the Democrats who run the House and then held a media event with those leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who praised them for speaking out.

Soltz, the group's intense 29-year-old co-founder who served in Iraq in 2003, displayed a fiery impatience with the procedural morass that has paralyzed the Senate. "I don't need some fancy Senate talk about why they can't vote," he said in an interview. "We just want a vote. We need a vote that tells the president that his strategy is not working."

In several news conferences, Soltz accused McConnell of "aiding the enemy" by allowing the Bush administration to build up troops in Iraq at the expense of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. "We are not fighting the war on terrorism, we are in the middle of a civil war," he said, referring to Iraq. "Meanwhile, the guy who attacked this country on 9/11 is living in a cave in Afghanistan."

Soltz called Cheney a "draft dodger," repeating charges he made last month when he disparaged a "president who frankly knows nothing of war and a vice president who knows even less." He said: "Senators on the fence have a choice. They can stand with veterans like us, or they can stand with the draft dodgers down the road."

Democrats said they will not muzzle the veterans. In many ways, the former soldiers and Marines are expressing sentiments the lawmakers want broadcast, and they help inoculate Democrats against Republican claims that opposing the president's plan undermines the troops.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who appeared with four veterans yesterday morning, said he saw parallels between VoteVets.org and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the group of protesters he led during Vietnam. He said he recognized the anger he saw in Soltz. "When you come back from fighting the enemy, you are passionate and feel very strongly about duty," Kerry said. "Each one of these folks has earned the right to express their thoughts. Their words ought to stand for themselves. That's exactly how they feel and people ought to listen to them."

In the office of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), the chief of staff and several aides listened with rapt attention Tuesday as Brian Van Riper, a 25-year-old former Marine machine gunner, told how he struggled with creeping doubts during his Iraq tour that peaked when he met a 12-year-old Iraqi girl with a scarred face and missing leg. She was a casualty of the initial air bombing of Baghdad, Van Riper said. "That night, I felt a tear down my eye," he said.

Soltz, Van Riper and the others got polite if reserved receptions from Republicans, with one exception. The veterans said they stormed out of a Tuesday meeting with Sen. Larry E. Craig's chief of staff. "He was almost dismissive in his tone," said Joe Kramer, 31, who was in the light infantry in Iraq. "We agreed to disagree. Very loudly."

Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Craig, would say only that the Idaho Republican's chief of staff, Mike Ware, sees things differently.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a decorated Vietnam veteran and likely presidential candidate who supports the addition of troops, dismissed VoteVets.org as a "handful of veterans" not representative of the military.

VoteVets.org has 20,000 members, including 1,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, said spokesman Eric Schmeltzer. The PAC is part of a coalition of left-leaning groups organized by Americans United for Change that includes labor unions and liberal groups such as MoveOn.org.

The veterans group raised just over $1.3 million in the last election cycle. Some of that money came in large doses, from Wall Street and Hollywood sources. Lynne Wasserman, daughter of the late Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, shelled out $25,000. Hedge fund owner Kevin Toner, a generous Democratic contributor, gave $25,000, as did Brian Snyder, another New York investor. Other donors include Phil Donahue, Democratic doyenne Beth Dozoretz, TV producer Norman Lear and architect Frank Gehry. At least $20,000 has come from organized labor and another $5,000 came from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's (D-Nev.) Searchlight Leadership Fund. But most donations have been $1,000 or less.

Soltz said the group is pro-military and not a front for the Democrats. "I'm a conservative," said Soltz, who volunteered on Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. "I don't think 20,000 more troops is Democratic, I don't think 20,000 troops is Republican. I think it's stupid."


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