Sen. John F. Kerry has emphasized his Vietnam service hoping to inspire fellow veterans -- whom he calls his "band of brothers" -- to support his presidential campaign. But a new nationwide poll and conversations with area veterans show that they remain deeply split over the former Navy lieutenant.
Despite Kerry's courting, veterans say they trust President Bush more than Kerry as commander in chief, 56 percent to 38 percent, according to a report released yesterday by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey.
While the survey showed that Kerry got a boost from the Democratic National Convention, during which his Vietnam service was emphasized, 59 percent told pollsters recently that they have a favorable opinion of Bush, compared with 42 percent for Kerry. The sampling of veterans had a margin of error of 4 percent.
In interviews this week, local veterans said their opinion of John Kerry -- for better or for worse -- was forged long ago and has not been affected by ads accusing Kerry of lying about his wartime record. Many veterans dismissed the attack-and-volley surrounding Kerry's Vietnam service and his antiwar activism as a political sideshow not likely to change their votes.
"I can't make heads or tails out of it," said Keith Weeks, 72, a Korean War veteran who was soaking up the sun Tuesday in the back yard of Arlington VFW Post 3150. "You can't know who's telling the truth."
The Annenberg survey polled veterans across the country during three periods: the first from July 5 to 25, the day before the Democratic National Convention began; the second from July 26 to Aug. 5; and the third beginning Aug. 6, when ads appeared by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a private anti-Kerry group which has raised questions about the senator's service and combat decorations. The last survey period concluded Tuesday.
Polling showed some evidence that Kerry's advantage coming out of his party's convention in Boston was blunted by the attacks. But the poll also shows that Kerry did hold onto a significant improvement in the way veterans perceive his anti-Vietnam War activities.
"I don't think the numbers clearly say he was hurt by the swift boat thing,'' said Adam Clymer, political director of the survey. "The fact that Kerry's favorable and unfavorable numbers maintained the bounce out of the convention show the issue hasn't been devastating among veterans."
Before the convention, 30 percent of veterans said they approved of his postwar activities. Just after the convention, until Aug. 5, that jumped to 43 percent. In the latest survey, 40 percent said they still approve, compared with 52 percent who disapprove of his protests.
In Virginia, what veterans such as Weeks think is especially important to the Kerry campaign, which is counting on the state's large population of veterans to push the state over to the Democratic column, something that hasn't happened in a presidential election since 1964.
Alexandria Democrats have "a bunch of guys raring to go," said Air Force veteran David L. Englin, who heads a week-old effort to organize an "Alexandria Veterans for Kerry Night."
Nationally, the Kerry campaign hopes to get 1 million veterans to endorse him by Election Day, Englin said.
The poll numbers show that Kerry has a long way to go to turn veterans, who are more Republican-leaning than the general population, into a political asset. Thirty-seven percent of veterans identified themselves as Republicans; 23 percent said they were Democrats. All other voters split evenly among the two major parties.
Clymer said Kerry is doing better among veterans than Democratic presidential candidates typically have done. "I think Kerry's push in this area has had some effect. I can't tell you if it will last.''
Many veterans interviewed said that they are closely following the back-and-forth over Kerry's and Bush's military service but that they will probably base their votes on party affiliation and traditional issues such as the economy.
Asked whether Kerry's combat service or his postwar protests will swing many votes of his fellow vets, Frank McCrone, sitting at the bar at VFW Lodge 9619 in Morningside, Md., doesn't even pause.
"Not really. What they're looking at is what is going to affect them personally -- Medicare, prescription drugs, those sorts of things," he said.
Christopher E. Braun, a veteran and real estate executive in Herndon, said he is "still a little funny about Kerry's antiwar stance following his return. I don't like how he turned his back on vets when he came back. But that's not the reason why I'm not voting for him."
But for Jim Grummons, a Korean War veteran and commander of VFW Post 7327 in Springfield, Kerry's "downfall was in going against the Vietnam War. He went with Hanoi Jane, and that ticked a lot of veterans off."
Other Vietnam veterans cited Kerry's testimony in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he listed war crimes and atrocities that he said were committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam. It is Kerry's testimony that is the subject of the latest advertisement by the swift boat veterans.
"He should have never gone there," said Desi Arnaiz, a leader of Vietnam Veterans of America Battlefield Lodge 617 in Woodbridge. "I was not a baby killer: I didn't rape. I didn't do any of that stuff."
Miguel Boschulte, a retired master sergeant who earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam, said he is voting for Kerry because he is a Democrat, not because he is a fellow vet.
"I don't like what Bush is doing in Iraq," Boschulte said, bringing up a topic that resonated with many area veterans interviewed this week. "The way they're getting killed over there is senseless. There's no end to it. They're getting killed every day for nothing."
Vietnam veterans in particular drew quick parallels between their war and Iraq. Even supporters of Bush expressed unease with the situation overseas.
Willie B. Jones, a retired master sergeant who served two tours in Vietnam, voted for Bush in 2000. But he said he is reconsidering his support of Bush this year, and not because fellow vet Kerry is running.
"That will play a part, but it really doesn't swing my vote," said Jones, as he was fixing some chicken and rice in the Springfield post's kitchen.
"It's really a tough situation," he said, pouring in some chicken mushroom soup. "I'm glad I'm not in the war now.''