Vietnam Vets Help Defend Sen. Kerry
By Holly Ramer
Thursday 1 May 2003
CONCORD, N.H. - The "Doghunters" are on the prowl. The band of Vietnam veterans who have been protecting John Kerry's political flank since 1984 will be canvassing American Legion halls and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in coming weeks to mobilize support for the Democrat's presidential bid.
The timing suggests a counteroffensive designed to help Kerry with military voters after he angered Republicans - and upset a few Democrats - with his wartime comment that the United States, like Iraq, needed a "regime change."
Not so, say the Doghunters.
"It has nothing to do with regime change," said John Hurley, an Army veteran and semiretired lawyer from Wellesley, Mass. "It's based on John's war record. John became very engaged with veterans as soon as he got back from Vietnam, and veterans in turn have become engaged with John."
While serving as an officer on a Navy gunboat, Kerry earned a Silver Star, three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. Back home, he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Years later, when Kerry ran for the Senate in 1984, a Democratic rival suggested that Kerry was a hypocrite for fighting in a war he didn't believe in. During a debate, Kerry sought an apology from his primary opponent, Jim Shannon, who instead responded, "That dog won't hunt."
So began the Doghunters, a group of a dozen-plus Vietnam veterans who traveled through Massachusetts to make the case for Kerry. They've done it in every Senate campaign since and plan to travel to New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina to push Kerry's White House candidacy.
"We're sort of brothers in blood, that's why I support him," said Wayne Burton of Durham, N.H., a retired Army captain and president of a Massachusetts community college who has been swayed by the group's campaign. "For people of my generation who have children who might be put at the risk of war ... I would prefer to have someone in office who understands how awful combat actually is."
Kerry and the Doghunters have their work cut out for them.
Veterans and enlisted people tend to vote Republican, with analysts citing the Vietnam War, the Reagan-era military buildup, Bill Clinton's checkered draft history and Republican presidents' success in the Persian Gulf as a few reasons.
In 2000, absentee military ballots in Florida showed stronger support for President Bush, who was in the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam, than Democrat Al Gore, who served in Vietnam.
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said support from veterans could help Kerry in the primaries but not in the general election against a Republican.
"There's something about the military culture - I don't know if it's discipline or the use of force," Smith said. "And since the Vietnam era, the Republican Party has been seen as the party that's more supportive of the military."
And Vietnam veterans are far from a homogenous group when it comes to elections. Geoff Lombard, who was wounded as a Marine in Vietnam, considers Kerry a hero and an asset to the Democratic Party, but he favors rival Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
"Bombast and landing hard with your hand on a podium to stress a point does not really give me a warm and fuzzy feeling about the individual," Lombard said.
Kerry often speaks without thinking through the implications of his words, Lombard said, citing the regime change comment.
"I was disappointed," said the Durham, N.H., resident. "I wanted him to rethink before he spoke. Those words were powerful, they were disrespectful to the president."
Still, the Doghunters press ahead, determined to build support for a fellow veteran.
"I think we can put together the largest veteran organization ever to support a political candidate," Hurley said. "The message is simple: We want a veteran in the White House."
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