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My Turn: A war on those who serve

  • National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman leaves the hearing room during a break from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 19. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 12/1/2019 7:00:30 AM

During the last days of August 2004, my wife and I were vacationing on the coast of Maine. As it happened, the Republican National Convention was taking place in New York City that week.

The presidential election that November would be between Republican President George W. Bush and John F. Kerry, Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts.

On Aug. 30, the opening day of the convention, I purchased a copy of the New York Times, which was covering the proceedings. I also bought the Times on the following days of the convention.

Prominently featured in the Sept. 1 edition was coverage of delegates on the convention floor mocking Sen. Kerry’s Vietnam War service as a U.S. Navy lieutenant in charge of a swift boat patrol operation. Several right-wing delegates gleefully wore Band-Aids on their faces with purple hearts drawn on them in an abhorrent attempt to tarnish Kerry’s receipt of three Purple Heart medals.

The disrespect for Kerry’s military records persisted throughout the convention, despite protests from the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain and many other veterans vigorously denounced the attacks on Kerry’s service.

The seaside peacefulness I was relishing immediately switched to anger as I read news of the convention’s dishonest goings-on.

At a 1967 forum in Manchester, a young Marine from Maine and I had been presented the Purple Heart by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Wallace M. Greene Jr. Though I had become opposed to the rotten war, I held great respect for the medal’s recognition of those wounded in U.S. wars.

The Purple Heart is also presented to the families of military personnel killed in battle along with a folded funeral flag. It is our country’s oldest military decoration, originating with Gen. George Washington, known then as the Badge of Military Merit. Contrary to news media anchors and others, the Purple Heart medal is not “won.” It is not a prize for an accomplishment. It is an award of recognition.

It irks me that so many Republican leaders have and continue to feign patriotic superiority while discrediting those who have served during wartime. Instances of this are numerous, and even include veterans of their own political party – the late Sen. John McCain, for example.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, McCain caught grief from those questioning whether he was a “natural born citizen” for having been born in Panama where his father was stationed in the U.S. Navy. He had been wounded in Vietnam and became a long-term POW in Hanoi.

Infamously, in 2015 during Donald Trump’s presidential run, Trump insulted McCain for having been captured.

In his 2006 campaign for re-election as a Democrat, the late Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha’s service in the Marine Corps took scathing abuse from his opponents, despite his two Purple Hearts and other combat medals for service in Vietnam.

Max Cleland, at age 25, became a triple amputee from the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Purple Heart and several other medals for gallantry. When running for re-election as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 2002, his patriotism was outwardly slandered by his Republican opponent. Cleland lost re-election by a slight margin. He went on to support John Kerry’s 2004 presidential candidacy.

Tammy Duckworth lost both legs after being shot down in Iraq piloting a Black Hawk helicopter in 2004. Born in Thailand, Duckworth was scorned by her Republican opponent in her 2006 run for Congress for having an Asian mother. She lost that election but was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and is currently a Democratic senator from Illinois.

In 2016, candidate Donald Trump shamelessly belittled the U.S. Gold Star parents of Humayun Khan, a Muslim soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. The fallen soldier’s father denounced Trump in a powerful speech during the Democratic National Convention that July.

Again, in October 2017, Trump made insensitive remarks to the widow of a U.S. soldier killed in an ambush in Niger, telling her coldly that he “knew what he signed up for.” Unable to recall the soldier’s name, Trump displayed no empathy.

And most recently during the House impeachment inquiry, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was disrespected by Republicans in their smearing, vindictive questions. Vindman, a Ukrainian-American immigrant, is the recipient of the Purple Heart and several other combat medals from his service in Iraq. Vindman serves on Trump’s National Security Council.

It makes me wonder who will be next to take verbal shrapnel from right-wingers, many who are chickenhawks – those who support wars but find ways to weasel out from serving themselves.

(Paul Nichols lives in Loudon.)

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