By Howard Wilkinson
Enquirer staff writer
They are coming to Cincinnati this weekend nearly 15,000 strong, the men and women of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
They represent not only 2.6 million fellow VFW members, but the interests of 25 million other Americans who once wore their country's uniform.
Little wonder that John Kerry will speak to them next week, and President Bush's campaign is carefully considering an invitation.
"The veterans' vote can't be ignored,'' said John Furgess, the Vietnam veteran from Nashville, Tenn., who will be sworn in as the VFW's new national commander. "There are too many of us.''
BY THE NUMBERS
The Veterans of Foreign Wars' 2.6 million membership is becoming dominated now by Vietnam-era veterans, after decades of the World War II generation holding sway. Here is an age breakdown:
65 or younger: 39%
81 or older: 22%
Source: Veterans of Foreign Wars
For seven days, Saturday though Aug. 20, nearly 8,000 veterans and almost as many spouses - members of the VFW Ladies' Auxiliary - will hold their annual convention at the Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center, filling downtown hotels, crowding restaurants and taking the Cincinnati Reds up on their discount ticket offer for Saturday night's Reds-Padres game.
Mostly, though, they will be shuttling back and forth between assembly halls and conference rooms in the convention center, doing what they came here to do - setting the legislative agenda for an organization whose lobbying arm is one of the strongest voices for veterans on Capitol Hill.
The VFW convention delegates will act on dozens of resolutions on subjects as diverse as support for "traditional marriage,'' POW-MIA issues, military pay and increasing Navy shipbuilding.
But the overriding issue for the veterans is health care and the state of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital system.
The VFW doesn't endorse in presidential elections, but Kerry is expected to discuss health-care issues. The Ohio Democratic Party confirmed Monday that Kerry will attend Aug. 18.
"Groups like the VFW are the best friends the VA has,'' Furgess said. "They depend on veterans organizations to be out there lobbying and speaking out on behalf of more resources for veterans' health care.''
The resolutions on health care and other issues that are passed at the Cincinnati convention, Furgess said, will be "the set of instructions our lobbyists use when they go to Congress.''
The VFW's current commander, Edward Banas, a Vietnam veteran from Connecticut, laid out veterans' concerns in his March testimony before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees in Washington.
"There are thousands of veterans who have been waiting well over six months for basic health-care appointments,'' Banas told the legislators.
"Other veterans must wait over a year for specialized health-care appointments. There are millions of veterans who are completely excluded from the system because they make above a paltry income threshold.''
The VFW was unhappy with the budget proposed by the Bush administration this year, which included increased co-payments and an enrollment fee the VFW said would force many veterans out of the VA health-care system.
Veterans, Banas said, have "already paid for their health care - some with their sweat, some with their blood.''
Last month, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would provide $30.3 billion for health care - $1.2 billion more than Bush proposed. And, to the approval of the VFW and other veterans' organizations, it did away with the enrollment fees and higher co-payments the administration wanted.
While some veterans in Greater Cincinnati are concerned about the VA health-care system being squeezed by federal budgets that don't keep up with the increase in VA hospitals' patient load, they have few complaints about the treatment they receive at Cincinnati's VA Medical center.
"I think I've got one of the best doctors in the U.S.,'' said Jesse Willingham of Sycamore Township, a Purple Heart veteran of the Korean War.
Jesse Willingham of Sycamore Township, is a Korean War veteran who served with the 25th Infantry Division. Among the medals he received were the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
(Enquirer photo/GLENN HARTONG)
The bullet wound Willingham suffered in the November 1950 battle of Chosin Reservoir earned him his Purple Heart. But it is the frostbite he suffered in 40-below-zero weather in Korea that caused the steadily increasing nerve damage that he is treated for today.
"I've got 100 percent disability, so I get treated fast,'' Willingham said. "But there are other guys, who may have service-related problems, you have to wait. If you are sick and in pain, you shouldn't have to wait.''
Willingham said he is concerned that the VA's problems of keeping up with its rising number of patients is going to get worse with tens of thousands of Iraq veterans returning home.
"I want the kind of health care I get to be there for them, too,'' Willingham said. "They earned it.''
Furgess agreed that the VFW needs to represent the interests of those who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"That's why we've created outreach programs to assist the families of men and women serving in Iraq,'' Furgess said. "They are our future.''
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