UNION CITY, Calif. – Republican John McCain said Thursday that Democrat Barack Obama had no right to criticize McCain’s position on military scholarships because the Illinois senator did not serve in uniform.
“And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did,” the Arizona senator said in a harshly worded statement issued Thursday.
McCain lashed out at Obama’s personal history despite Obama’s repeated praise of McCain’s military service. As Obama said Tuesday night in Des Moines, Iowa: “We face an opponent, John McCain, who arrived in Washington nearly three decades ago as a Vietnam War hero, and earned an admirable reputation for straight talk and occasional independence from his party.”
McCain was a Navy fighter pilot who was shot down and spent nearly six years as a Vietnam prisoner of war. At age 46, Obama is too young to have been drafted or fought in Vietnam. Direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War officially ended in 1973, the same year the military draft was ended and replaced by an all-volunteer military.
At issue is an expansion of the GI Bill that would guarantee full college scholarships for those who serve in the military for three years. The Democrat-led Senate passed the measure, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and supported by Obama, on Thursday by a 75-22 vote as 25 Republicans abandoned President Bush, who opposed it.
Obama and his rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, returned to Washington for the vote. McCain stayed in California to campaign and raise money.
McCain opposes the measure, as does the Pentagon, out of concern that providing such a benefit after only three years of service would encourage people to leave the military after completing only one enlistment even as the U.S. fights two wars and is trying to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps. In particular, McCain said he worries it would reduce the number of noncommissioned officers.
Instead, McCain and Republican colleagues proposed a bill to increase benefits in conjunction with a veteran’s length of service. Senate Democrats blocked the measure last week.
“I want to encourage people to stay in the military and make a career of it,” McCain said at an airport rally later in the day in Stockton. “And someone who’s never served may not understand the absolute, vital importance of the noncommissioned officer.
“I don’t need anyone to tell me what veterans need,” he added. “I know them.”
He also joked about Obama’s lack of experience as the crowd of about 400 laughed.
“For a young man with very little experience, he’s done very well, so I appreciate that with his very great lack of experience and knowledge of the issues, he’s been very successful,” McCain said.