DES MOINES — Vermont’s Bernie Sanders railed against the Vietnam War. He voted against invading Iraq — both times. He wants to cut the defense budget.
He might not be a friend to the military, but many veterans believe he’s gone to war for them. And that’s why they’re out there cheering for a socialist as he launches a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
There’s the former Marine who drove about six hours to hear Sanders speak in Des Moines. There’s another former Marine, this one a registered Republican, going door-to-door to collect signatures so Sanders’ name will appear on the ballot in Indiana. Entire Reddit threads are dedicated to how veterans can best pitch Sanders to other veterans.
“He is revered,” said Paul Loebe, a 31-year-old who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan during eight years of active duty and spends three hours a day updating a Facebook page promoting Sanders to veterans. “He’s very consistent with where he stands. He’s the first politician that I’ve believed in my life.”
Sanders battled over veterans issues as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee from 2013 until early this year, giving him an easy pitch to a crucial voting bloc of veterans, particularly in South Carolina where veterans make up more than 11 percent of the voting-aged population. There’s stiff competition for these voters, with front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton wooing them this month during a round table in Nevada.
Even the leaders of veterans groups who praise Sanders acknowledge that the 73-year-old Democratic socialist isn’t an obvious champion for the flag-waving set of former military officers and enlistees. When asked if the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which recognized Sanders with its Congressional Award in March, had ever bestowed the honor on a socialist before, the group’s Washington executive director, Bob Wallace chuckled a bit.
“No. No. No,” said Wallace, a man who won three Purple Heart medals during Vietnam. “What you have to do is put aside his other interests.”
Enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders’s populist message is evident with crowds swelling at events and supporters pushing the slogan “Feel the Bern,” a play on the senator’s first name. It’s difficult to know, beyond anecdotal evidence, how much of this support comes from veterans.
Sanders has previously courted veterans as part of an electoral strategy, campaigning in 2006 for Senate with triple-amputee Max Cleland, the former Democratic senator from Georgia and Veterans Affairs administrator. Sanders has done little on the trail to seek out veterans for his 2016 bid.
But veterans interviewed for this story were well versed in Sanders’s record, aware that, as Veterans Affairs chairman, he pushed to restore cost of living raises, expand education opportunities, and add new dental care benefits.
The effort came within a few votes of passing the Senate, but was blocked by Republicans concerned about the $24 billion price tag.
Veterans also credit Sanders for striking a deal with Republicans to pass a smaller — $16 billion — package aimed at erasing the lengthy wait times at veterans hospitals. Passing it earned Sanders top awards from the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Military Officers Association of America.
For Louis Celli, at the American Legion, Sanders’s progressive views make some sense in the context of advocating for veterans’ programs. “Who better than a socialist to advocate for veterans’ health care?” he asked.
Passing the fix showed something else about Sanders: He was willing to make a deal. It’s a notion that runs counter to commonly expressed concern — even among some attendees at Sanders’s rallies — that the senator’s far left views prevent him from working with others.
Last summer, the bill fixing wait times at hospitals appeared to be heading for defeat. Faced with possibility that Congress would adjourn without enacting it, Sanders joined forces with John McCain, the Arizona Republican and GOP presidential nominee in 2008.
Sanders dropped his opposition to a provision that let veterans who live far from VA hospitals use private doctors. In exchange, he got an additional $5 billion to hire more staff and build more facilities, according to a member of Sanders’s staff.
McCain said working with Sanders involved “very stimulating conversations, and the occasional four-letter word.”
“He advocates vigorously for what he believes in, and so do I,” McCain said. “I can’t say it was the most enjoyable experience, but it was certainly one of the most interesting.”
Veterans are a group long courted by politicians. In the early primary states, New Hampshire is home to 113,000 veterans, Iowa has 226,000, Nevada has 227,000 and South Carolina has 392,000 — according to US Census figures.
Clinton held a round table for veterans in Nevada on June 18. She unveiled a detailed plan that would make changes to the GI Bill meant to protect veterans from what her campaign called “deceptive practices” by for-profit colleges and universities who target veterans but fail to provide a quality education.
Clinton, as is her custom at campaign events, didn’t take questions from the audience.
Sanders typically does.
After speech at Drake University, the Vermont senator asked for questions. Tyson Manker was right there in the front row. He stood up, identified himself as a former Marine who drove six hours for the event, and said: “Mr. Sanders, I look forward to the day I can call you Mr. President.”