Staunton: Vets speak out for Obama

Story by Chris Graham

Seth Lovell and his twin brother, Eli, thought they had a creative way to pay for college. They signed up for the Virginia National Guard as high-school seniors, the idea being that the tuition assistance would take a load off their mother, who had just been diagnosed with cancer.

A week after he returned from basic training in 2004, the Wilson Memorial High School graduate and Staunton resident was deployed to Afghanistan and served for a year before returning to college. He was surprised and dismayed to see the level of education assistance had dropped significantly in the meantime.

“To see benefits going backwards instead of going forwards, especially when I gave up a year of my life to serve my country, it was disheartening,” said Lovell, who was sent to Iraq in 2007 for another year on the front lines and is now back in school at James Madison University.

Lovell became an interested political observer and then participant in the interregnum, backing U.S. Sen. Jim Webb in his 2006 campaign and laying the groundwork for getting involved in the 2008 presidential process.

“I love America, and I am proud to be American, and I believe that we can do better. And I believe that on the world stage, we should not be losing respect, we should be gaining respect,” said Lovell, who took part in a tour of Western Virginia by a group known as Virginia Veterans for Obama that made a campaign stop in Staunton on Tuesday.

A military couple from Northern Virginia was with Lovell in Staunton to talk up their support for Obama. Brian McGough and Kayla Williams met while on respective tours of duty in Iraq and have struggled together in the aftermath of McGough’s battlefield injuries that put him in Walter Reed Hospital as an inpatient and then outpatient for more than two years. The experience pushed both out of the military and turned them into activists and advocates on behalf of better treatment for military veterans.

“I was shocked to see that he wasn’t getting the care that he needed. And I came to realize that just as this administration was not prepared to handle the occupation of Iraq, they were also unprepared to deal with the volume of severely injured service members coming home, and there was not a plan in place to take care of them, especially those with mental-health problems and traumatic brain injuries,” said Williams, an Arabic interpreter and author of a book about her time in the military, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army.

McGough said he knew the people in charge at Walter Reed “wanted to do more. They requested to have things fixed. They requested to have more doctors, more case managers. They were told that they didn’t have the money. The vote to get them more money was shot down so they could keep tax breaks for people who make over a million dollars,” McGough said.

As the couple struggled to get the proper medical care, Williams began doing some research into the politics of what was going on behind what she and her husband were dealing with, and she was “devastated,” she said, when she heard that John McCain, himself a disabled veteran, had repeatedly voted against increased funding for the Veterans Administration.

“While we were struggling to get my husband the care that he needed, we actually sought help at one point in the civilian sector, thinking that was a way around the problem. And the civilian doctors said, We don’t know how to deal with you. We don’t know anything about blast injuries. You need to deal with the VA. You need to deal with people who know how to treat blast injuries,” Williams said.
“The military culture really encourages stoicism. Suck it up and drive on. It’s very hard to say, I can’t do this by myself. It’s very hard to say, I’m struggling to cope. To take that leap and reach out and seek help and say, I need help with my mental-health issues, I need help to get through this, that’s hard enough. Sen. McCain’s plan to bypass the VA and send people trying to reach out for help into a system with people who have no idea how to deal with combat trauma would make that experience even harder,” Williams said.

Barack Obama, meantime, has consistently supported increased funding for VA programs and was an early supporter of the Post-9/11 GI Bill that expands educational benefits for servicemembers like Williams, who returned to graduate school after finishing up her service in the Army, and Lovell, who is finishing up his work at JMU.

Lovell, Williams and McGough all three back Obama for an additional reason.

“Sen. Obama has shown time and time again that he has the leadership and the judgment to be our commander-in-chief. That’s why I’m proud to support him. That leadership and that judgment helped us usher in a new era in Iraq. We will be able to responsibly redeploy our troops from Iraq within 16 months and focus where the real Al Qaeda is growing to pre-9/11 strength right now, which is along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” McGough said.

“As somebody who is a recent service member, I believe that Sen. Obama is someone who has the leadership and the judgment to be the right commander-in-chief for our country,” Williams said. “It upsets me greatly to learn that we’re sending $10 billion a month to Iraq while Iraq has a $79 billion surplus and we are facing grave financial problems here in this country. Sen. Obama has the right plan to responsibly redeploy our combat forces from Iraq in conjunction with military leaders on the ground and the sovereign, elected government of Iraq, and then we will be able to refocus our attention on Afghanistan, which is the real central front in the war on terror,” Williams said.

“This tough talk that John McCain wants to pretend is going to work with Russia and Iran, I don’t think that’s going to gain us respect. And when he says it’s too dangerous for us to sit down with other nations and discuss our problems, I just disagree,” Lovell said. “Sen. Obama has said before, and I’m going to quote him, because it’s a great point, he said, We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate. Sitting down with other countries and trying to prevent unnecessary wars in the future like Iraq, how is that dangerous? I spent two years in harm’s way, and I’m not anxious to go back. That’s why I support Barack Obama. I think Barack Obama is what this country needs right now. We don’t just need a new face in Washington. We need a new direction,” Lovell said.

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