On a gray Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill Sen. John McCain addressed several hundred members of Vets for Freedom — the largest Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ organizations in the country. In DC’s upper Senate Park, McCain and other pro-victory Senators and Congressmen rallied for success in Iraq.
The event was timed to support the same day U.S. Commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker returned to Washington to present their latest progress reports.
Washington was one of VFF’s last stops in the three-week National Heroes Tour, on which members spoke to and encouraged crowds in key U.S. cities not to submit to defeat in Iraq by pulling out troops without respect for the certain consequences.
Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and seven-year former POW in Vietnam with McCain, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), crowded the stage behind Executive Director Pete Hegseth, a former Army Captain and Co-Founder David Bellavia, a former Army Staff Sergeant, as they introduced the politically star-studded lineup of speakers.
Hegseth quoted McCain’s familiar line that he would “rather win a war than a campaign” and commended the leaders on stage for “dar[ing] to whisper victory” when it was unpopular. Bellavia spoke briefly, calling Sen. McCain, “the real audacity of hope.”
As Gen. Petraeus prepared to speak a few doors away, McCain stepped onto the VFF stage to demonstrate support for the men and women with whom he shares so much as a combat veteran of an unpopular war.
McCain first spoke of one of the most “moving experiences” he’s had, when, last year he attended a July 4 event where hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans pledged to re-enlist together and support the War on Terror and victory overseas.
He said Gen. Petraeus was one of America’s greatest and that America will “never surrender to extremists…”
“No one hates…or detests war more than the veteran,” said McCain. "No one knows the sacrifices more than the veteran — but the veteran knows the consequences of defeat mean a greater sacrifice.”
Clothed in the signature tan and green Vets for Freedom polo shirts, VFF members held “Peace through Victory” and “General Hooray Us” signs and cheered as ardent VFF supporter Sen. Joe Lieberman took the microphone.
Lieberman, often McCain’s sidekick at campaign events, said McCain was “our leader in this fight for freedom against Islamic extremism” and told audience members not to “underestimate the contribution you’ve made on the political battlefield here at home.”
The speakers focused in on winning the war in Washington in order to enable victory in Iraq. At a lunch briefing later in the day, Bellavia mentioned that, “Democrat leadership won’t see us.” He maintained that when the Democrats do agree to meet, a “threat” will suddenly come up or they are sent to “meet with a 15-year-old intern” instead.
Lieberman was followed by Sen. Lindsay Graham, often McCain’s right hand man in the Senate and on the campaign trail as well. Graham applauded the efforts of VFF and declared that “the only thing between the US and a winning outcome in Iraq is the Congress.”
Graham reminded listeners that al-Qaeda and Iran want the troops to come home more than anyone else but, “We’re going to leave behind an Iraq that makes America safer” instead.
The lone Democrat on the stage was Sen. Jim Marshall (Ga.), who thanked VFF for doing their duty “to help us through this” and said US troops in Iraq were a successful “effort to secure us…from a threat that is very real.”
Sen. Kit Bond, ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said anyone who does not think Iraq is a center front in the War on Terror is not paying attention.
“We have to convince these doubting Thomas’s in the House and Senate who don’t think it can be done,” said Bond, adding the troops will come home only on the heels of success.
As for those individuals who say they “support the troops, but not the war”, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) responded with a letter he received from a deployed soldier who heard that rhetoric in CNN. The soldier wrote, “You can’t be against the war and for me — because I am the damn war.”
“America is free for many reasons,” said Isakson, “but the most important is the American soldier who fights against evil.”
Senators James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) gave comments as well before former U.S. Navy SEAL and VFF member Marcus Luttrell approached the stage.
“The hardest thing about being a veteran…is when I close my eyes at night and see my friends over there still fighting…,” Luttrell said, echoing the sentiments of most veterans who’ve returned to leave their buddies behind.
At the lunch briefing, Bellavia locked on the message of VFF, saying, “No one sober can look at the success [in Iraq]…and say it is not working.”
He argued that political leaders in Congress and the Senate are debating arguments from 2003, “talking points that are meaningless.” He said the same people who “shamed the Vietnam generation” [like Ted Kennedy and John Kerry] are the same people shaming this generation.
Bellavia was confident of a change for the better in politics in the coming years. He said, “2010 will be the 1948 of our generation…we will take the House and the Senate back.”
“We’re gonna take their credibility…put our chips on the table and say, ‘call our bluff,’” Bellavia said.