At a rally in Bethlehem, Pa. last week, Cindy McCain spoke about having two sons serving on active duty: "I'm proud of my sons, but let me tell you, the day that Senator Obama cast a vote not to fund my son when he was serving sent a cold chill through my body. I would suggest that Senator Obama change shoes with me for just one day, and see what it means."
Never mind how many drinks are needed to erase the mental image of Barack Obama wearing Cindy McCain's stiletto heels. The fact is -- many military spouses support Obama-Biden, and they were deeply offended by Mrs. McCain's outburst.
Let's fact-check her remark, shall we?
Cindy McCain was referring to a single 2007 Senate vote: Obama voted for a war-spending bill that included language calling for withdrawing troops from Iraq; but later he voted against a version of the same bill because it no longer included the withdrawal language. "We must fund our troops, but we owe them something more," Obama said at the time. "We owe them a clear, prudent plan to relieve them of the burden of policing someone else's civil war."
In other words, Sen. Obama wanted to fund the troops, he just didn't support the flawed military strategy this particular bill would enable. (Previously, Obama had voted YES on at least 10 other war funding bills. For a lengthy list of John McCain's NO votes on military funding, click here.)
"It ruffles our feathers when someone claims that Barack Obama doesn't support the troops, because the Obamas have gone out of their way to understand the military, its families, and its veterans," Stephanie Himel-Nelson, deputy director of outreach for Blue Star Families for Obama, told OffTheBus. "In fact, Michelle Obama has adopted military families as one of her causes."
Would Cindy McCain "Change Shoes" With These Military Wives?
"When millionaires such as Cindy McCain act as if they understand our lives, and the lives of everyday military families and veterans, we get upset," said Himel-Nelson.
Today the number of service men and women forced to deploy over and over again is unprecedented. Loneliness is leading to frayed marriages. Toddlers are just getting to know their parents when -- poof! -- mommy and daddy disappear to serve overseas again. Career paths are falling off track. Household budgets are in disarray.
Imagine what parenting must be like when one spouse keeps bouncing in and out of the picture. "It's a delicate dance," Heidi Goeman, Beaufort, SC told OffTheBus. "Kids change, rules change, and perspectives change while my husband is away. When he returns home, the lay of the land isn't the same." Goeman and her husband have endured four deployments together.
Many children are too young to articulate their response to repeated separations. "Our seven-year-old thought he was at fault for his dad's going away, despite our best efforts to prepare him," said Goeman.
Deployments Are Lasting Longer, Coming Closer Together
Casey Spurr's husband has been deployed three times. "Mostly I find myself saying 'I wish your daddy was here' when I really, really need to take a break, or when our son lets out a big belly laugh -- he has the best laugh," said the Virginia Beach, Va. resident. Spurr told OffTheBus, "Obama proposes a Military Family Advisory Board, which I think is long overdue."
The number of Navy and Air Force vets re-deployed to fill gaps in Army units on a one-off basis -- with just a few weeks of combat training -- continues to grow. "The Navy is providing manpower because the Army doesn't have enough troop strength for our front lines," said Vivian Walker, a Navy veteran and military spouse who is using her GI Bill benefits to earn a Ph.D. in public administration and urban policy.
Walker confesses she forgot her wedding anniversary amid the chaos of managing work and family by herself. "A big paper was due, I was trying to find a Halloween costume for our four-year old, my mother was visiting...the list goes on, but I'm not complaining. The only time I get upset is when I feel I have to defend my patriotism if I vote for Obama. I live this war daily. My support for the troops is all-consuming."
Maria Arwitz's husband is a Navy dentist who was onboard the USS Comstock when it delivered a marine corps unit to Afghanistan in 2002. Three years later he was sent to Iceland for 11 months, something that "probably would not have happened if Navy Medicine wasn't stretched so thin," Arwitz told OffTheBus. "He left right after one of our 10-month-old twins underwent heart surgery. It taught me a lot about how strong a military mom has to be with no family around."
Arwitz likes that Obama believes all Americans are entitled to quality health care. "The conditions at Walter Reed Hospital really infuriate me. I feel connected to these troops when they return home -- I shop with their wives at the commissary, my kids play with their kids on the playground. You wouldn't believe what some families are going through," said the Beaufort, SC resident.
The Rub: A Lack Of Honesty From The Bush Administration
Obviously there is a need for some level of military secrecy. But to what degree should families allow themselves to be kept in the dark?
"We want to know that the sacrifices we make are for a reason. That when our family members are in harm's way, they are protected as much as possible. That the leaders who deploy them will bring them home as soon as possible," said Bella Harris, Chesapeake, Va. She is married to a nuclear power officer on board the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier based in Japan. Harris told OffTheBus she admires McCain, but is voting for Obama because "he has a better plan for health care reform, and a more experienced running mate."
Kathy Roth-Douquet, Beaufort, S.C. has lived in six places on three continents since she married a marine corps officer 11 years ago. "Our fourth-grader has attended six schools because of all the moves, but it's a source of pride that we were asked to do something difficult and found the resources to do it," she told OffTheBus. Roth-Douquet is the author of AWOL, a book about the unexcused absence of America's upper classes from military service and how it hurts the country. Recently she co-produced a video featuring military wives for Obama, after co-founding (with Laura Dempsey) a grassroots organization of military families called Blue Star Families for Obama.
All of these women respect McCain for his Vietnam-era service, but they believe Obama has the temperament to safely lead the United States out of the quagmire in the Middle East. "One doesn't have to join the military to serve their country -- nor does serving in the military necessarily qualify one to be president," said Walker. They trust Obama to use diplomacy, not just military might.
For The Record, Mrs. McCain...
The non-partisan group Disabled American Veterans gives John McCain a 20 percent rating for his voting record on veterans' issues. (It gives Barack Obama an 80 percent rating.)
The non-partisan group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America gives McCain a "D" grade for his voting record on issues such as additional funding for combat body armor, and additional funding for post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical treatment. (Obama earned a B +.)