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N.M. vets bash Bush's record on benefits

"I see firsthand the lack of support associated with (Bush) budget cuts. I've had two supervisors leave and neither has been replaced. They just consolidate the positions and absorb the budget. And those people over there are not taking coffee breaks. They're backed up."
The Albuquerque Tribune, June 5, 2004

Launching their campaign in Albuquerque's Bataan Memorial Park, New Mexico Veterans for John Kerry attacked President Bush's record on veterans benefits.

The organization charged Friday that Bush has cut support for men and women in the armed services since taking office and plans to make even deeper cuts in those programs if he wins re-election in November.

"I hate to see others such as myself lose the support of the American people through budget cuts," said John McWaters during Friday's rally. McWaters is a state coordinator of Veterans for Kerry and a veteran who was wounded in the Vietnam War. "I'm quite concerned that if the next administration is Republican, it will take from veterans benefits to fund tax cuts and war agendas."

Besides McWaters, those speaking in support of Kerry included City Councilor Eric Griego, Albuquerque physician and Air Force veteran Ken Harper and disabled Vietnam War veteran Jim Buhaug.

About 70 people attended the rally, at least 30 of them Bush supporters who mostly stood silently and held GOP campaign signs.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, an Army veteran and chairman of the Bernalillo County Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, headed the Bush faction at the park.

White said veterans programs in the Bush administration are providing a better quality of life for veterans and their families.

"The president's record on veterans affairs speaks for itself," he said. "And in the war on terror and homeland defense, the president has provided strong leadership."

But McWaters, who volunteers at the mental health section of Albuquerque's Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said his own experience at the VA hospital suggests the Bush administration does not support veterans.

"I see firsthand the lack of support associated with (Bush) budget cuts," McWaters said. "I've had two supervisors leave and neither has been replaced. They just consolidate the positions and absorb the budget. And those people over there are not taking coffee breaks. They're backed up."

Speaking from Washington, D.C., Sen. Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican and member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that sets the VA budget, said President Bush requested $697 million for benefits and services for New Mexican veterans for fiscal year 2005, a 6.8 percent increase over 2004.

"Claims that President Bush or this Congress have been inattentive to the needs of our veterans are simply not true," Domenici said. "We have provided steady increases for veterans benefits in New Mexico and across the nation and that trend will continue when fiscal year 2005 appropriations are set."

The Kerry camp, however, said it fears that if Bush is re-elected his administration will slash all domestic programs in 2006, including as much as $900 million from VA programs, in part to make up for increases in the 2005 budget aimed at garnering votes.

Kerry supporters charge, among other things, that health care premiums have doubled on Bush's watch and that the president has offered no plan for reducing them.

"The Bush administration is sweeping aside the issue of affordable health care for veterans because it is spending so much money outside the country," Harper said. "We are not honoring our veterans. And it's not only the veterans. It is trickling down to the rest of the population."

Tribune Washington correspondent James W. Brosnan contributed to this story.

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