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Wellstone Was a True Champion of War Heroes
Published on Tuesday, October 26, 2004 by the St. Paul Pioneer Press
Wellstone Was a True Champion of War Heroes
by Laura Billings
 

Though he was known for his passionate, arm-flapping speaking style, Sen. Paul Wellstone was unusually reserved when he explained his vote against the Iraq war resolution two years ago.

"The United States should unite the world against Saddam, and not allow him to unite forces against us," he said.

Cautious in his rhetoric, he was clearly conscious of what the vote could cost him. The only senator in a tight race for re-election to go against the tide, he told his wife, Sheila, "This could be the end."

As we now know, the end came much sooner, just 10 days before the election, when he and his wife, his daughter, Marcia, and campaign staffers Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic and Will McLaughlin died when their plane crashed near Eveleth, Minn.

Two years ago this week was a time of such rage and raw emotion that this state has still not fully recovered. And yet, seen from the perspective that time allows, the late senator's concerns about the war, and the people we've sent to fight it, seem remarkably courageous, and even prescient.

Wellstone believed a costly missile defense system would be no match against terrorists willing to kill themselves for their cause, as insurgents in Iraq remind us nearly every day. He worried that the war resolution would turn into a blank check for hawks in the Bush administration, now desperate to spin their obvious failures as "catastrophic success."

And Wellstone feared what awaited the men and women in our armed forces, more than 1,000 of whom have since died in the conflict. Nine of them from Minnesota now tragically qualify, as what Rep. John Kline might call them, as "real war heroes.''

Kline, along with fellow Republican representatives, Mark Kennedy and Gil Gutknecht, is now fighting to keep Wellstone's name off the Fort Snelling Veterans Affairs Medical Center. A bill to honor the senator, who served on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was introduced last year and supported by such groups as AM Vets, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Vets, as well as Wellstone's successor, Sen. Norm Coleman.

But Kline says a senator who "couldn't find his way to supporting defense budgets" doesn't deserve to have his name on the VA. Without unanimous support from Minnesota's delegation, the bill can't go forward.

Perhaps we should forgive Kline, a first-term congressman, for so misunderstanding and misrepresenting Wellstone's record on defense and veterans issues. After all, veterans groups that were enraged during Wellstone's first term, when he held a news conference at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, forgave him, and came to see him as one of their fiercest defenders.

Always a champion of making mental health care more accessible, Wellstone strove to get treatment for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His "Justice for Atomic Veterans" amendment in 1999 removed hurdles that kept veterans exposed to radiation during military service from getting the disability compensation they deserved.

In April 2001, he won an amendment on the budget to increase veterans' health care by $1.7 billion more than President Bush's proposal and redirected $17 billion from the Bush tax cut over 10 years to health care for veterans.

And he stood in the way of veterans funding when it didn't serve service men and women, as it should. When one funding package came attached with the pharmaceutical industry's demand to extend the patent on a drug for seniors, one that would have prevented them from receiving lower-cost generic drugs, Wellstone tied it up until the extension was removed.

By the time he was running for his third term, veterans groups rose to defend him when Republican attack ads suggested Wellstone was "not fighting for them." When it came to getting the best health care and benefits for veterans, Richard Burgling, a past president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said of Wellstone, "His record is impeccable."

Sadly, it is no surprise in an election year to see candidates try to rewrite history — or even a fallen senator's record — for their own political gain.

But there are many of us in Minnesota who will not soon forget a senator who knew that honoring our "real war heroes" meant defending them long after they returned home.

© 2004 Pioneer Press

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