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.
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."
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.''
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.
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.
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
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