Some veterans wary of GOP frontrunners’ tough talk on foreign policy


In this Jan. 8 file photo, Republican presidential candidates, Newt Gingrich, right, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas participate in the Republican presidential candidate debate in Concord, N.H. The ghosts of the Vietnam War are rearing their heads as GOP presidential candidates fight for position in the primary elections. Vietnam veteran Paul has called Gingrich a "chicken hawk," asserting in Saturday's GOP candidate debate that Gingrich shirked military service himself and so shouldn't have the power to send others to war. Gingrich answered that he simply "wasn't eligible" to go. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 7:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 7:44 p.m.

JACKSONVILLE — After spending two tours in Iraq and losing two friends in combat, Army veteran John Fails listens with skepticism to the tough foreign policy talk coming from the GOP presidential frontrunners.

“Every deployment has a cost,” said the 27-year-old, who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and now studies public policy at the University of North Florida.

From covert operations against Cuba to confronting Iran over nuclear weapons, the Republican candidates — with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul — are largely pushing a hawkish approach to conflicts overseas.

In the past, such bellicose talk may have been guaranteed to win over support in this generally conservative region, with a heavy concentration of retired and active duty service members.

But Fails and other veterans interviewed on the campaign trail expressed the weariness of a segment of the population asked to bear the brunt of nearly 10 years of war in two countries, conflicts that killed more than 6,000 American soldiers and cost the country at least $1 trillion.

Florida has 19 military bases — including the Central Command for Iraq and Afghanistan — and more than 1.6 million veterans, so perceptions about who would make the best commander in chief can play a big role in presidential contests. Veterans’ support helped seal Sen. John McCain’s victory in the state’s 2008 Republican primary.

Many Florida veterans are protective of the armed forces and wary of defense cuts, especially in a state where the military has a significant economic impact.

Yet some — most noticeably among the 233,000 state residents who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — oppose expanding American operations overseas and worry about aggressive stances that might draw the country into future conflicts.

Military and defense questions have largely taken a back seat to economic concerns in the primary contest so far, but frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are starting to court military voters more aggressively. Gingrich spoke to a veterans group on Thursday in Jacksonville and Romney visits Pensacola today for a veterans rally near the U.S. Navy’s main flight school.

But the candidate who seems to attract the most fervent and devoted veteran following is Paul, who brags that he collects more donations from military members than any other candidate in advocating a dramatically less interventionist foreign policy.

Paul opened Thursday’s CNN debate in Jacksonville by calling for a “foreign policy based on strength that rejects the notion we should be the policemen of the world.”

Soldiers such as Carlton Maddox of Jacksonville have been watching the Republican debates with apprehension, worried that some of the more confrontational proposals could lead to full-blown conflicts in places like Iran.

“The longer we’re over there, the more people we kill and the more enemies we make,” said the 21-year-old Army Reserve member, who wore military fatigues and a “Veterans for Ron Paul” shirt on Thursday to protest Gingrich during the former U.S. House speaker’s speech at the veterans event.

Gingrich has been particularly forceful, calling for covert operations against Cuba earlier in the week. During the Veterans for a Strong America forum on Thursday, Gingrich said he would “design a strategy that would stop the Iranians from coming into our hemisphere.”

Gingrich cited “radical Islamists” as the country’s most immediate threat. He told the crowd that he is concerned about Islamic groups taking over Egypt, Libya and Turkey.

“As you look around, you have to take very seriously how big the problem is — much bigger than Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.

Romney has been less outspoken on foreign policy, but during the CNN debate on Thursday he advocated using “every resource we have short of military action” to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba and he slammed President Barack Obama for “reaching out” to “the world’s worst actors,” including Vladimir Putin in Russia, Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.

But while the frontrunners’ stances may play well with some primary voters, they did not have much support among the young soldiers studying at the University of North Florida’s veterans center this week.

Fails found comfort among his fellow soldiers at the center after his experience in Iraq brought on a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder. The death of his sergeant was particularly hard to take.

“He reminds me of why foreign policy is so important,” said Fails, who now strongly advocates “diplomacy before military action, patience before raised fists.”

Questions about defense spending cuts also resonate with veterans. Many discharged service members are struggling to find work.

Frank Gaffney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and founder of the American Center for Security Policy, told 200 people gathered at the Veterans for a Strong America forum that Florida would lose 40,000 jobs and $2.3 billion in economic activity from the 12 percent defense cut included in a deficit reduction deal this summer.

The Obama administration announced plans this week to decrease troop levels by 100,000 and enact $487 billion in defense cuts over the next decade.

Romney is pledging to expand military spending by at least 4 percent and add 100,000 active duty soldiers to make deployments shorter. Gingrich also wants to increase military spending, quipping on Thursday that “you can’t be the arsenal of democracy if you don’t have an arsenal.”

Navy air crewman Jeremy Ragon, 32, said more military money should be spent at home and less overseas. Eating lunch outside Naval Station Mayport in Jackonville, Ragon said he is being involuntarily discharged because of the force reductions after nearly 10 years of service.

“We don’t need more widows,” he said. “Bring back our boys and build up the economy here.”

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