Gwen Graham and Pat Schroeder talk with vets

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Twelve combat veterans held a roundtable discussion Thursday with 2nd District Congressional candidate Gwen Graham. Veterans from the Vietnam conflict and the Iraqi and Afghanistan invasions discussed the physical and mental needs of combat veterans, service men and women on food stamps and military sexual assault trauma with Graham and former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, and here.

Although the campaigns for Congressman Steve Southerland and Democratic challenger Graham have polls indicating each has a lead, national pundits rate the race a tossup. Both national parties and respective affiliated groups have blanketed the broadcast airwaves in the district with attack ads.

The vets discussed their dealings with the Veterans’ Administration health care system and linked dysfunction in that system to partisan bickering in Congress over how the country spends money.

Two of the vets came to the meeting prepared to discuss encounters with Southerland’s office over votes that led to spending cuts to the food stamp program and veterans’ benefits; and the government shutdown last year over budget negotiations – the vets’ benefits were suspended.

Wilson Barnes who served with the 101 st Airborne Division at Khe Sanh, Vietnam said it appears Congress is more focused on the national debt than it is on doing what is right for veterans.

“It is important to get leadership that is more astute and puts it (policies) in context. What’s it doing to children, old people, young veterans who don’t have jobs,” said Barnes. “When the right-wing wants to send us to war, you guys are great, you’re very patriotic. But when we get maimed, and our families are suffering it’s too expensive.  That’s my frustration as a Vietnam veteran.”

The comment fell in line with Graham’s talking points about Southerland voting record not representing “north Florida values.” Southerland has challenged Graham’s characterization of his record on veteran’s issues and has run ads with veterans touting their support for him.

Graham told the vets that Congress needs new leadership and if elected she would support neither Rep. Nancy Pelosi nor current Speaker John Boehner to lead the House. She repeated her explanation from the Tiger Bay debate that both are too polarizing of figures who politicize any topic they comment on.

Schroeder represented Colorado in Congress for 24 years, until 1996. She recalled serving with Sen. Bob Graham, “what a wonderful family,” and former 2-nd District Congressman Pete Peterson, a Vietnam POW who flipped the district from Republican to Democrat in 1990 when he defeated Rep. Bill Grant.

Schroder, now a resident of Celebration, said she thinks Graham is cut from the same cloth as Peterson.

“Pete was an independent thinker and didn’t march to the tune of whatever his leadership played” said Schroeder pivoting to a Graham endorsement. “I remember Pete and I would to see North Florida turn a little purple and send a little more compassion up there (Congress).”