Veterans will help elect Democrat John Kerry because he was a hero in combat while President Bush's costly missteps in Iraq show he doesn't understand war, ex-Sen. Max Cleland said Friday.
"John Kerry takes war seriously because he has been there," Cleland said at a Reno news conference flanked by 40 Nevada veterans for Kerry.
"None of the people who planned this war ever knew war or ever went to war, but they are darned eager to send others to war. And now they've got us in this terrible mess," said the Georgia Democrat who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War.
"Why do you go into Iraq and three weeks later declare victory? He (Bush) did not understand what he was getting into. He said, `Bring `em on.' And they brought them on. And now about 1,000 kids have been killed."
"This is Vietnam all over again," Cleland said.
Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., the only member of Congress to have served in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, said Cleland's criticism was out of line.
"Angry attacks from the left about this president's veteran's record are baseless in nature, and America's veterans deserve more than negative rhetoric from their leaders," Gibbons said in a statement.
"President Bush understands that veterans have helped shape the American character and their service represents the highest form of patriotism," he said.
Cleland, 61, the national co-chairman of Kerry's campaign who served in the Senate from 1996 to 2002, said he's convinced Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq.
"Every indication was he basically concluded his daddy was a failed president and one of the reasons he failed was he didn't take out Saddam Hussein," Cleland told reporters.
Kerry has committed "to make sure this country never goes to war because it wants to, but only because it has to," Cleland said. "War is too grisly of an event to go at the whim of anyone - any one president or any one leader."
Cleland said Bush made the decision to invade Iraq over the objections of seasoned military leaders in the Pentagon and Gen. Colin Powell.
"He didn't listen to them. He listened to people like Dick Cheney, who got five deferments and never went to Vietnam at all."
The Bush-Cheney campaign referred calls seeking comment to a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
"While no one questions Sen. Kerry and Max Cleland's patriotism, their irresponsible attacks on the president masks their lack of understanding of the strategy in fighting this war," spokesman Yier Shi said from Washington.
Kerry "is the same senator who voted for the war, who authorized the war but not the funding for the troops," Shi said. "It is campaign politics."
Cleland said Kerry would bring NATO ground troops to Iraq to help reduce demands on the U.S. military.
"You cannot stop it unless you take the target off the backs of American soldiers, which John wants to do by bringing in muddy boots from NATO," he said. "NATO won't come in because George Bush dissed them. We won't be able to get NATO in there until we get a new president."
Cleland continued his campaign with an appearance Friday in Las Vegas. On Saturday he was to participate with other veterans at a parade in Boulder City.
In his travels around the country, Cleland said he's witnessing growing support for Kerry as war lingers in Iraq.
"Veterans and military retirees and military families have a concern about the direction this country is going that is deep and very profound," he said.
"Now, the president is dipping not only into guard and reserve, but calling up inactive reserves - the people who already have been to Iraq," he said.
"This is a backdoor draft," he said.
Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who served in Vietnam, was among the 40 veterans who joined Cleland. He said he's hearing more and more people asking, "What's this war worth?"
"It's one thing at the very beginning to go after Saddam Hussein. But as you start to see the casualties pile up, I think people are going to start to wonder about whether we should be there in the first place," Melendez said.
Cleland said Kerry is the only presidential candidate calling for mandatory funding of the Veterans Affairs health care system and who wants veterans to be allowed to receive disability benefits at the same time they draw their military retirement. He said Bush is "closing VA hospitals in the middle of a shooting war."
Gibbons said that under President Bush's leadership, the Department of Veterans Affairs has developed a plan to modernize health care facilities nationally, including building a new medical center in Las Vegas.