Vet Groups Proliferate, Along with Agendas The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have spawned some new veterans groups who are in a rebellious mood. One is the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association headed by Paul Rieckoff, who was a lieutenant during the invasion of Iraq. Another is Votevet.org, headed up by Jon Soltz. They have different agendas and different approaches.
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Vet Groups Proliferate, Along with Agendas

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Vet Groups Proliferate, Along with Agendas

Vet Groups Proliferate, Along with Agendas

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Many soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are signing up for a new battle here at home. They're joining groups dedicated to helping today's war veterans.

And as NPR's John McChesney reports, these new groups are doing things a little differently.

JOHN McCHESNEY: Older veterans groups like the VFW and the American Legion have tended to grow more conservative as they've aged. But the country is also seeing some radical upheavals, when veterans have felt cheated or mislead. In 1971, members of the Vietnam Vets Against the War, the VVAW, tossed in their medals at the Pentagon.

Unidentified Man: I'm from upstate New York, and I'd like to turn in my bronze star and two purple hearts. I lost my leg in Vietnam. I totally oppose this war we're carrying on over there.

McCHESNEY: Thirty-six years later, a new group of vets are leading a very different kind of protest. They're the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, or IAVA, lead by Paul Rieckhoff.

Mr. PAUL RIECKHOFF (Executive Director and Founder, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association): I don't think that this generation of veterans is as radical as past generations, politically. They're not as willing or interested in actually marching in the streets. I think it's evolved. You've got veterans who were running for Congress. The Internet has dramatically changed the way we mobilize and organize and advocate.

McCHESNEY: Rieckhoff took part in the invasion of Iraq as a first lieutenant platoon commander. This group now claims to have around 60,000 members across the country. Riekchoff maintains a diplomatic stance toward the older vets groups like the VFW.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Well, there was really nobody representing our generation of veterans. There were older veterans groups out there and they were doing good work, but nobody who was representing the troops on the ground and the newest generation of veterans who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. So there was a void.

McCHESNEY: Rieckhoff says his organization is not against the war in Iraq, only the way its poor execution has affected the men and women fighting in it. And although some say IAVA leans left, Rieckhoff says that's not true of his membership.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Politically, they're very diverse. We've got Republicans, Democrats and everything in between. Most of our members I think consider themselves independents right now.

McCHESNEY: Rieckhoff says the IAVA's legislative priorities for this year are veterans' mental health care, and a new GI bill that would cover the actual cost of college. Another group to grow out of the war in Iraq is VoteVets.org. It's headed up by Jon Soltz, who's served in Kosovo and Iraq, and is still in the Army Reserve. He makes no bones about his organization's opposition to the Bush administration's policies.

Mr. JON SOLTZ (VoteVets.org): Well, we're critical of the war in Iraq. And we endorse the Democratic proposals that were in Congress last week. We spent a half a million dollars - over a half a million dollars lobbying on its behalf. You know, we're a very highly well-financed organization.

McCHESNEY: Unlike IAVA, VoteVets is a political action committee, and one of its primary goals is getting Iraq veterans elected to Congress. And at times, that puts them at odds with old vets groups, like the VFW. That's what happened when Iraq veteran Tammy Duckworth ran for Congress in Illinois in the last election.

Mr. SOLTZ: When the Veterans of Foreign Wars endorses Tammy Duckworth's opponent, who is one of our endorsed candidate - she lost both of her legs in Iraq; when they endorsed Pete Roskam, who has never served in the military, and Tammy Duckworth's a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and I'm a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, it's appalling to the new veterans.

McCHESNEY: Joe Davis, the VFW spokesman in Washington, claims that his century-old organization welcomes the newcomers, even though they have their differences.

Mr. JOE DAVIS (Spokesman, Veterans of Foreign Wars): The more people you bring to the fight from the different organizations - we're, you know, basically representing veterans from all the wars - it helps.

McCHESNEY: Davis says he thinks most vets groups will unite behind expensive new legislation to give more help to wounded veterans and to increase their educational benefits.

John McChesney, NPR News.

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