IN the midst of the hubbub over Dan Quayle's service with the National Guard, many Americans - and many American veterans - have missed a chance to ask the Indiana senator an all-important question: If he's one of us, then why doesn't he vote that way? In the immediate aftermath of his selection as the Republicans' nominee for vice-president, Senator Quayle attempted to deflect criticism of his decision to join the National Guard by telling reporters that he had great affection for Vietnam veterans. He said he would never forget the sacrifices of his fellow Hoosiers who fought and died in the war. That despite his decision to ``sit out'' the Vietnam conflict, he felt a deep bond with those who served. He even noted that he was ``fond'' of veterans.
Yet every time the Indiana senator has had a chance to show just how deep his fondness goes, he's dropped the ball. During his tenure as US senator, Mr. Quayle has consistently voted against Vietnam veterans, rejecting our claims that Vietnam veterans have special needs that demand national recognition. Most recently, on a critical test vote, Quayle voted against a veteran's right to sue the Veterans Administration in federal court over compensation and benefits claims. The issue - supported by the vast majority of the Vietnam Veterans in Congress caucus - is seen as a litmus test. The legislation has passed the Senate five times (but has failed in the House), despite Quayle's objections.
Quayle's stand on other Vietnam veterans' issues is just as suspect. When the Senate decided to vote an emergency supplemental appropriation to help homeless Vietnam veterans - a legislative proposal put forward by members of his own party - Quayle was apparently golfing. In addition, he most recently voted against upgrading the VA to a Cabinet-level position, on a bill that is supported by nearly every American veteran. More disturbing still, he has refused to stand with his Senate colleagues on the issue of awarding compensation to veterans poisoned by the Agent Orange defoliant - an issue that gained bipartisan Senate support.
As president of Vietnam Veterans of America - the largest organization of Vietnam veterans in the nation - I note with particular pride our success in persuading Congress to establish readjustment counseling centers. These centers have helped thousands of Vietnam veterans reacclimate themselves to civilian life. The program has been consistently endorsed by Congress. But not by Quayle - who decided to vote against its extension when it was under fire.
No one doubts that those who served in the National Guard were, and are, patriotic Americans. That's not the issue - it never has been. Nor does anyone suppose that young Americans of that era, now old enough to hold national elective office, were united in support of the war. The deep divisions sparked by that conflict are being healed by Vietnam veterans who understand that honorable choices can be made by people of principle.
Those who supported the war, who believed that citizenship brought obligations, acted on their beliefs by serving their country in Vietnam, while those who opposed the war evidenced their opposition by protesting our involvement. Some made the most difficult choice: becoming estranged from their families and communities by going to jail. Quayle didn't make either choice; he decided he was for the war, but wouldn't fight.
I served in Vietnam at the height of the war and know the face of combat. I have seen how war can cripple, maim, and kill. I have seen the agonizing residue of that conflict on the faces of Vietnam veterans from across the nation. And I have seen how even an ambiguous cause can produce noble Americans, dedicated to helping their communities, building families, and enriching our nation.
More than two decades after the beginning of America's most divisive conflict I am proud that the members of our generation, whether they served or not, are still standing up for their principles. For those of us who cherish these ideals the question is not where Dan Quayle was then, but where he is now.
Mary Stout, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in Vietnam as an Army nurse.