MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Gov. Scott Walker touts all he has done for Wisconsin’s veterans since taking office more than three years ago, making it a focus of his re-election efforts as he frequents events around the state with service members.
But some veterans say Walker’s refusal to pardon a decorated Iraqi war veteran and support for legislation they oppose show he doesn’t have their true interests in mind, an argument that could tarnish the image he presents to patriotic conservatives.
Jason Johns, an Iraqi combat veteran, Republican lobbyist for veterans groups and a former deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs under Walker, said veterans who previously wouldn’t think twice about voting for Walker now aren’t so sure.
“It’s causing people to pause and really look at it,” Johns said. “Before it was really easy to say he’s nothing but positive for veterans.”
Walker’s expected Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, has tried to exploit Walker’s record on veterans’ issues.
“It just seems to me like Walker is far too willing to make decisions that adversely impact the brave men and women who’ve served our country,” Burke said in a statement.
Walker, who declared 2012 the “year of the veteran,” has done plenty to please former service members, bolstering staff at veterans homes, investing millions to help shore up a trust fund benefiting veterans and offering incentives to help ex-military members find a job or start a business. Other legislation allowed veterans to use military education, training and other experiences to fulfill requirements for professional credentials.
“As governor my priority has been putting the needs of Wisconsin’s veterans ahead of politics and petty partisan differences,” Walker said on his website.
But veterans say that’s not always true. Walker upset members of the three groups representing more than 100,000 veterans in March by quietly signing a bill that veterans said would hurt the ability of cancer victims to recover damages in court after falling ill from asbestos exposure.
In 2012, he repealed a 2009 law that had expanded the rights of veterans and other protected groups, including women and minorities, to file state lawsuits seeking damages over employment discrimination.
“The veterans’ community should be up in arms,” said Michael Gourlie, an Army and Wisconsin National Guard veteran who served in Afghanistan before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. “They should be on the steps of the Capitol saying this is wrong.”
Walker insists veterans misunderstood the asbestos bill, and its intent was to ensure transparency in the legal process and stop trial lawyers from double dipping. Some veterans, including the commander of AMVETS, supported the measure.
Walker’s spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster also noted that not a single veteran filed a lawsuit under the 2009 law before it was repealed. Neither that bill, nor the asbestos law, were veterans’ issues, she said.
Webster also downplayed the case of Eric Pizer, a veteran who wants to become a police officer but can’t because of a felony conviction stemming from a bar fight. Walker’s decision not to consider any pardons has nothing to do with veterans, Webster said.
Still, not all veterans are buying it.
“He’s duped the veterans,” said Gourlie, who believes Walker’s positions on the asbestos and discrimination bills and pardon request are being overlooked by many veterans because of other things the governor has done to help them.
Walker has a strong record on veterans’ issues, said Ken Rynes, commander of the Wisconsin American Legion and a Republican candidate for state Assembly from Spring Green.
“The American Legion is an adamant and I say, adamant, supporter of the governor,” Rynes said. “He’s given us so much, you can’t have everything.”
Johns, who lobbied for the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart in opposition to the asbestos measure, said he still intends to vote for Walker even though he believes he made the wrong decision on that issue.
“It’s a black mark on his veterans’ record,” Johns said.