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FACT CHECK: Trump shortchanges McCain’s record on veterans

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., listens as Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham speaks defending McCain's military record during a town hall meeting at the 3 West Club to launch Graham's "No Nukes for Iran" tour Monday, July 20, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

WASHINGTON (AP) — After stirring up a furor with his dismissive remarks about John McCain’s Vietnam war experience, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump went after the Arizona senator’s record on veterans’ issues, accusing McCain, a former Navy pilot, of abandoning those who served their country in uniform.

A look at some of the claims Trump has made about McCain’s record and how they compare with the facts:

TRUMP: “I’m very disappointed in John McCain because the vets are horribly treated in this country. I’m fighting for the vets. I’ve done a lot for the vets … He’s done nothing to help the vets. And I will tell you, they are living in hell.”

THE FACTS: McCain has a long record of supporting veterans’ issues in Congress. He was instrumental in a landmark law approved last year to overhaul the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs. McCain worked with the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as well as Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel, to help win passage of the law, which aims to alleviate long delays veterans faced in getting medical care.

The VA says it has completed 7 million more appointments for care in the past year, compared with the previous year, but veterans still face long wait times in Phoenix, Las Vegas and other areas because of increased demand for care as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the aging of Vietnam veterans.

“On average, veterans are waiting just a few days for an appointment,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday at a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Veterans continue to tell us that once they get through the door, the care is often very good.” But Obama added: “Our work is not done. Even with all these new resources, the VA is still struggling to keep up with the surge of veterans who are seeking care. You put it all together and in some places, wait times are higher than they were last year. So I want you to know, I’m still not satisfied.”

McCain pushed for a provision in the law allowing veterans who live more than 40 miles away from a VA health care site to get government-paid care from a local doctor. McCain and Miller also pushed to make it easier to fire senior VA employees for poor performance.

McCain also was central in a law enacted this year aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic among military veterans that claims the lives of an estimated 22 every day. The law is named for Clay Hunt, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who killed himself in 2011. It requires the VA and the Pentagon to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs and offers financial incentives to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who agree to work for the VA.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, credited McCain for his leadership in both the VA overhaul and the Clay Hunt law. While McCain “is very capable of defending himself,” Rieckhoff said, “a public attack on one veteran’s service is an attack on us all.”

Rieckhoff was referring to Trump’s comment that McCain is only seen as a war hero because he was captured, and “I like people that weren’t captured.” McCain, son of an admiral, served 5 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison and endured torture, after being shot down in 1967. The Navy aviator turned down offers of early release because he would have left imprisoned comrades behind, and was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.

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TRUMP: “Thanks to McCain and his Senate colleague Bernie Sanders, their legislation to cover up the VA scandal…made sure no one has been punished, charged, jailed, fined or held responsible. McCain has abandoned our veterans. I will fight for them.”

THE FACTS: The VA says it has removed or forced into retirement at least six senior executives since the wait-time scandal emerged last year, including Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA health care system, who was fired last year. The Phoenix VA was the epicenter of the wait-time scandal.

The VA announced last week it has placed an Augusta, Georgia, VA official on administrative leave following his indictment by the Justice Department on charges of falsifying medical records of numerous patients.

Despite these actions, McCain and other Republicans have pushed for the VA to do more to fire poor-performing employees. The new law gives the VA secretary greater authority to fire senior executives, with a final decision required within 28 days.

McCain slammed the VA earlier this month for failing to fix its “broken bureaucracy,” but he and other lawmakers have little ability to affect the agency’s day-to-day actions beyond changes to its budget and new legislation.

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Follow Matthew Daly: http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

EDITOR’S NOTE _ An occasional look at political claims that take shortcuts with the facts or don’t tell the full story

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