Vets look to McCain's service

Retired Sears merchandising manager Bill Lack, one of the older members of North Carolina's delegation to the Republican National Convention, joined the National Guard in 1950. Within months, his unit was sent to Korea.

Back then, everyone's dad had served in World War II, said Lack, 74 and from Asheville. Everyone's uncle had served, and their brother and their cousin.

Justin Burr, a 23-year-old bail bondsman from Albemarle, is one of the youngest members of the state's delegation. His ties to the military: two cousins in the reserves.

Republicans this week nominated John McCain, a war hero whose Navy career may be his greatest asset, as their candidate for president.

As the numbers of veterans decline, a military resume might not strike the common chord with voters that it once did. But McCain supporters hope his service, which included more than five years as a prisoner, will appeal to voters with no ties to the armed forces.

“I'm afraid there are a lot of people to whom that doesn't mean a lot,” Lack said.

Society's connection to the military has plummeted in the past half century, although it has been bolstered in recent years by the thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans' ranks are diminishing as the World War II generation dies. The military is smaller. There is no draft, only volunteers.

By the late 1950s, half of the men in the nation were veterans. Now that figure is about 15 percent.

“Now you have families in which nobody has ever been in the military,” said Jack Swann of Hampstead, a delegate who was an Air Force navigator in Vietnam.

Swann and other delegates who are veterans contend that years in uniform can still boost a candidate in the eyes of voters, especially in a military-heavy state like North Carolina.

“We may not have as many (veterans) as we did before,” said Raleigh tax lawyer and delegate Steve Long, “but it's still a big part of our psyche.”

Since the end of the Cold War, nearly 20 years ago, war has become less salient in the public's mind, said Richard Kohn, former chief historian for the U.S. Air Force and now an adjunct professor of history and peace, war and defense at UNC Chapel Hill.

Even though the nation has troops overseas, Kohn said, the war on terror is often not viewed through a military prism, with no mobilization among the public, no call for sacrifice.

“The military is at war. America is at the mall,” said Kohn. “We genuflect for the military. We have military generals stand up at these conventions. But we don't tell our children to go serve.”

Dolores Shaver, a delegate from Seven Lakes, near Pinehurst, served in the Army as a secretary and member of the infantry. But she said McCain has to stop talking so much about his war record.

“He has to relate to people nowadays … that's so long ago,” Shaver said. “That's not going to make people vote for him.”

While the public's connection with the military has diminished, there are some trends pushing the other direction, said Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor. Voters have broader social networks. They are at least acquainted with more members of the military than might be readily apparent.

While many voters have no direct tie to the armed forces, they are aware of the troop deployments and the costs, said Feaver, who served on the National Security Council staff under presidents Clinton and Bush.

“Because this is an election in wartime,” Feaver said, “there is a resonance for military service that goes beyond ‘do you know someone who served?'”