FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Late summer means back to school, so the leather waiting room chairs at the community college veterans center are full of former service members seeking help with course mix-ups, education benefits and any other obstacle to a degree or new job qualification.
Like many voters, most of the 2,500 veterans at Fayetteville Technical Community college haven't begun paying close attention to politics. But nearly a dozen of those interviewed did have one thing on their minds, whether they served in Vietnam or Afghanistan: They want politicians to fix problems at medical centers run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Fayetteville VA medical center had some of the worst average waiting times for primary care treatment, the VA reported in June.
"The thing that's important to me is VA care — veterans getting proper care, not waiting for appointment times," said Mark Waller, 38, who served in Afghanistan with his Army Reserve unit a decade ago. "There's other veterans who need it more than me. Trust me, there is. And they're getting screwed. People are dying, what I'm hearing."
The national scandal is already an issue in the race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis, a contest that could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. The local U.S. House contest pits former entertainer Clay Aiken, a Democrat, against nurse and incumbent Republican Renee Ellmers, who has seen her star rise under House Speaker John Boehner. Aiken visited the campus vets center Aug. 21. Ellmers visited the school to talk about shortcomings in mental health treatment last Tuesday (August 26), the day President Obama was discussing fixing the VA in Charlotte.
Veterans in this city where Fort Bragg is the dominant institution say it's too early to think much of political promises and postures with November's elections still two months distant. That's normal. Only about one in seven Americans was following news about the congressional midterm elections, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, and local military families have taken little note of the ads already airing on the Raleigh TV stations 65 miles north.
"I'm constantly busy," said Michelle Hellermann, 42, of Hope Mills, whose year-round academic schedule comes atop coping with health problems and caring for her daughter and mother. The registered Republican and widow of an Army sergeant who died in Iraq asks for little from the candidates.
"I would just like the veterans to get treated with the respect that they have earned," she said. "We have to fight for everything to keep what we are entitled to."
But the campaign is already building.
Waller is a registered Democrat who has seen the TV ads attacking Hagan on the VA's failure and Hagan hitting back, but he doesn't know whether lack of funding by Congress or mismanagement by the Obama Administration is more to blame. It took seven months before he saw a VA primary care doctor after moving to Fayetteville last fall.
"They didn't have enough doctors or providers. They were short-staffed, that's what I was told," said Waller, who had emergency hernia surgery at the VA hospital in December. "It was pretty much more of a pain in the butt if I needed to see somebody, but I did have the option of the emergency room. And when I did, it was fine."
Juan Roman, 63, throws up his hands when asked which politicians to blame for the VA scandal.
"Everyone's at fault. We went to serve and when we come home, take care of us," said Roman, who served in the Air Force and said he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The vets pursuing college degrees or trade certifications also said they wanted to hear how the candidates would improve the still-too-stagnant economy, income inequality, the post-9/11 toll on military families, the contentious federal health care law and congressional gridlock.
James Smith, 65, said he's had good experiences getting help from Hagan's staff and backs her. He doesn't know anything about Aiken and Ellmers. He blames the Republican-led House for failing to improve Obamacare and focusing only on defunding or repealing it.
"It seems like to me they're trying to point fingers at (Obama) and say he's a failure, but they continuously try to set him up as a failure," said Smith, whose 23-year Army career started with stateside service during Vietnam.
Yet the full-time business administration student blames Washington's gridlock on both parties.
"Doesn't the Bible say a house divided cannot stand?" he said. "We're experiencing that right now. We're divided and we're not standing. The way the world is looking at us, it's not very pleasant."
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio