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Veterans in NL show support for Blumenthal

New London - The miscue happened so quickly and innocently that they couldn't have planned it any better: Kathy Jackson, an Air Force veteran, introduced a fellow supporter of Democrat Richard Blumenthal, Cathy Osten, as "a Vietnam veteran."

Not quite, Osten explained, when it was her turn to address the small rally of military veterans and labor union members who were demonstrating in favor of Blumenthal's Senate candidacy in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on The Parade.

Osten served in the Army during the Vietnam War, but as a Chinese linguist for the Army security agency, not in Vietnam itself.

"You can see how easy it is to make that mistake," Osten said.

Blumenthal, of course, has most notably made the mistake of suggesting his military service took him into Vietnam itself - a false statement that his Republican opponent, Linda McMahon, has forcefully branded as a "lie" and made the centerpiece of an aggressive advertising campaign questioning Blumenthal's character.

Just hours after McMahon and Blumenthal met for their second head-to-head debate in Norwalk, in which McMahon directly criticized Blumenthal's statements about his service in the Marine Corps Reserve, the gathering of veterans organized by the Connecticut AFL-CIO amounted to a vigorous pushback.

As attorney general for nearly 20 years, the veterans said, Blumenthal has championed the needs of military veterans, and, as a candidate, he has outlined policy proposals that would help those who have most recently fought for their country in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"You've got a leader who's been there for 20-something years," said Justin Paoloni of North Stonington, who fought in Vietnam as a member of the Marine Corps, and came home to find work as a state operating engineer. "I don't see how anybody can't vote for Richard Blumenthal. As far as the veterans, I stand behind him 100 percent."

Paoloni said he considered McMahon's ads about Blumenthal's misstatements of his service record "disgusting."

"He did not serve overseas, but he's still a Marine," Paoloni said.

The rally also featured younger veterans, like Jeremy Zeedyk, who was on active duty in the Navy when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, and said he thought Blumenthal's policy proposals for veterans would help those like him who needed assistance finding work after completing their service. Zeedyk said he used the union's Helmets to Hardhats program, which helps veterans find work in the building trades.

Blumenthal's platform includes a proposal to permit use of G.I. Bill education benefits for vocational and job training programs.

McMahon's campaign, however, has assembled veterans who feel just as strongly that Blumenthal's statements were deliberate - and dishonorable - attempts to mislead.

"It is dishonorable, and we can only assume that you made up these stories in your own political self interest," says an open letter to Blumenthal, signed by several dozen veterans, that the McMahon campaign has mailed directly to voters.

In response to the rally, the McMahon campaign late Thursday afternoon released a statement from McMahon supporter Ken Korsu, the chairman of its Veterans for Linda group.

"Veterans are proud to support Linda McMahon," the statement said. "In the Senate, she will fight for our veterans and continue to support our troops, just as she has done in the past through WWE's work with the USO.

"Dick Blumenthal betrayed all veterans when he lied about serving in the Vietnam War," the statement continued. "If Dick Blumenthal wants to do something for veterans, he can start by telling us the truth."

The comments from the different veterans groups demonstrate the interpretive chasm that has persisted since Blumenthal's false statements were made public, with those like Korsu who believe Blumenthal deliberately lied on one side, and those like Paoloni who view his remarks as an accidental misstatement on the other.

Brendan McGuirk, a New London firefighter who served in the Navy during the Vietnam era, and whose brothers fought in Vietnam, said he thought Blumenthal had simply slipped up.

"I believe it was" a mistake, McGuirk said. "You saw it happen right here today: well meaning people."

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