Vietnam defined two top contenders in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and retired Gen. Wesley Clark are decorated veterans of the conflict, something that is rarely missed in their television ads, campaign literature or stump speeches.
There are more than 500,000 veterans in Arizona, about 15 percent of the voting-age population. Their votes are prized by both parties, and by all of the candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
Arizona Democrats will vote in their presidential primary Tuesday. A poll released this week shows Clark is leading among likely voters in Arizona, holding a slight edge over Kerry. Kerry and Clark came from widely different backgrounds before the war. They followed radically different paths afterwards.
But their service in the military is the foundation of both campaigns, and the thing that sets them apart from the rest of the pack for many veterans.
"If he took the bullet or the wounds, if he has the guts to stand up and bring on the firepower upon himself, that takes a lot of guts," said Oscar Urrea, a Vietnam combat veteran who is supporting Kerry.
Kerry and Clark proved themselves as strong leaders through their service in Vietnam, Urrea said. Kerry’s experience in the Senate and work to improve veterans benefits while in Congress helped tip the scale for Urrea of Mesa, an Army veteran who founded the In-Country Vietnam Veterans Association.
But beyond Kerry’s experience in politics, it is his service in Vietnam that is at the core of Urrea’s support.
"It gives me more of a sense of duty because he’s been tested through the fire," Urrea said.
Craig Wester of Gilbert, an Army veteran who served in the first Gulf War and is supporting Clark, said the military service of Clark and Kerry creates a sense of trust that transcends politics. Wester said he sided with Clark in part because he is not part of the Washington political structure.
"It’s a fresh new look, somebody who hasn’t been bogged down in that political system for years," Wester said. "Wesley Clark brings a little bit more to the table."
Kerry entered the Navy in 1966. He commanded a swift boat in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, earning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Combat V, and three Purple Hearts.
Clark entered the U.S. Military Academy at West point at age 17, ultimately graduating first in his class. While serving in Vietnam in 1969, he came under fire and was wounded four times. But rather than be evacuated he stayed to command his troops until the enemy positions were overrun.
Clark was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart. Clark stayed in the military, eventually rising to four-star general and becoming supreme allied commander of NATO before retiring in 2000.
Experience was the deciding factor for John Scott of Cave Creek, a retired Air Force officer who ended up siding with Kerry.
Military service was one of several factors Scott said he considered in weighing the candidates. Kerry and Clark scored equally in that assessment, he said. Kerry’s experience in Congress was the deciding factor for Scott, he said.
"I went with Kerry because of his much broader experience on domestic issues (and) a different perspective on foreign policy," Scott said.
Veterans backing both candidates say Kerry’s antiwar activism after Vietnam does not hurt his standing. He was expressing a heartfelt belief and exercising his First Amendment rights, Urrea said, adding he disagrees with the position Kerry took as a peace activist.
Likewise, Clark’s switching his partisan registration from "unaffiliated" to Democrat after he entered the presidential race, and his acknowledgment that he has voted for Republican presidents, was not seen as a problem, even among Kerry supporters like Scott.
That is fairly typical of career military officers, Scott said.
"You are much more neutral," Scott said. "To me it’s imperative that the officer corps remain neutral. Most officers and most enlisted have probably voted all over the place."