Presidential candidate John Kerry accused the Bush administration of hiding the human cost of the war in Iraq by blocking media coverage of those killed and wounded as he rallied Valley supporters during a Veterans Day speech Tuesday in Phoenix.

Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, said the Defense Department is trying to limit coverage of American casualties to minimize political damage. To prevent daily images of flagdraped coffins being unloaded, the military is bringing home military casualties "in the dead of night," Kerry said. Attempts to sanitize the coverage of the war for political reasons cheapens the heroism of those serving, he said.

"Shame on this administration for trying to hide the consequences of war from the American people," Kerry told about 200 supporters, many of them veterans wearing caps or patches commemorating their service. "This is not a public relations-managed affair. This is a war, and the American people deserve to understand the full measure of its cost.

"If they’re good enough to go and serve their country and give their life for our nation, they deserve the welcome home of a nation that says thank you, and that understands the cost."

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said he has a special bond with those who have served in the military, and those whose lives are now on the line in Iraq. His speech was delivered at Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix, adjacent to Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where military vehicles were being staged for the parade down Central Avenue as he spoke.

Kerry said he chose Arizona for his Veterans Day speech because of its large population of veterans and their "great tradition of service."

After the speech, he said he is not concerned about his middle-of-the-pack standing in polls nationally and in Arizona.

An Arizona poll by the Behavior Research Center released last month shows Kerry trails front-runner Howard Dean, former Vermont governor; retired Gen. Wesley Clark; and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. Those standings are similar to national polls, which show Dean has emerged as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Kerry said that those polls are meaningless and he is not concerned, and that they did not drive the shake-up of his top campaign staff Monday. That was done to "create a different dynamic," he said, without elaborating.

"Not a vote has been cast yet," Kerry said. "We’re very optimistic and very confident about my ability to win this race."

Kerry fired his campaign manager on Monday and replaced him with the former chief of staff for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Kerry said he cannot predict whether there will be other staff changes in his campaign.

On other veterans issues, Kerry said that if he is elected, he will ensure that retired veterans are not charged for disability benefits they have earned, as they are under current rules.

He also said he would spend more money on veterans’ health programs to eliminate the long waits they endure to qualify for benefits.

"We have an obligation at home to care for those who came back after serving their country," Kerry said.

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