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Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry talks with Stars and Stripes Friday at Jim and Ruth Nelson’s farm in Smithville, Mo., during the Kerry-Edwards "Believe in America" tour.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry talks with Stars and Stripes Friday at Jim and Ruth Nelson’s farm in Smithville, Mo., during the Kerry-Edwards "Believe in America" tour. (Patrick Dickson / S&S)

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry talks with Stars and Stripes Friday at Jim and Ruth Nelson’s farm in Smithville, Mo., during the Kerry-Edwards "Believe in America" tour.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry talks with Stars and Stripes Friday at Jim and Ruth Nelson’s farm in Smithville, Mo., during the Kerry-Edwards "Believe in America" tour. (Patrick Dickson / S&S)

Vice presidential candidate John Edwards talks to some 100 Democratic faithful gathered at Jim and Ruth Nelson’s farm in Smithville, Mo., Friday.

Vice presidential candidate John Edwards talks to some 100 Democratic faithful gathered at Jim and Ruth Nelson’s farm in Smithville, Mo., Friday. (Patrick Dickson / S&S)

With running mate John Edwards looking on Friday at Jim and Ruth Nelson’s farm in Smithville, Mo., Sen. John Kerry unveils his plans for renewable fuels such as corn-based ethanol to help reduce America's reliance on foreign oil.

With running mate John Edwards looking on Friday at Jim and Ruth Nelson’s farm in Smithville, Mo., Sen. John Kerry unveils his plans for renewable fuels such as corn-based ethanol to help reduce America's reliance on foreign oil. (Patrick Dickson / S&S)

SMITHVILLE, Mo. — At a campaign stop to roll out his plan to manage the nation’s energy needs, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told supporters at a Missouri farm that his administration would never send the U.S. military to war without a plan to win the peace.

On a picturesque farm north of Kansas City, the Democratic hopeful and running mate Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., spoke of reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and answered questions from the 100-plus supporters on hogs, health care and campaign promises versus real change.

But Kerry made repeated references to the war in Iraq, stressing the need for support from allies and deliberation before sending troops to fight.

“John [Edwards] and I are going to put in place the principle, very simple: No young American in uniform should ever be held hostage to America’s dependence on oil in the Middle East.”

Kerry sat down with Stripes afterward to discuss the war, the stresses on the military and changes he would make.

Stripes: You said during your speech that never again would U.S. troops be hostage to a lousy energy policy —

Kerry: What I said is, I didn’t say never again, I said I don’t want them to be hostage.

Stripes: You think that’s what’s going on now?

Kerry: No. That’s not related directly to the oil … and I never suggested that it is.

Stripes: The charge is out there that Republicans are much better suited to handle defense issues. How do you counter that?

Kerry: My record counters that, and my friends counter that. [The Bush team has] conducted a backdoor draft by the stop-loss provisions and the lengthy deployments. People have been overextended and stretched too thin.

They went into Iraq in a brilliant military strategy, which we all adopted and supported, but they didn’t have a plan to win the peace. They didn’t bring other [countries] to our side. They didn’t give our troops all the equipment — the body armor and the armored Humvees and things they need and deserve.

There’s a great tradition of Democratic presidents who’ve led us in war. From Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, to President Kennedy — Bill Clinton, who managed to do Kosovo without any casualties at all.

Stripes: Tommy Franks has said that we should be in Iraq for three to five years — [is that] a fair estimate?

Kerry: I think that that estimate depends on the success of my diplomacy. I will be more successful than George Bush, and I think any timetables now will depend on a new president, and a new credibility to re-create the relationships that this administration has broken.

Stripes: So you can guarantee that we’ll have a substantially reduced force within a year? Two years?

Kerry: I can guarantee that … within my first term, I will have a substantial reduction in troops [in Iraq], yes.

Stripes: Is 17,000 [troops] enough in Afghanistan?

Kerry: No.

Stripes: Would you put more Americans in there first? While your diplomacy works?

Kerry: No, I’d like to expand the NATO presence there, and I’d like to expand other countries’ involvements. But I do think that this administration is diverting from the real war on terror, which was in Afghanistan against al-Qaida, to Iraq, and I think it’s cost us dearly.

Stripes: Increasing end strength, even the 40,000 soldiers that you’re talking about, that takes time. We have a readership of young troops in the field right now, and I think they want to know what you’re going to do immediately to help their situation.

Kerry: I will seek a much greater level of both NATO and other-nation involvement in the training of Iraqi troops and Iraqi security [forces]. We’ll provide greater Iraqi security on the ground and reduce the burden on our own troops … so it’s not an American occupation. And that will greatly reduce the risk to the soldiers in Iraq.

Stripes: Would you reach across the aisle [to the Republican Party] for a secretary of defense?

Kerry: It’s very possible. But I’ll tell you this: I will have it a prerequisite that the secretary of defense work effectively with the professional military, listens to their advice, and if you’re going to disagree with it, is respectful in the way we DO disagree with it, that we don’t ruin careers over advice honestly spoken in an honest way to a Congressional committee. And I think the military deserves an invitation of their advice, not a chilling effect to it.

Stripes: In the transformation plan outlined by [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld and others in the administration, they’re talking about moving troops out of Europe east, south into Eastern Europe and Africa. Smaller lily-pad bases, closer to the hot spots. Would you continue that trend?

Kerry: I’m going to get a re-evaluation when I get in. What I’ve called for is to stop the BRAC (Base Realignment And Closure) process temporarily; I wanna make certain that we are re-evaluating precisely what America’s military needs are in this new structure.

And my hope is, that with my diplomacy, we can be more effective with North Korea. We might be able to reduce the deployment in that part of the world, that’s been much too similar for 50 years now.

Stripes: Do you support an overall reduction in troops in South Korea?

Kerry: As an ultimate goal, but not as an immediate step.

Stripes: Let’s move over to pay issues. The civilian-military pay gap right now is about 5 percent. The law is that GIs should get half a percent more than their civilian counterparts in the federal government. Would you continue the plus-0.5 percent raise —

Kerry: Absolutely. You’ve got to raise pay. Particularly for entry-level enlisted.

Stripes: So you would target raises?

Kerry: I’m looking at it.

Stripes: What about Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance?

Kerry: You ought to give it to them automatic [without monthly payments into the system] and it ought to be raised.

Stripes: [Automatic] for all $250,000?

Kerry: You bet. Why not? I mean, if you’re in a limited war situation, it’s not asking too much for the United States of America to guarantee an appropriate level of life insurance, cost-free, to those who are willing to put themselves on the line. And I think that anything less is almost an insult.

Stripes: I’m a GI overseas. Why do I want to vote for John Kerry?

Kerry: Because I’m going to do a better job of making America safe. I think that the folks who are deployed would be better served by a commander in chief who knows what it means to be deployed.

(Click here for the complete transcript of Stripes' interview with Sen. Kerry.)


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