Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry warned students in a campaign speech last night that if they don’t study hard and get a good education they might “get stuck in Iraq.”

The remark is being interpreted by many veterans – including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. – as a slam at military service, suggesting it’s a last refuge for the lazy and uneducated.

Video of Kerry’s comment can be seen here.

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was speaking at a rally at Pasadena City College in Southern California for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides.

The Massachusetts senator told the students: “You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq. …”

Audience reaction to the comment included gasps and laughter, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported.

The paper said Kerry was trying to emphasize Angelides would be a better governor for college students because he would repeal an increase in college tuition and expand financial aid.

Kerry, a strong critic of President Bush’s Iraq policy, has called for the dismissal of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The senator said in a statement last week it’s “clearer than ever that we need new leadership if we are ever going to change the administration’s failed course in Iraq.”

White House press secretary Tony Snow called the comment Kerry made last night an “absolute insult.”

“Senator Kerry not only owes an apology to those who are serving, but also to the families of those who’ve given their lives in this.”

Kerry hit back at the White House in a statement, charging it’s the president and his administration who owe U.S. troops an apology because they “misled America into war and have given us a Katrina foreign policy that has betrayed our ideals, killed and maimed our soldiers, and widened the terrorist threat instead of defeating it.”

“This is the classic GOP playbook,” Kerry said. “I’m sick and tired of these despicable Republican attacks that always seem to come from those who never can be found to serve in war, but love to attack those who did. I’m not going to be lectured by a stuffed suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium.”

But with a growing firestorm of criticism, Kerry decided to hold a press conference this afternoon in Seattle where he is campaigning for Democratic candidates. The senator said he would not apologize, calling his comment a “botched joke about the president and the president’s people, not about the troops.”

“Let me make it crystal clear, as crystal clear as I know how,” Kerry said. “I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and his broken policy. If anyone owes our troops in the fields an apology, it is the president and his failed team.”

He accused the White House of attempting to distort his statement and turn everything into “raw politics.”

Later, President Bush, at a campaign stop in Georgia today, said Kerry’s “suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting and shameful.”

“Our troops did not enlist because they did not study hard in school or do their homework,” Bush said. “The men and women who serve in our all-volunteer Armed Forces are plenty smart and are serving because they are patriots – and Senator Kerry owes them an apology.”

‘Terrorizing’ Iraqi children

Kerry angered many in the military last December with remarks in an interview with CBS “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer, accusing U.S. soldiers of “terrorizing” Iraqi children.

John Kerry testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.

“And there is no reason, Bob, that young American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women, breaking sort of the customs of the – of – the historical customs, religious customs,” Kerry said. “Whether you like it or not … Iraqis should be doing that.”

Those remarks reminded many Americans of Kerry’s most controversial testimony before the nation in 1970, when he was a returning Vietnam vet calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces in that conflict.

He told senators about hearings he helped organize among disenchanted Vietnam war vets in which accusations of atrocities by U.S. troops were recounted.

“They told stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country,” he said.

‘Insensitive, ill-considered and uninformed’

Responding today to last night’s comment, McCain, a POW in Vietnam and potential rival to Kerry in the 2008 presidential election, said in a statement the senator “owes an apology to the many thousands of Americans serving in Iraq, who answered their country’s call because they are patriots and not because of any deficiencies in their education.”

“Americans from all backgrounds, well off and less fortunate, with high school diplomas and graduate degrees, take seriously their duty to our country, and risk their lives today to defend the rest of us in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere,” McCain said.

The Arizona Republican said the “suggestion that only the least educated Americans would agree to serve in the military and fight in Iraq, is an insult to every soldier serving in combat, and should deeply offend any American with an ounce of appreciation for what they suffer and risk so that the rest of us can sleep more comfortably at night.”

“Without them, we wouldn’t live in a country where people securely possess all their God-given rights, including the right to express insensitive, ill-considered and uninformed remarks,” McCain concluded.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., fired off a letter to Kerry today, calling the comment “truly despicable and offensive.”

“It’s a slap in the face of all of our intelligent, dedicated, brave men,” Vitter wrote. ” … They aren’t stupid, uneducated, or lazy. They’re heroes. And they deserve your immediate apology.”

The national commander of the American Legion also has called on Kerry to apologize.

“As a constituent of Senator Kerry’s, I am disappointed. As leader of the American Legion, I am outraged,” said Paul A. Morin. “A generation ago, Sen. Kerry slandered his comrades in Vietnam by saying that they were rapists and murderers. It wasn’t true then and his warped view of today’s heroes isn’t true now.”

Last year, the Heritage Foundation published a study titled, “Debunking the myth of the underprivileged soldier,” which said “the typical recruit in the all-volunteer force is wealthier, more educated and more rural than the average 18- to 24-year-old citizen is.”

For every two recruits coming from the poorest neighborhoods, the study said, “there are three recruits coming from the richest neighborhoods.”

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