U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson appeared at the veteran-owned Bluffton Barbeque on Wednesday afternoon to defend overseas travel that his Democratic opponent Rob Miller has criticized.
Two Wilson supporters with military connections spoke on his behalf at the event: Barbara Livingston, wife of former commander of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix, Gen. Bob Livingston; and S.C. Adjutant Gen. Stan Spears.
"His visits mean a lot to the soldiers," Livingston said. "But there are no words to describe what those visits meant to me."
Livingston said her husband had few opportunities to speak with her when he deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 because his work kept him away from phones and computers. When Wilson visited the war zone, he would return with an envelope of photos of her husband.
"Receiving those pictures was like receiving pieces of gold," she said.
Wilson has been sparring for weeks with Miller after the Democrat began questioning about 40 trips Wilson has made since winning South Carolina's 2nd Congressional District seat in 2001.
Miller's campaign manager released a statement Tuesday about Wilson's travel.
"Congressman Wilson is not being honest about his junkets," it said. "Was Congressman Wilson wearing a flak jacket during his first-class, taxpayer-funded trips to France or Luxembourg? Was he 'dodging mortar fire' in Italy, Costa Rica or the United Kingdom?"
Wilson countered Wednesday that the purpose of his travel was to visit U.S. troops.
"These are not junkets," Wilson said. "These are not vacations. When you arrive and receive body armor, that is not a vacation."
He said some of his trips give him firsthand information about the "step-by step progress" being made in Afghanistan.
Wilson and Spears also rejected accusations from Miller's camp that commanders are pulling troops away from their duties for visiting politicians.
"It's an insult to imply they would divert from their missions," Spears said.
Wilson was a staff judge advocate in the S.C. Army National Guard and was promoted to brigadier general when he retired. He's also a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Miller, a former Marine captain, led troops in Iraq.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.