COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ On the eve of the anniversary of his World War II wounding, Sen. Bob Dole paid tribute to America's veterans Thursday and said it was important that the next president have military experience.

Do voters share that opinion? ``I don't know,'' Dole said.

He said his visit to South Carolina's Vietnam Veterans memorial was nonpartisan even though it came during his presidential campaign announcement tour and the state is critical to Dole's strategy.

At virtually every stop on Dole's 10-state tour there has been a reminder of his World War II heroism, and on the 50-year anniversary Friday he will attend a homecoming breakfast at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Russell, Kan.

Dole never directly raises the subject, but aides believe his military service will help him win the votes of veterans and others in South Carolina and other states with strong military traditions.

``I think facts are facts,'' he said Thursday. ``I had military service. I think it is important. It sort of made a profound difference in my life, not just physically but how I think and what I believe and how I look at the future.''

In introducing Dole in Columbia, Sen. Strom Thurmond called him ``a brave soldier, a true patriot, a great American. The next president of the United States will be a veteran and that person will be Bob Dole.''

Several of his GOP primary rivals, including Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, did not serve in the military. Both Gramm and Alexander received deferments during the Vietnam War. In the 1992 campaign, President Clinton's efforts to avoid the Vietnam draft became an issue but did not derail his candidacy.

Gramm was in South Carolina Wednesday and predicted he would not suffer at the polls for not having served in the military, citing his strong pro-defense voting record. ``The young men and women in the country who wear the uniform have no greater friend,'' Gramm said.

Speaking to an audience of veterans, Dole said, ``Because of the sacrifice you made, for some the supreme sacrifice, America is still the beacon of hope and freedom around the world.'' Among those on hand was former Gov. Carroll Campbell, whose younger brother, Patrick, was killed in Vietnam and has his name etched in the stone memorial.

Dole paid special tribute to Vietnam veterans, lamenting that there was ``more focus by the media on the demonstrators than there ever was on the heroes who served in Vietnam.''

Speaking to reporters after the speech, Dole said he wanted to read a new book by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara before commenting on McNamara's conclusion that the war was a mistake.

Still, Dole said, ``I think if there was a mistake it was that we just kept getting incrementally involved'' instead of sending in overwhelming force. ``It wasn't a very good strategy.''

Two Vietnam veterans at the event complained to reporters that Dole was using the site for a political event. One of them, David Self, confronted Dole and said, ``This is sacred ground.'' Dole responded by saying, ``That's why I tried to make clear this is a non-political event.''

In his remarks at the memorial, Dole never directly solicited support for his campaign.

Still, the event allowed the GOP front-runner to show off the deep support he has in a state that helped slam the door shut on his 1988 presidential run. Then, George Bush beat Dole in New Hampshire and then used a big South Carolina win as a springboard to crushing Dole in the Southern-dominated Super Tuesday primaries. Next year, South Carolina's primary will again be the first in the South.

This time, Campbell is in Dole's camp, as is the state attorney general, the state Christian Coalition leader and much of the state's GOP establishment.