Remarks for President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery
American Legion National Convention
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
As Prepared for Delivery –
Hello Legionnaires! Thank you, Commander Foster, for your introduction and for your lifetime of service—to your fellow Marines, soldiers and veterans. On behalf of us all, thank you Jimmie. And thank you to your entire leadership team for welcoming me today. Your National Adjutant, Dan Wheeler. Your Executive Director, your voice in Washington, Peter Gaytan. And the President of the American Legion Auxiliary, Carlene Ashworth.
To Rehta Foster and all the spouses, daughters and sisters of the Auxiliary…and the Sons of the American Legion…as military families, you also served, and we salute you as well.
It is wonderful to be back with the American Legion. Back in Illinois, we worked together to make sure veterans across the state were getting the benefits they had earned. When I was in the Senate, we worked together to shine a spotlight on the tragedy of homelessness among our veterans—and the need to end it.
As President, I’ve welcomed Jimmie and your leadership to the Oval Office—to hear directly from you. And I’ve been honored to have you by my side when I signed advance appropriations to protect veterans health care from the budget battles in Washington. When I signed legislation to give new support to veterans and their caregivers. And most recently, when I proposed new initiatives to make sure the private sector is hiring our talented veterans.
So, American Legion, I thank you for your partnership. And I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today about what we need to do to make sure America is taking care of our veterans as well as you’ve taken care of us.
I’m grateful to be with you for another reason. A lot of our fellow citizens are still reeling from Hurricane Irene and its aftermath. Folks are surveying the damage and some are dealing with tremendous flooding. As a government, we’re going to make sure that states and communities have the support they need as people recover.
And across the nation, we’re still digging out from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It’s taking longer and been more difficult than any of us had imagined. And even though we’ve taken some steps in the right direction, we have to do more. Our economy has to grow faster. We have to create more jobs, and do it faster. Most of all, we have to break the gridlock in Washington that’s been preventing us from taking the action we need to get this economy moving. That’s why, next week, I’ll be speaking to the nation about a plan to create jobs and reduce our deficit – a plan I want to see passed in Congress. We need to get this done.
Here’s what else I know. We Americans have been through tough times before, much tougher than these. And we didn’t just get through them, we emerged stronger than before. Not by luck. Not by chance. But because in hard times, Americans don’t quit. We don’t give up. We summon that spirit that says, when we come together, when we choose to move forward together, as one people, there’s absolutely nothing we can’t achieve.
Legionnaires, you know this. It’s the story of your lives. And in times like these, all Americans can draw strength from your example. When Hitler controlled a continent and fascism seemed unstoppable, when our harbor was bombed and our Pacific fleet crippled, some declared that the United States had been reduced to a third-class power. But you, our veterans of World War II, crossed the oceans, stormed the beaches, freed the millions, liberated the camps and showed that the United States of America is the greatest force for freedom the world has ever known.
When North Korea invaded the South, pushing the allied forces into a tiny sliver of territory—the Pusan (Poo-sahn) Perimeter—it seemed like that war could be lost. But you, our Korean War veterans, pushed back, fought on, year after bloody year. And this past Veterans Day, I went to Seoul and joined our Korean War veterans for the 60th anniversary of that war, and we marked that milestone in a free and prosperous Republic of Korea.
When Communist forces in Vietnam unleashed the Tet Offensive, it fueled the debate here at home that raged over that war. You, our Vietnam veterans, didn’t always receive the respect you deserved—which was a national shame. But let it be remembered that you won every major battle of that war. Every one. And as President, I’ve been honored to welcome our Vietnam veterans to the White House to finally present them with the medals and recognition they had earned. It’s been a chance to convey, on behalf of the American people, those simple words with which our Vietnam veterans greet each other—“welcome home.”
Legionnaires, in the decades that followed, the spirit of your service was carried forth by our troops in the sands of Desert Storm and the rugged hills of the Balkans. Now, it is carried on by a new generation. Next weekend, we will mark the 10th anniversary of those awful attacks on our nation. In the days ahead, we’ll honor the lives we lost and the families who loved them, the first responders who rushed to save others, and all those who have served to keep us safe these ten difficult years, especially the men and women of our armed forces.
Today, as we near this solemn anniversary, it’s fitting that we salute the extraordinary decade of service rendered by the 9/11 Generation—the more than five million Americans who have worn the uniform over the past ten years. They were there, on duty, that September morning, having enlisted in a time of peace, but they instantly transitioned to a war-footing. They’re the millions of recruits who have stepped forward since, seeing their nation at war and saying “send me.” They’re every single Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine and Coast Guardsman serving today, who has volunteered to serve in a time of war, knowing they could be sent into harm’s way.
They come from every corner of our country, big cities and small towns, from every background and creed. They’re sons and daughters who carry on their family’s tradition of service, and new immigrants who’ve become our newest citizens. They’re our National Guardsmen and Reservists who have served in unprecedented deployments. They’re the record number of women in our military, proving themselves in combat like never before. And every day for the past ten years, these men and women have succeeded together—as one American team.
A generation of innovators, they’ve changed the way America fights and wins its wars. Raised in the age of the Internet, they’ve harnessed new technologies on the battlefield. They’ve learned the cultures, traditions and languages of the places they’ve served. Trained to fight, they’ve taken on the role of diplomats, mayors and development experts, negotiating with tribal sheikhs, working with village shuras, and partnering with communities. Young captains, sergeants and lieutenants have assumed responsibilities once reserved for more senior commanders, reminding us that in an era when so many other institutions have shirked their obligations, the men and women of the United States military welcome responsibility.
In a decade of war, they have borne an extraordinary burden, with more than two million of our service members deploying to the warzones. Hundreds of thousands have deployed again and again, year after year. Never before has our nation asked so much of our all-volunteer force—that one percent of Americans who wears the uniform.
We see the scope of their sacrifice in the tens of thousands who now carry the scars of war, seen and unseen—our remarkable wounded warriors. We see it in our extraordinary military families who serve here at home—the military spouses who hold their families together; the millions of military children, many of whom have lived most of their young lives with our nation at war and mom or dad deployed.
Most profoundly, we see the wages of war in those patriots who never came home. They gave their all, their last full measure of devotion, in Kandahar and the Korengal (Core-en-gaul) and Helmand, in the battles for Baghdad and Fallujah and Ramadi. Now they lay at rest in quiet corners of America, but they live on in the families who loved them and in a nation that is safer because of their service. And today we pay humble tribute to the more than 6,200 Americans in uniform who have given their lives in this hard decade of war. We honor them all.
Through their service, their sacrifice, their astonishing record of achievement, our forces have earned their place among the greatest of generations. Toppling the Taliban in just weeks. Driving al Qaeda from the training camps where they plotted 9/11. Giving the Afghan people the opportunity to live free from terror. When the decision was made to go into Iraq, our troops raced across deserts and removed a dictator in less than a month. When insurgents, militias and terrorists plunged Iraq into chaos, our troops adapted, endured ferocious urban combat, reduced the violence and gave Iraqis a chance to forge their own future.
When a resurgent Taliban threatened to give al Qaeda more space to plot against us, the additional forces I ordered to Afghanistan went on the offensive—taking the fight to the Taliban, pushing them out of their safe havens, allowing Afghans to reclaim their communities and training Afghan forces. And a few months ago, our troops achieved our greatest victory yet in the fight against those who attacked us on 9/11—delivering justice to Osama bin Laden in one of the greatest intelligence and military operations in American history.
Credit for these successes, this progress, belongs to all who have worn the uniform in these wars. Today, we are honored to be joined by some of them. I would ask all those who served this past decade—members of the 9/11 Generation—to stand and accept the thanks of a grateful nation.
Thanks to these Americans, we’re moving forward from a position of strength. Having ended our combat mission in Iraq and removed more than 100,000 troops so far, we’ll remove the rest of our troops by the end of this year and end that war. Having put al Qaeda on the path to defeat, we won’t relent until the job is done. Having started to drawdown our forces in Afghanistan, we’ll bring home 33,000 troops by next summer and bring home more troops in the coming years. As our mission transitions from combat to support, Afghans will take responsibility for their own security, and the longest war in American history will come to a responsible end.
For our troops and military families who have sacrificed so much, this means relief from an unrelenting decade of operations. Today, fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way. For so many troops who’ve already done their duty, we’ve put an end to stop loss. And our soldiers can now look forward to shorter deployments. That means more time home between deployments and more time training for the full range of missions they’ll face.
Indeed, despite ten years of continuous war, it must be said—America’s military is the best it’s ever been. We saw that again, most recently, in the skill and precision of our brave forces who helped the Libyan people finally break free from the grip of Moammar Qadhafi. And as we meet the tests that the future will surely bring, including hard fiscal choices here at home, there should be no doubt. The United States of America will keep our military the best-trained, the best-led, the best-equipped fighting force in history.
As today’s wars end, as our troops come home, we’re reminded once more of our responsibilities to all who have served. For the bond between our forces and our citizens is a sacred trust. And for me and my administration, upholding that trust isn’t just a matter of policy. It’s not about politics. It’s a moral obligation.
That’s why my very first budget included the largest percentage increase to the VA budget in the past 30 years. So far, we’re on track to have increased funding for Veterans Affairs by 30 percent. And because we passed advance appropriations, when Washington politics threatened to shut down the government last spring, the veterans medical care that you count on was safe.
Let me say something else about the VA funding you depend on. As a nation, we’re facing tough choices as we put our fiscal house in order. But I want to be absolutely clear—we cannot, and we must not, balance the budget on the backs of our veterans. And as Commander in Chief, I won’t allow it.
With these historic investments, we’re making dramatic improvements to veterans health care. We’re improving VA facilities to better serve our women veterans. And we’re expanding outreach and care for our rural veterans, like those I met during my recent visit to Cannon (Can-non) Falls, including two proud Legionnaires—Tom Newman of Legion Post 620 in Hugo and Joseph Kidd, Post 164 in Stewartville.
For our Vietnam veterans, because we declared that three diseases are now presumed to be related to your exposure to Agent Orange, we’ve begun paying the disability benefits you need. For our veterans of the Gulf War, we’re moving forward to address the nine infectious diseases that we declared are now presumed to be related to your service in Desert Storm.
At the same time, our outstanding VA Secretary, Ric Shinseki, is working every day to build a 21st century VA. Many of our Vietnam vets are already submitting their Agent Orange claims electronically. Hundreds of thousands of you, from all wars, are requesting your benefits online. Thanks to that new “blue button” on the VA website, you can now share your personal health information with your doctors outside the VA. And we’re making progress in sharing medical records between DOD and VA. We’re not there yet, but we’re going to keep at it until our troops and veterans have a lifetime electronic record that you can keep for life.
Of course, we also have to do something else—break the backlog of disability claims. Now, I know that over the past year, the backlog has actually grown, due to new claims from Agent Orange. But let me say this, and I know Secretary Shinseki agrees: when our veterans who fought for our country have to fight just to get the benefits you’ve earned—that’s unacceptable.
So this is going to remain a priority. We’re going to keep hiring new claims processors, keep investing in new paperless systems and keep moving ahead with our innovation competition in which our dedicated VA employees are developing new ways to process your claims faster—not in months, but days. The bottom line is this—your claims need to be processed quickly and accurately, the first time. And we’re not going to rest until we get this done.
So too with our mission to end homelessness among our veterans. Already, we’ve helped to bring tens of thousands of veterans off the streets. For the first time ever, we’ve made veterans and military families a priority—not just at the VA and DOD, but across the federal government. And that includes making sure that federal agencies are working together so that every veteran who fought for America has a home in America.
We’re working to fulfill our obligations to our 9/11 Generation veterans, especially our wounded warriors. The constant threat of improvised explosive devices has meant a new generation of service members with multiple traumatic injuries, including Traumatic Brain Injury. And thanks to advanced armor and medical technologies, our troops are surviving injuries that would have been fatal in previous wars. Put simply, we’re saving more lives, but more American veterans will live with severe wounds for a lifetime. So we need to be there for them—for their lifetime.
We’re giving unprecedented support to our wounded warriors—especially those with T-B-I. And thanks to the veterans and caregivers legislation I signed into law, we’ve started training caregivers so they can receive the skills and stipends they need to care for their loved ones.
We’re working aggressively to address another signature wound of this war, which has led too many fine troops and veterans to take their own lives—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We’re continuing to make major investments—improving outreach and suicide prevention, hiring and training more mental health counselors and treating more veterans than ever before.
The days when depression and P-T-S-D were stigmatized must end. That’s why I made the decision to start sending condolence letters to the families of service members who take their lives while deployed in a combat zone. These American patriots did not die because they were weak. They were warriors. And every man and woman in uniform, and every veteran, needs to know that your nation will be there to help you stay strong.
In recent months, we’ve heard new reports of some of our veterans not getting the prompt mental health care they desperately need. That, too, is unacceptable. Because if a veteran has the courage to seek help, then we need to be doing everything in our power to deliver the life-saving mental health care they need. So Secretary Shinseki and the VA are going to stay on this. And we'll continue to make it easier for veterans with post traumatic stress to qualify for VA benefits, regardless of the war you served in. If you served in a combat theater and a VA doctor confirms a diagnosis of PTSD, that's enough.
Which brings me to the final area where America must meet its obligations to our veterans, indeed, where we need each other—and that’s the task of renewing our nation’s economic strength. After a decade of war, it’s time to focus on nation building here at home. And our veterans, especially our 9/11 Generation veterans, have the skills and the dedication to help lead the way.
That’s why we’re funding the post-9/11 GI Bill, which is now helping more than 500,000 veterans and family members go to college, get their degrees and play their part in moving America forward. It’s why, this fall, we’ll start including vocational training and apprenticeships as well, so veterans can develop the skills to succeed in today’s economy. And it’s why I’ve directed the federal government to hire more veterans, including more than 100,000 veterans in the past year and a half alone.
But in this tough economy, far too many of our veterans are unemployed. That’s why I’ve proposed a comprehensive initiative to make sure we’re tapping the incredible talents of our veterans. And it’s got two main parts.
First, we’re going to do more to help our newest veterans find and get that private sector job. We’re going to offer more help with career development and job searches. I’ve directed DOD and the VA to create a “reverse boot camp” to help our newest veterans prepare for civilian jobs and translate their exceptional military skills into industry-accepted licenses and credentials. And today I’m calling on every state to pass legislation that makes it easier for our veterans to get the credentials and the jobs for which they are so clearly qualified. This needs to happen.
Second, we’re encouraging the private sector to do its part. I’ve challenged companies across America to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans or their spouses. This builds on the commitments that many companies have already made as part of the Joining Forces campaign championed by my wife Michelle and the Vice President’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden.
100,000 jobs for veterans and spouses. And to get this done, I’ve proposed a Returning Heroes Tax Credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans, and a Wounded Warrior Tax Credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans with a disability. When Congress returns from recess, this needs to be at the top of the agenda. For the sake of our veterans, for the sake of our economy, we need these veterans working and contributing and creating the new jobs and industries that will keep America competitive in the 21st century.
These are the obligations we have to each other—our forces, our veterans, our citizens. These are the responsibilities we must fulfill. Not just when it’s easy, or when it’s convenient, but always. That’s a lesson we learned again this year in the life and passing of Frank Buckles, our last veteran from the First World War, at the age of 110.
Frank lived the American Century. An ambulance driver on the Western front, he bore witness to the carnage of the trenches. During the Second World War, he survived more than three years in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Like so many veterans, he came home, went to school, pursued a career, started a family and lived a good life, on his farm in West Virginia.
Even in his later years, after turning 100, Frank Buckles still gave back to his country. Speaking to schoolchildren about his extraordinary life. Meeting and inspiring other veterans. And for 80 years, serving as a proud member of the American Legion.
The day he was laid to rest, I ordered that flags be flown at half-staff—at the White House, at government buildings across the nation and at our embassies around the world. As Frank Buckles lay in honor at Arlington’s memorial chapel, hundreds passed by his flagged-draped casket in quiet procession. Most were strangers who never knew him, but they knew the story of his service and they felt compelled to offer their thanks to this American soldier.
That afternoon, I went to Arlington to spend a few moments with Frank’s daughter Susannah who cared from her father to the very end. It was a chance for me to convey the gratitude of the entire nation and to pay my respects to an American who reflected the best of who we are as a people.
And Legionnaires, it was a reminder—not just to the family and friends of Corporal Frank Buckles, but to the veterans and families of all generations: no matter when you served, no matter how many years ago you took off the uniform, no matter how long you live as a proud veteran of this country we love, America will never leave your side.
God bless you, God bless all our veterans. And God bless the United States of America.