THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Vice President
For Immediate Release May 21, 2009
REMARKS BY THE VICE PRESIDENT
TO TROOPS AT
CAMP BONDSTEEL/MULTI-NATIONAL TASK FORCE-EAST
Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Soldiers, I apologize for my back to you -- I apologize. But thank you, thank you all for having me.
General, it’s an honor -- it’s an honor to be with you. And it’s an honor to be back at Fort Bondsteel. I spent a fair amount of time back in the days when I was a senator, when this God-awful war began and Milosevic’s rampage was underway. And this is -- I’ve had multiple visits here, but it’s always -- always great to be here at Bondsteel.
I was here before it was built, I was here while it was being built, and I keep coming back -- one, it’s been built -- because, damn, I love the food. (Laughter.) Do they still have ice cream in the mess? Well, that’s why I came, I just want you to know. (Laughter.)
Let me say what a privilege it is to be with all of you today. You represent -- and this is not hyperbole -- you literally represent the greatness of America. You’re from all across the country, active duty, National Guard, Reserves, including the California National Guard.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: The Alaska National Guard.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I understand we have some Marylanders here -- that’s a suburb of Delaware. (Laughter.) Only kidding, guys, only kidding. Only kidding. And West Virginia National Guard, I’m told, some here. And I’m also told you have some Texans here, is that right?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: All right. Only takes about three Texans to sound like 50. (Laughter.)
Hey, those of you from Alaska, your helicopter unit today gave me a copy of your patch -- Northern Exposure. (Laughter.) You’ve all seen it, haven’t you? I just -- where the hell were you when I was debating Sarah Palin? (Laughter.) I could have used this patch. When she said, "Can I call you Joe?" I’d say, "Sure, if you wear your patch." (Laughter.) By the way, she’s quite a lady -- and I mean that sincerely.
I got to admit, though, I’ve never seen a patch quite like this one. I won’t ask what you’re exposing -- but at any rate. (Laughter.)
You know, you’re serving shoulder-to-shoulder with our NATO forces that are here. Partners from Armenia and Greece, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania and Ukraine. You know, you show the world, and you continue to show the world what happens when nations resolve to stand together to defeat tyranny and to build free societies. Again, that’s not hyperbole, that’s real. That’s what you’ve been doing here. You’re actually rebuilding the society -- one that quite frankly never existed before in this part of the world.
A few years ago -- as was mentioned, I have a son in Iraq, but a few years ago another Biden visited here as a member of the Justice Department, the United States Justice Department’s sole representative here in Kosovo, right after the war while things were still kind of dicey -- and they’re always dicey -- trying to help them put together rule of law, train their judges, and train their prosecutors -- that was my son, Beau.
I made a real serious mistake. I came to visit, one of the many times I’ve been here, and I saw him. He was a civilian then and because he’s always looking for a good meal, I was coming up to Bondsteel. He said, come up and spend the night with me. And then after his tour was over here, he went back home and he went back to practicing law and became the Attorney General of Delaware.
And one day he said to me, "Hey, Dad, what are you doing on Friday?" True story. I said, "Why? What do you have in mind, pal? Whatever you want." He said, "I’d like you be at such and such a place." I said, "What for?" He said, "To pin my bars on me." I said, "What in the hell have you done? Your mother is going to kill me." He said, "Well, Dad, ever since I’d been to Bondsteel" -- and I’m not joking; he came to Bondsteel, saw your predecessors here and decided he had to be part of it. He had to be part of it. Like all of you, he’s crazy, thank God for America -- he is -- and I just want to tell you that I admire what you’re doing.
He was inspired by what he saw then and by the women and men he met here at Bondsteel. And now, as I said, he is, like you, he’s serving away from his family, like so many thousands and tens of thousands of Americans. You all didn’t sign on this for being your day job, but it’s become your day job, at least for the year or so you’re away from your family. And he’s going to return home, like all of you, and he’ll return home later this year after a 12-month deployment. And his determination, like yours, to serve our nation at a critical time in our history is not at all unlike yours. He shares with you the kinship of character and the commitment to our country that your generation has showed in extra measure.
And, together, all our Guardsmen and women provide just another example of why I have -- and I’m not just saying this -- why I have so much faith -- so much faith in the inevitability of America. So much faith in the notion that the 21st century, we’ll lead once again. So much faith in the notion that the 21st century will lead once again. So much faith in success of your missions here in Kosovo and all around the world. I just got back from -- not "just," several months ago got back from Afghanistan. Similar, similar missions -- the Guard, Reserve and regular forces, all together doing the same job.
Long before my son came here, I made a trip to this camp when it was first under construction. I flew over it coming up from Split. This was actually a relatively bumpy mountain top. And I flew over it in the helicopter, General, as American bulldozers and earthmovers were literally shaving the top of this mountain off. And literally -- I believe it was less than six weeks later when I came back -- there was actually occupation on this hill.
And I had spent the day in Pristina meeting with various people. And I had a Kosovar driver who was driving me around that day. And as it came toward evening, I was coming up to spend the night here at Bondsteel, and the main gate you come through now used to be a rutted dirt road, literally. And it had rained very hard. The roads had not been paved yet and it was rutted and bumpy coming up. But it seemed like a steeper incline than it looks now. And we got to the pike, the red and white pike across this rutted dirt road, and with great enthusiasm, my Kosovar driver looked through the window and he said, "America. America." And he was pointing at the bulldozers and cranes and all the activity, and he was astounded by the fact we were able to do this so quickly and so thoroughly.
But as I look slightly to my right at the guard shack, I looked over and I gazed at what I thought really is America. There were four American soldiers standing there. There was an African American officer, there was a woman colonel, there was a Hispanic American, and a non-commissioned black soldier. And I tapped my driver literally -- this is not -- I’m not making this -- this literally happened. I tapped my driver on the shoulder and I said: No, there’s America. There’s America. And until you people begin to understand that, this carnage will never end. That’s the magic of America.
And just the fact that you are all here representing every hue and color, male and female, sends such a message throughout this region so loudly that I think you all underestimate the consequences.
And working together with our NATO allies and others is another thing that the people of this region have found almost difficult to understand -- speaking of female officers. They can’t quite get it. You know, they say it’s better to see a sermon than hear one preached. Well, you’re the sermon. And a decade later, in front of all of you, I see it even more than I saw it then. Today I look out at all of you and I’m humbled and I am proud.
Ladies and gentlemen, for just as I’ve seen other bases around the world and made dozens of trips into what we call war zones around the world, what I see reaffirms my absolute belief and knowledge you are the most powerful, you are the most disciplined, you are the best-trained warriors America has ever produced. And that is literally true. You’re the most visible, most vital symbol of our sense of justice and compassion that could possibly be demonstrated to the rest of the world, along with your colleagues in the multinational force. You’re the embodiment of our deep-seated ethic of selflessness and sacrifice.
I’ll never forget going into Romania early on, meeting with the Romanian President, and him saying, "You’re the only nation that’s ever come, conquered, and left without taking anything." Ladies and gentlemen, that’s America. That’s who we are. And that’s who you -- that’s who you advertise to the whole world who we are.
When I look at the progress made since my first visit, much of it has been attained, first and foremost, by American leadership, backed up by the courage and hard work of NATO military forces like all those standing with you here today. I fought long and hard early on, somewhat controversially, to make the United States do everything it could to prevent and end the ethnic cleansing. I am not a warmonger but I worked very, very hard to get President Clinton to lift the arms embargo and strike forces, the JNA crossing the Drina to stop the ethnic cleansing that was going on, not only in Bosnia but here in Kosovo, to protect what has become Kosovo’s independence.
You don’t sometimes make as much news these days as your buddies in ISAF, but let me tell you, I know what you’re doing. The President knows what you’re doing. And what you’re doing remains vital, remains absolutely vital.
You have a chance. We have a chance. Your colleagues in the multinational forces have a chance to be able to say to our grandchildren and your great grandchildren that we were present in the moment for the first time in all of history the Balkans became part of Europe. We dreamed of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. But the one missing piece of that puzzle remains the Balkans. And what you’re doing here gives for the first time in all of history a chance -- a chance to change. So we know what you’re doing and the people of Kosovo know what you’re doing.
I spoke to the parliament today. Every street I traveled, the streets were lined from the curb to the storefronts with people cheering and holding up signs, thanking America and the multinational force. You know, this is NATO’s second largest deployment in all of its history. You’re making a decisive contribution, getting this country on its feet. And you also demonstrate every day what we call the new NATO.
In total, this opportunity represents 33 countries, including 25 NATO countries, members, and eight non-NATO members. This mission brings stability and prosperity to Kosovo and it symbolizes the way that NATO has reached out beyond its original boundaries and mission to provide security in places that need help like this one, and in turn enhance our security.
In doing so, we extended our hand and created a new and enduring partnership to make us safer not only here, but all around the world. Here in Kosovo, you protect the innocent -- you protected innocents decade ago, and now you’re providing Kosovars the security they need to -- and the space they need to build an independent, democratic, and most importantly multiethnic state. That’s never existed in this part of the world.
Your primary mission is securing freedom of movement for Kosovar citizens -- Kosovo citizens, but you’re doing so much more than that. You’re literally building a free, vibrant, productive society from the ground up. You’re working with nongovernmental organizations, international donor organizations, to complete local improvement projects that change the lives of these people.
You’re helping citizens with personal health care needs, providing farmers with veterinarian assistance through the monthly advisory meetings you have. You’re working with doctors and medical students educating -- and with education projects that are going to help these people treat their own patients more efficiently and effectively when we leave. You’re even going into schools to interact with this nation’s next generation, which is our only hope.
For every little thing you do, you do so much to secure a brighter future for those kids you see in the streets, for Kosovo, and you do it for the region -- and for America -- America that relies on you to create and maintain the peaceful world that we all desire. And for that, and so much more, we owe you.
Folks, to President Obama and me, when we say, we owe you, we mean that more than just an idle phrase. Our administration is doing what we can to repay the debt. You started your train-up for this deployment at the end of last year, before heading to Germany for an exercise in mid-January. A couple of weeks after that, on February 17, we passed the historic Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help jumpstart our economy, while also building the economy of tomorrow. And just as we’ve done for civilian workers, we wanted to make sure that you have everything you need when you’re deployed, and able to do your jobs -- and you have your jobs when you come back home.
That’s why we focus so much of our nation’s resources in this incredibly difficult time not only on your training, your pay and your equipment, but on your health, your education, and the quality of life for you and your families.
This effort includes the $7 billion -- in addition to the regular budget -- $7 billion for military construction projects: new hospitals, child care centers, better housing at all our defense installations across America. We also realize that commitment doesn’t end with this legislation, nor does it end when your time at this base comes to a close.
That’s why we dramatically increased health care coverage, providing resources for 5.5 million additional veterans -- timely, high-quality health care; extending and expanding health care eligibility, bringing in a half a million new veterans into the system. That’s why we passed the most extensive GI Bill since World War II -- that includes all of you where you get credit for your deployment. And for the first time in history, if you decide you don’t want to use it, you can’t use it, your spouse or your children can use those very benefits to go to college.
We’re extremely proud that we’ve also increased funding for veterans by $25 billion. That’s not occurred before. It’s the biggest increase in a generation. And when we proposed it, people said, how can we be doing this at a time of such economic strain, with such high deficits? My response is simple: How can we not -- for which you and your families are doing, how can we not do that?
We have only one sacred obligation as a nation, only one, and it trumps all others: it’s to care for those we send into harm’s way, and care for them when they come home. That is more consequential than any other obligation we have, whether it’s education or health care. Anything else -- it’s the single and only sacred obligation we have. And we’re going to fulfill that obligation -- passes the Congress.
You know, the poet John Milton wrote, "They also serve who only stand and wait." Like your parents and your spouses, my family understands that my daughter-in-law and my two grandchildren are serving by only standing and waiting. Ladies and gentlemen, your families back home are making incredible sacrifices. We know -- we know -- what your families are actually engaged in doing, and they deserve our help, as well.
Some of you -- some of you -- like my son’s family, are missing your children. Some of you are missing birthdays. Some of you are missing the birth of your first, or second, or third, or fourth child. Some of you are missing the funerals of close friends and relatives.
You know, we say America is at war, but I say we have a military at war and a country that, not because they don’t care, doesn’t fully appreciate the sacrifices you’re making. We understand the importance of your families and the sacrifice they’re making back home, and we owe them dearly, as well.
But ladies and gentlemen, we also owe an inordinately large debt to the families of the 4,295 fallen angels in Iraq, the 679 fallen angels in Afghanistan, the 34,084 wounded in both theaters. We owe those families more than we can ever pay. And we say to those families that there’s no other group of Americans we’re more indebted to.
Ladies and gentlemen, you know you’re coming up on an important anniversary here. You may really -- you may not know it. Forty years ago, on May 24, a 21-year-old guy in my generation’s war, a staff sergeant, displayed incredible leadership and courage in a four-hour battle in An Loc Province in Vietnam. For his efforts, he won the Medal of Honor, and I’d like to read to you from the citation that he received when he received that Medal of Honor.
It says: "By individual acts of bravery he destroyed 10 enemy bunkers, accounted for a large toll of the enemy, including two enemy commanders. His extraordinary heroism at the risk of his life was in the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army."
That young soldier was Staff Sergeant James Leroy Bondsteel. And I know almost exactly 40 years to the day, because it was May 23, almost 40 years to the day of his exceptional heroism, he’d look at all of you soldiers who live on this base that bears his name, and be proud of what you’re accomplishing already and what you continue to accomplish in the future for this country and for our country.
So from the bottom of my heart, on behalf of the President of the United States, our entire administration, the United States Congress and all the American people, if they only knew, I say: We admire you, we genuinely admire you. We admire what you’re doing, and we will do everything in our power to guarantee that you have whatever you need to complete your mission and whatever help you need when we get back home, because a lot of your families -- a lot of your families -- are stressed. A lot of you are dealing with having left situations behind that needs some help. Many not, but many, you do.
And so folks, again, on behalf of the President of the United States, we not only thank you, but we thank your families. And ladies and gentlemen of the Multi-National Task Force, you also have our full support and our deep respect -- the deep respect of a grateful nation and a grateful people here in Kosovo.
So I want to thank you, and God bless you, and may God protect all our troops in harm’s way. I’m really proud of you. Thank you so much. (Applause.)