THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Vice President
For Immediate Release April 8, 2009
REMARKS BY THE VICE PRESIDENT
AT THE WELCOME HOME CEREMONY
FOR XVIII AIRBORNE CORPS
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
10:49 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: As you all can tell, I not only am a little hoarse, but I'm not accustomed to being introduced by three-stars other than saying, "Here's the Vice President." (Laughter.) I thank you for that gracious introduction, General, and I think I'm actually closer -- I'm in the 20s in terms of my visits to the Balkans and the -- all the way through to Afghanistan, and every place in between.
I committed, when I was elected to the United States Senate as a 29-year-old kid, that wherever I voted to send a man or a woman, I would go to see how they were doing. And I know you all know it assembled here, but to the press corps assembled, and to anyone within the range of my voice or who'll read these remarks, I have been incredibly -- incredibly impressed.
My only regret, General, is when I've traveled to Prishtina or to Brcko or to -- up into the Kunar Valley in Afghanistan, or -- where you and I last hung out in Iraq, I -- my only regret is that the rest of America is not standing next to me, literally seeing the job you all do, the sacrifices you make.
I have never been so proud as standing up in a hamlet in God knows nowhere in the Kunar Valley with six -- I call them "kids" and my wife gets angry. She said, "These are warriors, don't call them kids." But they're younger than I am, standing up there in the middle of nowhere on a mountain pass seeing six people at a forward operating base, and watching them handle an entire community, put themselves in a position where not only are they exposed, but they're exposed also to not just the elements but to the people who in fact they're trying to get to know. And watching these young women and men without any fear or trepidation walking out into communities and villages of less than 200 people, building roads, making sure they have water, and actually, literally standing there, on occasion, behind some sandbag and physically -- physically protecting them.
So I say to all of you assembled on this field today: You are the best trained; you are the bravest; you are the most conditioned; you are the best force America has ever assembled. And I'm just honored and proud to be here today with my wife, Jill.
Fifteen months ago, our country called you to serve in Iraq. For some of you this was not your first deployment. You arrived in a country that was on the brink of a civil war, a country that I first visited over six years ago. I've been back about a dozen times, and watching the circumstance in which you walked into, with a country on the brink of a civil war, a country that experienced widespread sectarian violence while insurgents targeted our troops on a daily basis.
Thousands of young men and women prior to your arrival injured or killed, fighting like the devil to get MRAPs built to take place of up-armored Humvees. Watching there at Dover Air Force Base as so many of these young warriors made their last -- their last and final journey home to their country. You went in the midst of what was an uncertain future for Iraq, and you left -- you left five or six days ago -- you left behind a country in which violence is being replaced by progress.
Over the course of your deployment, you dealt a serious blow to al Qaeda and Iraq by taking the fight to them in the north, by moving out into Anbar Province, by taking on the Shia extremists in the south, and by stemming the flow of weapons and foreign fighters along that broad, open, expansive border in Iraq. You helped secure the provincial elections, which I might add, as you’ll remember, General, were very much in doubt. Everybody acts now like this was a done deal, this was a certainty, but it was not -- it was not. So you have made sure those provincial elections took place at the beginning of this year, the first of what will be basically four elections in that country.
During the Iraqi elections of 2005, there were over 300 attacks. During the provincial elections held just two months ago, there were 11 attacks in the entire country. I know because I spent some time with General Allen (sic) in Iraq. I know the general -- excuse me, General Austin in Iraq -- there's also a General Allen, by the way -- but General Austin in Iraq. And I know, General, you saw these provincial elections as the key focus of your efforts, and you were dead right -- you were dead right.
By helping these elections take place peacefully, you sent a message -- all of you assembled here, you sent a message -- you sent a message to the entire world that things weren't moving backwards, but they were moving forward in Iraq, that a country that had been in chaos was able to actually hold an orderly transfer of power at a provincial level to allow the Iraqis to begin to gain control of their own destiny. You gave them -- you and thousands and tens of thousands of others over the period of the last seven years -- you gave the Iraqis a chance, a fighting chance to reclaim their country and establish a stable government for the first time in God knows how long, a government chosen by their own people, not imposed upon them by a superpower, not imposed upon them by a dictator.
Perhaps most importantly, you and your predecessors built the capacity of the Iraqi security forces to a point -- to a point where the President could announce the drawdown of American combat forces from Iraq. I remember those early days -- I say to my colleagues I remember those early days standing there with General Petraeus, watching what looked like the -- kids trying to get together a police force and an army in those early days. Well, because of all the work you've done, all the work our military has done, I am absolutely confident that the Iraqis are in a much better place to take responsibility for their own security.
To the men and women of the 18th Airborne Corps, on behalf of a grateful nation, we thank you, thank you for a job well done. You did more than I suspect you even know. It's amazing to me as I go out into these battle spaces, how you just look at it like, "This is my job, sir. Mr. Vice President, or Senator, this is my job" -- like you're showing up to the bakery that morning to make sure the muffins get put out. (Laughter.) You're incredible, you're absolutely incredible. But you should know -- you should know that with the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbors, as my grandfather used to say, you set a country on a course that may affect the shape of the history of that region for a generation to come.
I want to recognize some of the distinguished leaders. I know we should do this the other way. I know my colleague, Senator Kay Hagan, and my two congressional colleagues up there know the way to start off is recognize the brass first. But tell you the truth, you folks coming home are even more important than the brass that are here today, and more important than me and everyone assembled in that reviewing stand.
But the fact of the matter is, I don't think you could have done your job without the training, the commitment, and the absolute unflinching loyalty of your Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin. The last time I saw General Austin was in Kirkuk. The first thing he asked me -- he was getting in one of those helicopters, which I found fascinating -- not "This is what I need, Mr. Vice President" -- and then I was interim, I was between being a senator and a Vice President. When I was a senator I had real power. (Laughter.) But all kidding aside, I remember it was the first thing he asked me. He asked me about my son. You didn't ask me about anything else. You asked me about my son. I think that's a reflection of how the General's staff views every one of you that are deployed -- you're their sons and daughters.
So it's great to have you home, General. And I want to say publicly to the press here, so he cannot wiggle out of it, he made a commitment to me that when he got home, that he and his wife -- Mrs. Austin, it was a pleasure meeting you, by the way, thank you -- that you would come up to have dinner with my wife Jill and me in my new public housing accommodations. (Laughter.) So that was a commitment he made. And I want to let you all know I'm going to hold him to it. (Laughter.) And General Charles Campbell, Commanding General, U.S. Forces Command -- General, you're the best of the best, and you've got one hell of an outfit underneath you. And so I just want to thank you, thank you all for having the good judgment to follow these guys.
General James Lindsay is here, as well, as well as -- he was former retired commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. Also in our presence is the fellow who I -- and this is probably why I slipped and said "Allen" -- Command Sergeant Major Allen, who actually runs the whole show -- (laughter) -- is here today. And Command Sergeant, at least that's what my son tells me. Captains and Majors don't pay much attention to anybody but Command Sergeant Majors.
But it's a delight to be here. And Georgeann McRaven, whose husband is a commander, Joint Special Operations Command, who is still deployed; Tommy Bolton, who was referenced here, a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army. And I want to thank the members of the Congress again, Senator Kay Hagan, and -- who is a welcome addition and a good buddy of mine. And I hope you're enjoying the Senate as much as I did when I was there, Kay; and Bob Etheridge, who you all know well, and Mike McIntyre -- two stalwart members of the United States Congress and overwhelming supporters of all of you here at Fort Bragg and every fighting man and woman in America; and Mayor Tony Chavonne of Fayetteville, and Mayor Ethel Clark of Spring Lake, for all you've done to connect this base to the community. I know they appreciate it. They talk about it. And it is -- coming from Delaware, where the Dover Air Force Base is a major presence in my state, the relationship with the community makes a gigantic difference in the quality of life for all those stationed here. And you do a great job for them.
I also feel like I should recognize one guy who's always been here for you when you come back, and that's Iron Mike. He didn't say a damn thing to me when I came in today. (Laughter.) I saluted him; he didn't respond. But I know -- I know you're good to see -- you were happy to see Iron Mike when you came on base; you know you're home.
You know, there's a famous expression uttered by the poet John Milton. He said, "They also serve who only stand and wait." "They also serve who only stand and wait." Well, you know, of all of the people we have to thank, there is no one we owe a greater debt to, as General Austin pointed out, than your families. And that's not a bit of hyperbole, that's real -- that's real. It's hard enough to stand and wait in past wars when the whole nation has been at war, when everyone has understood the sacrifice your families are making, when everyone has understood what was going on. But in a sense, we are more a military at war than a nation at war. There’s a very few of you who make the sacrifices you make.
And I think it's one thing to stand and wait when you have the psychic remuneration of a whole nation knowing about the sacrifice you've made. You don't ask for that, but it's reinforcing when it exists. But I think it's even harder, because so many people -- good, decent Americans -- don't have any idea of the depths of the sacrifices your families make. It's not that they don't care, they do care. But they're going about their everyday life trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other, put bread on the table, keep their jobs. And the sacrifices that are made, the exceptional sacrifices -- a 15-month deployment. To most Americans that's a lifetime, 15 months. And during that period of time a lot happens.
So I want you to know I think Jill and I understand. I know my daughter-in-law and my two grandchildren understand the sacrifices your family made. Jill and I proudly wear this blue star. We proudly wear it. But it's interesting -- it's interesting. As much as people care, they just don't know the extent of the sacrifice you're making. But I want you to know that my wife and I know, President Obama and Michelle Obama know, my colleagues in the Congress know -- and we appreciate it more than you can imagine.
You know, it's amazing how when you're confronted with the difficulties that all your families have been confronted with, how it gives you a different perspective. My wife, for the last four years, and as you noticed, the First Lady Mrs. Obama, Michelle Obama -- they've devoted an inordinate number of hours to making sure and championing the needs for military families. We also know that a lot happened over the past 15 months that you haven't been able to share. Your child takes his first step; spoke his first or her first words; had a birthday without you, maybe more than one; things around the house that needed to be done weren't able to be done. Some of you even suffered losses in your family in those 15 months. So, folks, we want you to know we genuinely, genuinely appreciate your families, almost as much as what you've done for us. They have been incredible.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, I know no one in North Carolina is interested in basketball. (Laughter.) I know it's only a moderate pastime. But at least you got home in time to see North Carolina win the national championship. (Applause.)
And so, folks, your loved ones waited and they prayed, and they stood strong in your absence, and they deserve our thanks. So on behalf of all of America, thank you, the families of these deployed soldiers. (Applause.)
And when I say America owes you -- and we owe you -- to President Obama and me these are not idle phrases. When we say we owe you, we mean it. We owe you. That's why we're working so hard to improve the quality of life on bases across America. Here at Fort Bragg that means $30 million in investment, including the funds for a new child development center so we can get your kids off a waiting list into high-quality child care. That's why the so-called Recovery Act, that special legislation we passed at the front end provides $7 billion in new military construction projects, the majority of which are designed to improve the quality of life of our men and women serving this country. That's why we so strongly support the GI bill to make college more affordable, because you deserve it, and I hope you all are able to take advantage of it. And that's why we put caring for those who serve at the center of all our efforts.
President Obama and I are proud that in the first budget, even in these hard economic times, that we submitted -- we called for an increase in funding for veterans, expanding the eligibility for health care coverage to additional half a million veterans in expanding the services that are afforded to those people. I believe there's only one sacred obligation. I know people are tired of hearing me say this, but our government has only one truly sacred obligation. We have a lot of obligations, but only one truly sacred obligation, and that's to care for those who we send to war, and to give them everything they need when they return.
Ladies and gentlemen, if we only have $10 to spend in the entire federal government, then we are convinced that we have to spend six of it caring for those who come home in need. We will spend all six before we spend it on anything else -- on the elderly, on children, on the poor, on our roads, on our security -- because this is the only genuinely sacred obligation this nation has. The service that you and thousands and thousands of others who went before you in Iraq over the last six years -- the services you've performed have come at great cost for some. Some of our warriors and their families have paid a much steeper price than others. Some had given their lives, the ultimate sacrifice, and we honor their memory.
But the best way to honor their memory, of those thousands -- over 14,000 seriously injured coming home from the wars which we are engaged in and have been engaged in -- we owe them the obligation to -- we know we can never fully repay it, but we know we owe them the obligation to provide them the absolute best medical care and service they need. Some will need that for the rest of their lives. Their life expectancies will be 35 to 40 years, and some will need care for the entirety of those lives.
And I hope when these wars are finished -- I hope, and they will be -- and we're victorious, I hope five years from now and seven years from now, when we're asking for billions of dollars to meet that obligation to those wounded warriors who return home, no one forgets -- no one forgets because in times of peace, sometimes -- sometimes we forget. Those sacrifices have been real. The sacrifices you've made have been real. They have stabilized Iraq, secured our interest, and put us in a position to begin in an orderly fashion to draw down forces and hand over responsibility to the Iraqis. That's the President's plan -- a plan that he came up with in conjunction with the Joint Chiefs, a plan that will mean a lot more homecomings like this and fewer deployments of units to take place into Iraq.
Yesterday, President Obama visited Iraq for two reasons: one, to thank our troops for their sacrifice and their commitment -- and a job done. He understands that the burden their deployment has put on their families -- he's made it clear that he's willing to do everything possible to meet the needs that are required for the mission and to support you on your return. He also went to Iraq for another reason: That is to send a message to President Maliki, a man I've met many times in Iraq and here, that there's a lot of work left to be done, but the work is on the Iraqi watch now. It's time that they do their responsibility, not militarily alone. It's time to reconcile their political differences so they can enjoy the peace that they say they want and do want in their land.
It kind of reminds me of that famous story about Benjamin Franklin. He came out of -- on a very hot day in July in 1789 -- out of Independence Hall, and a woman accosted him on the street and said, "Mr. Franklin, what have you given us?" And his response was, "A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it." "A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it." Well, you have given the Iraqis the opportunity, for the first time in any of their memories, to live in peace. But it's up to them to make the political reconciliation necessary so they can keep it.
But the job of our warriors is not done. The people who attacked the United States on 9/11, too many of them are alive and well in Pakistan. My helicopter went down with a three-star and two of my colleagues about 9,000 feet in those mountains as we're going up to Tora Bora. And it gives you an overwhelming appreciation -- overwhelming appreciation sitting up on top of that mountain for six hours in the cold with F-15s flying over top making sure you’re okay. What some of the kids we have over there are doing, the incredible job.
General, all I had to do after six hours is walk with a helmet and a vest on about 400 meters up a hill to get to the other side to get to help in the middle of the night. I'm in pretty good shape. I want to tell you something. It made me appreciate what it's like in those mountains, somebody carrying 60 pounds on their back, having to worry about whether their life is at stake, and how difficult it is.
So, ladies and gentlemen, that's where al Qaeda is; that's where bin Laden is; that's where the jihadists are who attacked the United States of America. And President Obama, when he came into office, asked me to go to Afghanistan and come back with a report. Because up to now, we had not absolutely clearly defined exactly what our mission is in Afghanistan. And the President has stated it, along with the Joint Chiefs, clearly and indisputably. He said, and I quote: "Our mission is to disrupt, defeat, and dismantle al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan." That effort is still underway. There's more work to be done, which means there are more people who are going to be separated from their families. We're going to be asking more of those of you who wear the uniform.
Once again -- once again, we're calling on you. I know the brave warriors of the 82nd, and I've had the opportunity, General, to visit the 82nd in a whole lot of places mentioned over the last 15 years. You are warriors of the first degree. But I know the brave warriors of the 82nd and their families are preparing to answer the call right now. Even though today is a day of celebration and welcoming troops home, let me say in advance to the 82nd Airborne, God speed and safe passage. Today -- today is a day to celebrate, and we're thankful.
As I was coming here, I read that nine months after the 82nd Airborne Division returned home in October of 2007, a strange thing happened: The number of births at Womack Army Medical Center jumped by 50 percent. Is that right? You all are -- you all are doing your job. (Laughter.) I just want you to know that.
So I'm hopeful -- I'm hopeful that as the headline said in your local newspaper: "The Stork Lands with the Airborne." Well, that's a long way of saying I know you're anxious for me to stop talking. (Laughter.) You've only been home four days, or three days. It's time to be with your loved ones. And if past is prologue, General, I'm looking forward to coming back, being invited back nine months from now to an awful lot of christenings and baptisms.
And so let me close by saying 15 months ago, I understand that you had plane trouble delaying you getting there. Well, I'm glad there was no delaying getting you back home. So let me just say to you all again, on behalf of my wife, me, First Lady, the President, and an entire nation, a grateful nation -- thank you so much. And may God bless you, and may God protect every troop that's in harm's way. It's been an honor to be with you. Thank you. (Applause.)
11:19 A.M. EDT