President Obama traveled to Charlotte, NC today to address the American Legion, the nation’s largest veteran service organization, and pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of our veterans from every corner of the country and every generation:
In the story of your service we see the spirit of America. When your country needed you most, you stepped forward. You raised your right hand, you swore a solemn oath. You put on that uniform and earned the title you carry to this day -- whether Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman.
Among you are proud veterans of World War II; of Korea; of Vietnam; of Desert Storm and the Balkans; and our newest veterans -- from Iraq and Afghanistan. Across the generations, you served with honor. You made us proud. And you carry the memory of friends who never came home -- our fallen, our prisoners of war, those missing in action -- heroes that our nation can never forget.
To honor that sacrifice, America must always use our military strength wisely -- a fact that our veterans uniquely understand. As the President said:
You’re the ones who bear the wages of war. You’re the ones who carry the scars. You know that we should never send America's sons and daughters into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary and we have a plan, and we are resourcing it and prepared to see it through. You know the United States has to lead with strength and confidence and wisdom.
And that's why, after incredible sacrifice by so many of our men and women in uniform, we removed more than 140,000 troops from Iraq and welcomed those troops home. It was the right thing to do. It's why we refocused our efforts in Afghanistan and went after al Qaeda's leadership in the tribal regions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, driving the Taliban out of its strongholds, and training Afghan forces, which are now in the lead for their own security. In just four months, we will complete our combat mission in Afghanistan and America's longest war will come to a responsible end.
As we prepare for that end, the President noted how his Administration has been working with the Legion to fulfill our "moral obligation" to today’s generation of service members when they come home:
The bond between our forces and our citizens has to be a sacred trust, and that for me, for my administration, upholding our trust with our veterans is not just a matter of policy, it is a moral obligation.
And working together, we have made real progress. Think about it. Working with the Legion and other veterans service organizations, we’ve been able to accomplish historic increases to veterans funding. We’ve protected veterans health care from Washington politics with advanced appropriations. We’ve been able to make VA benefits available to more than 2 million veterans who didn't have them before, including more Vietnam vets who were exposed to Agent Orange. We’ve dedicated major new resources for mental health care. We’ve helped more than 1 million veterans and their families pursue their education under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
"The bond between our forces and our citizens has to be a sacred trust, and that for me, for my administration, upholding our trust with our veterans is not just a matter of policy, it is a moral obligation."
Watch his full remarks here:
The President remains “clear-eyed” about the “outrageous and inexcusable” misconduct at the VA -- "long wait times, veterans denied care, folks cooking the books." Working directly with Bob McDonnell, a veteran and the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the President pledged to right these wrongs:
We are going to get to the bottom of these problems. We're going to fix what is wrong. We're going to do right by you, and we are going to do right by your families. And that is a solemn pledge and commitment that I’m making to you here.
Already we're making sure that those responsible for manipulating or falsifying records are held accountable. We're reaching out to veterans -- more than a quarter million so far -- to get them off wait lists and into clinics. We're moving ahead with reforms at the Veterans Health Administration. And to help get that done, you supported, and Congress passed, and I signed into law the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which means more resources to help the VA hire more doctors and nurses and staff. It means if you live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or your VA doctors can't see you fast enough, we'll help you go to a doctor outside the VA.
And we're instituting a new culture of accountability. Bob doesn't play. Bob likes to recall a cadet prayer from West Point, which should be the ethos of all of us: "Choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong." And with the new legislation that I signed into law, Bob and the VA now have the authority to more quickly remove senior executives who don't meet our high standards. If you engage in unethical practices, or cover up a serious problem, you should be and will be fired.
President Obama outlined the five major priorities he is focusing on to fulfill our sacred obligation to veterans and military families:
- Ensure veterans have the resources and support they deserve: The president has asked Congress to once again increase funding for veterans in next year’s budget while beating back any effort to turn veterans’ health care into a voucher system: "We don’t need vouchers; you need the VA health care that you have earned and that you depend on. We need to make the system work."
- Make sure veterans get the health care they need when they need it: On top of reforming the VHA and increasing the number of doctors and staff, the President is working to invest in tailored care specific to our veterans needs, including care that treats our women veterans with respect and dignity, help for vets who are struggling with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and working to end the tragedy of suicide among our troops and veterans. So today, he announced 19 new executive actions to help improve mental health care for service members and veterans, including actions that expand suicide prevention training, improve access to care with more mental health peer support in primary care settings, and make it easier for service members who are already being treated to transition to VA care. The Department of Defense and the VA issued a fact sheet outlining the mental health initiatives for service members and veterans referenced by the President. "You’re not alone. We’re here for you,” the President said. And every American needs to know -- if you see someone in uniform or a veteran who’s struggling -- reach out and help them get help. They were there for America, we now need to be there for them."
- Continue to reduce the disability claims backlog: Since its peak last year, we have slashed the backlog by more than 50 percent, but there’s more to do. The Administration continues to move toward paperless systems and the electronic health records that our troops and veterans can keep for life, which will help cut through the red tape and ensure that veterans get the benefits they’ve earned faster.
- Reduce veterans homelessness: Today, the President announced that, by working with veteran service organizations like the Legion, we’ve reduced the number of homeless veterans by a 33%. "That means, on any given night, there are 25,000 fewer veterans on the streets or in shelters,” he said. “But we’re not going to stop until every veteran who defended America has a home in America. That’s a basic commitment that we have to uphold."
- Ensure that military members and veterans have every opportunity to pursue the American Dream:
- Home ownership: President Obama announced a new partnership with some of America’s biggest banks and financial institutions to help service members get reduced mortgage rates they are entitled to by simplifying the process, proactively notifying service members who qualify, and making it easier to enroll. Learn more about this partnership here.
- Education: The Obama Administration worked with loan servicers to automatically cap interest rates on student loans to service members at 6%. Moreover, about 6,000 colleges and universities have pledged to adhere to our principles of excellence and more than 1,000 colleges and universities have adopted our 8 Keys to helping veterans pursue their education and employment goals.
- Employment: Thanks to the efforts of the President, Congress, the Veterans Benefit Administration, and the First lady and Dr. Biden’s call to business and community leaders through their Joining Forces initiative, veteran unemployment is now lower than the national average. American businesses have hired or trained more than half a million veterans and spouses, with even more veterans learning about the 1.5 million jobs open right now through our new online Veterans Employment Center. As the President said, "We’re going to keep saying to every business in America -- if you want somebody who knows how to get the job done, no matter the mission -- hire a veteran. Hire a veteran."
It will take more than one president, one veterans organization, one business, or one community to meet our sacred obligation to our nation’s service members, military families, and veterans. It is the responsibility of every American:
Every American needs to join us in taking care of those who've taken care of us. Because only 1 percent of Americans may be fighting our wars, but 100 percent of Americans benefit from that 1 percent. A hundred percent need to be supporting our troops. A hundred percent need to be supporting our veterans. A hundred percent need to be supporting our military families.
And everybody can do something. Every American. Every business. Every profession. Every school. Every community. Every state. All of us, as one American team. That's how we will truly honor our veterans. That's how we will truly say thank you. That's how we will uphold the sacred trust with all who've served in our name.