President Obama Speaks to the 113th Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars

President Obama Speaks to the 113th Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars


The President:
Thank you. Hello VFW! Thank you so much. Please, please,
everybody have a seat. Commander DeNoyer, thank
you for your introduction, and your service in Vietnam and
on behalf of America’s veterans. I want to thank your executive
director, Bob Wallace; your next commander, who I
look forward to working with, John Hamilton. And to Gwen Rankin,
Leanne Lemley, and the entire Ladies Auxiliary,
thank you for your patriotic service to America. (applause) I stand before you as our hearts
still ache over the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. Yesterday I was in Aurora,
with families whose loss is hard to imagine — with the wounded, who
are fighting to recover; with a community and a
military base in the midst of their grief. And they told me of the
loved ones they lost. And here today, it’s fitting
to recall those who wore our nation’s uniform: Staff
Sergeant Jesse Childress — an Air Force reservist,
29 years old, a cyber-specialist who loved
sports, the kind of guy, said a friend,
who’d help anybody. Petty Officer Third
Class John Larimer — 27 years old, who, like his
father and grandfather before him, joined the Navy,
and who is remembered as an outstanding shipmate. Rebecca Wingo — 32 years old, a veteran of the
Air Force, fluent in Chinese, who served as a
translator; a mother, whose life will be
an inspiration to her two little girls. And Jonathan Blunk — from Reno, just 26 years old,
but a veteran of three Navy tours, whose family and friends
will always know that in that theater he gave his own
life to save another. These young patriots were
willing to serve in faraway lands, yet they were taken
from us here at home. And yesterday I conveyed to
their families a message on behalf of all Americans:
We honor your loved ones. We salute their service. And as you summon the strength
to carry on and keep bright their legacy, we stand with you
as one united American family. (applause) Veterans of Foreign Wars, in you
I see the same shining values, the virtues that
make America great. When our harbor was bombed
and fascism was on the march, when the fighting raged
in Korea and Vietnam, when our country was attacked on
that clear September morning, when our forces
were sent to Iraq — you answered your
country’s call. Because you know what Americans
must always remember — our nation only endures
because there are patriots who protect it. In the crucible of battle, you
were tested in ways the rest of us will never know. You carry in your hearts the
memory of the comrades you lost. For you understand that we must
honor our fallen heroes not just on Memorial Day, but all days. And when an American goes
missing, or is taken prisoner, we must do everything in our
power to bring them home. (applause) Even after you took
off the uniform, you never stopped serving. You took care of each other — fighting for the benefits
and care you had earned. And you’ve taken care of the
generations that followed, including our newest veterans
from Iraq and Afghanistan. On behalf of all our men
and women in uniform, and on behalf of
the American people, I want to thank you, VFW. Thank you for your
outstanding work. (applause) Of course, some among you — our Vietnam veterans — didn’t always receive that
thanks, at least not on time. This past Memorial Day, I joined
some of you at The Wall to begin the 50th anniversary
of the Vietnam War. And it was another chance to say
what should have been said all along: You did your duty,
and you made us proud. And as this 50th
anniversary continues, I’d ask all our Vietnam vets
to stand, or raise your hand, as we say: Thank you
and welcome home. (applause) Every generation among
you served to keep us strong and free. And it falls to us,
those that follow, to preserve what you won. Four years ago, I stood before
you at a time of great challenge for our nation. We were engaged in two wars. Al Qaeda was entrenched in
their safe havens in Pakistan. Many of our alliances
were frayed. Our standing in the
world had suffered. We were in the worst
recession of our lifetimes. Around the world, some
questioned whether the United States still had
the capacity to lead. So, four years ago,
I made you a promise. I pledged to take the
fight to our enemies, and renew our
leadership in the world. As President, that’s
what I’ve done. (applause) And as you reflect
on recent years, as we look ahead to the
challenges we face as a nation and the leadership
that’s required, you don’t just have my
words, you have my deeds. You have my track record. You have the promises I’ve made
and the promises that I’ve kept. I pledged to end the
war in Iraq honorably, and that’s what we’ve done. (applause) After I took office, we
removed nearly 150,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. And some said that bringing
our troops home last year was a mistake. They would have kept tens of
thousands of our forces in Iraq — indefinitely, without
a clear mission. Well, when you’re
Commander-in-Chief, you owe the troops a plan,
you owe the country a plan — and that includes recognizing
not just when to begin wars, but also how to end them. So we brought our
troops home responsibly. They left with their
heads held high, knowing they gave Iraqis
a chance to forge their own future. And today, there are no
Americans fighting in Iraq, and we are proud of all the
Americans who served there. (applause) I pledged to make it a priority
to take out the terrorists who had attacked us on 9/11. And as a candidate, I said that
if we had Osama bin Laden in our sights, we would act
to keep America safe — even if it meant
going into Pakistan. Some of you remember,
at the time, that comment drew quite
a bit of criticism. But since I took office, we’ve
worked with our allies and our partners to take out more top
al Qaeda leaders than any time since 9/11. And thanks to the courage
and the skill of our forces, Osama bin Laden will never
threaten America again, and al Qaeda is on
the road to defeat. (applause) I pledged to finish
the job in Afghanistan. After years of drift, we had
to break the momentum of the Taliban, and build
up the capacity and the capability of Afghans. And so, working
with our commanders, we came up with a new strategy,
and we ordered additional forces to get the job done. This is still a tough fight. But thanks to the incredible
services and sacrifices of our troops, we pushed
the Taliban back; we’re training Afghan forces;
we’ve begun the transition to Afghan lead. Again, there are those who
argued against a timeline for ending this war — or against talking
about it publicly. But you know what, that’s
not a plan for America’s security either. After 10 years of war, and
given the progress we’ve made, I felt it was important
that the American people — and our men and
women in uniform — know our plan to end
this war responsibly. (applause) And so by the end of this
summer, more than 30,000 of our troops will have come home. Next year, Afghans will take the
lead for their own security. In 2014, the transition
will be complete. And even as our
troops come home, we’ll have a strong partnership
with the Afghan people, and we will stay vigilant so
Afghanistan is never again a source for attacks
against America. (applause) We’re not just
ending these wars; we’re doing it in a way that
achieves our objectives. Moreover, it’s allowed us to
broaden our vision and begin a new era of American leadership. We’re leading from Europe
to the Asia Pacific, with alliances that have
never been stronger. We’re leading the fight
against nuclear dangers. We’ve applied the strongest
sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea — nations that cannot be allowed
to threaten the world with nuclear weapons. (applause) We’re leading on
behalf of freedom — standing with people in the
Middle East and North Africa as they demand their rights;
protecting the Libyan people as they rid the world
of Muammar Qaddafi. Today, we’re also working for a
transition so the Syrian people can have a better future,
free of the Assad regime. And given the regime’s
stockpiles of chemical weapons, we will continue to make it
clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching,
and that they will be held accountable by the international
community and the United States, should they make the tragic
mistake of using those weapons. (applause) And we will continue to work
with our friends and our allies and the Syrian opposition on
behalf of the day when the Syrian people have a government
that respects their basic rights to live in peace and
freedom and dignity. Because we’re leading
around the world, people have a new
attitude toward America. There’s more confidence
in our leadership. We see it everywhere we go. We saw it as grateful Libyans
waved American flags. We see it across the globe — when people are asked, which
country do you admire the most, one nation comes out on top —
the United States of America. (applause) So this is the progress
that we’ve made. Thanks to the extraordinary
service of our men and women in uniform, we’re winding
down a decade of war; we’re destroying the terrorist
network that attacked us; we’re strengthening the
alliances that extend our values. And today, every American can be
proud that the United States is safer and stronger and more
respected in the world. And all this allows us to
fulfill another promise that I made to you four years ago
— strengthening our military. After 10 years of operations,
our soldiers will now have fewer and shorter deployments, which
means more time on the home front to keep their
families strong; more time to heal from
the wounds of war; more time to improve readiness
and prepare for future threats. As President, I’ve continued to
make historic investments to keep our armed forces strong. And guided by our
new defense strategy, we will maintain our
military superiority. It will be second to none as
long as I am President and well into the future. We’ve got the
best-trained, best-led, best-equipped
military in history. And as Commander-in-Chief I
am going to keep it that way. (applause) And by the way, given all
the rhetoric lately — it is political season — let’s also set the record
straight on the budget. Those big, across-the-board
cuts, including defense, that Congress said would occur
next year if they couldn’t reach a deal to reduce the deficit? Let’s understand, first of all,
there’s no reason that should happen, because people in
Congress ought to be able to come together
and agree on a plan, a balanced approach that
reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong. It should be done. (applause) And there are a number of
Republicans in Congress who don’t want you to know that most
of them voted for these cuts. Now they’re trying to wriggle
out of what they agreed to. Instead of making tough
choices to reduce the deficit, they’d rather protect tax cuts
for some of the wealthiest Americans, even if it risks
big cuts in our military. And I’ve got to tell
you, VFW, I disagree. If the choice is between tax
cuts that the wealthiest Americans don’t need and funding
our troops that they definitely need to keep our country strong,
I will stand with our troops every single time. (applause) So let’s stop playing
politics with our military. Let’s get serious and
reduce our deficit and keep our military strong. Let’s take some of the money
that we’re saving because we’re not fighting in Iraq
and because we’re winding down in Afghanistan — use half that money to
pay down our deficit; let’s use half of it to do some
nation-building here in the United States of America. (applause) Let’s keep taking care of our
extraordinary military families. For the first time ever, we’ve
made military families and veterans a top priority not just
at DOD, not just at the VA, but across the government. As Richard mentioned, this has
been a mission for my wife, Michelle, and Vice President Joe
Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden. Today, more people across
America in every segment of society are Joining Forces to
give our military families the respect and the support
that they deserve. (applause) And there’s another way we
can honor those who serve. It may no longer be a crime for
con artists to pass themselves off as heroes, but one
thing is certain — it is contemptible. So this week, we will launch a
new website, a living memorial, so the American people can see
who’s been awarded our nation’s highest honors. Because no American hero should
ever have their valor stolen. (applause) This leads me to another promise
I made four years ago — upholding America’s sacred
trust with our veterans. I promised to strengthen the VA,
and that promise has been kept. In my first year, we achieved
the largest percentage increase in the VA budget in 30 years. And we’re going to keep
making historic investments in our veterans. When Richard came
to the Oval Office, we talked about what those
automatic budget cuts — sequestration —
could mean for the VA. So my administration has made it
clear: Your veteran’s benefits are exempt from sequestration. They are exempt. (applause) And because advance
appropriations is now the law of the land, veterans’
health care is protected from the budget battles
in Washington. (applause) I promised you that I’d stand
up for veterans’ health care. As long as I’m President, I will
not allow VA health care to be turned into a voucher system,
subject to the whims of the insurance market. Some have argued for this plan. I could not disagree more. You don’t need vouchers, you
need the VA health care that you have earned and
that you depend on. (applause) So we’ve made dramatic
investments to help care for our veterans. For our Vietnam veterans, we
declared that more illnesses are now presumed connected to
your exposure to Agent Orange. As a result of our decision,
Vietnam-era vets and your families received nearly $4
billion in disability pay. You needed it;
you fought for it. We heard you and we got it done. (applause) We’ve added mobile clinics
for our rural veterans; more tailored care for
our women veterans; unprecedented support for
veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury. All tolled, we’ve made VA
health care available to nearly 800,000 veterans
who didn’t have it before. (applause) And we’re now supporting
caregivers and families with the skills and the stipends
to help care for the veterans that they love. Of course, more veterans in
the system means more claims. So we’ve hired thousands
of claims processors. We’re investing in
paperless systems. To their credit, the dedicated
folks at the VA are now completing one
million claims a year. But there’s been a tidal
wave of new claims. And when I hear about veterans
waiting months, or years, for your benefits —
it is unacceptable. And we are doing
something about it. (applause) We’re taking all those folks
who processed your Agent Orange claims — more than
1,200 experts — and giving them a new
mission: Attack the backlog. We’re prioritizing veterans with
the most serious disabilities. And the VA and DOD will work
harder towards a seamless transition so new veterans
aren’t just piled on to the backlog. And we will not rest — I will not be satisfied
until we get this right. And today, I’m also calling
on all those who help our vets complete their claims — state VAs, physicians and
veteran groups like the VFW — to join us. You know how this can
work better, so let’s get it done, together. We’re also focused on the urgent
needs of our veterans with PTSD. We’ve poured tremendous
resources into this fight — thousands of more counselors
and more clinicians, more care and more treatment. And we’ve made it easier for
veterans with PTSD to qualify for VA benefits. But after a decade of
war, it’s now an epidemic. We’re losing more
troops to suicide — one every single day —
than we are in combat. According to some estimates,
about 18 veterans are taking their lives each day — more every year than all the
troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That’s a tragedy. It’s heartbreaking. It should not be happening in
the United States of America. So when I hear about service
members and veterans who had the courage to seek help but didn’t
get it, who died waiting, that’s an outrage. And I’ve told Secretary Panetta,
Chairman Dempsey and Secretary Shinseki we’ve got to do better. This has to be
all hands on deck. So our message to everyone
who’s ever worn the uniform — if you’re hurting, it’s not a
sign of weakness to seek help, it’s a sign of strength. And when you do, we’ll be
there and do more to help — including more counselors and
clinicians to help you heal. We need to end
this tragedy, VFW. (applause) And we’re going to work
together to make it happen. (applause) So, too with our campaign to end
homelessness among our veterans. We’ve now helped to bring tens
of thousands of veterans off the streets and into
permanent housing. This has to be a core mission,
because every veteran who has fought for America ought
to have a home in America. (applause) And this brings me to
the last promise I want to discuss with you. Four years ago, I said that I’d
do everything I could to help our veterans realize
the American Dream, to enlist you in building
a stronger America. After all, our veterans have
the skills that America needs. So today, our economy is
growing and creating jobs, but it’s still too hard for
too many folks to find work, especially our younger
veterans, our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. And with a million more troops
rejoining civilian life in the years ahead — and
looking for work — we’ve got to step up our game,
at every stage of their careers. So today, I’m announcing a major
overhaul of our transition assistance program. We’re going to set up a kind
of “reverse boot camp” for our departing service members. Starting this year, they’ll get
more personalized assistance as they plan their careers. We’ll provide the training
they need to find that job, or pursue that education,
or start that business. And just as they’ve maintained
their military readiness, we’ll have new standards
of “career readiness.” In addition, by making the
Post-9/11 GI Bill a priority, we’ve helped more than 800,000
veterans and their families pursue their education. And I’ve issued an executive
order to help put a stop to schools that are ripping
off our veterans. (applause) I’ve directed the federal
government to step up on jobs. Since I took office,
we’ve hired more than 200,000 veterans into
the federal government. We made it a priority. (applause) And we’re keeping track — every agency, every
department: What are you doing for our veterans? I’ve challenged community health
centers to hire thousands of veterans as
physicians and nurses. And as we help local communities
hire new police officers and firefighters and
first responders, we’re giving a
preference to veterans. We’re also fighting to
get more vets hired in the private sector. With new tools like our
online Veterans Jobs Bank, we’re connecting veterans
directly to jobs. We’re helping thousands of
veterans get certified for good-paying jobs
in manufacturing. We succeeded in passing tax
credits for businesses that hire our veterans and
our wounded warriors. And this morning, I signed into
law the Veteran Skills to Jobs Act — making it easier for
veterans to transfer their outstanding military
skills into the licenses and credentials they
need to get civilian jobs. (applause) If you are a young man that
is in charge of a platoon or millions of dollars of equipment
and are taking responsibility, or you’re a medic out in
the field who is saving lives every single day — when you come home, you need to
be credentialed and certified quickly so you can
get on the job. People should understand
how skilled you are. (applause) And there shouldn’t be
bureaucrats or runarounds. (applause) We’ve got to put
those folks to work. (applause) Last summer, I also challenged
the private sector to hire or train 100,000 veterans
or their spouses. Michelle and Jill Biden have
been leading the effort, through Joining Forces. And so far, thousands of
patriotic businesses have hired or trained more than
90,000 veterans and spouses. And our message to companies is
simple: If you want somebody who gets the job done,
then hire a vet. (applause) Hire a vet. Hire a vet and they will make
you proud just like they’ve made America proud. And we’re fighting for veterans
who want to start their own businesses, including more
training in entrepreneurship. It’s one of the reasons
we’ve cut taxes — 18 times for small
businesses, including veteran-owned businesses. And the effects ripple out,
because vets are more likely to hire vets. So today, we can
point to progress. More veterans are finding jobs;
the unemployment rate for veterans has come down. Yes, it’s still too high,
but it’s coming down. And now we’ve got to
sustain that momentum. It’s one of the reasons I’ve
proposed to Congress a Veterans Jobs Corps to put our veterans
back to work protecting and rebuilding America. And today, I am again calling
on Congress: Pass this Veterans Jobs Corps and extend the tax
credits for businesses that hire veterans so we can give these
American heroes the jobs and opportunities that they deserve. (applause) So, VFW, these are the
promises that I made. These are the promises
that I’ve kept. Where we still have more
to do, we will not rest. That’s my vow to you. I’ve got your back. I’ve got your six. Because we have a solemn
obligation to all who serve — not just for the years
you’re in uniform, but for all the
decades that follow, and because even though
today’s wars are ending, the hard work of taking
care of our newest veterans has only just begun. Just as you protected America,
we’re going to pass our country to the next generation, stronger
and safer and more respected in the world. So if anyone tries to tell you
that our greatness has passed, that America is in decline, you
tell them this: Just like the 20th century, the 21st is
going to be another great American Century. For we are Americans, blessed
with the greatest form of government ever devised by man,
a democracy dedicated to freedom and committed to the ideals
that still light the world. We will never apologize
for our way of life; we will never waver
in its defense. We are a nation that freed
millions and turned adversaries into allies. We are the Americans who
defended the peace and turned back aggression. We are Americans who welcome our
global responsibilities and our global leadership. The United States has
been, and will remain, the one indispensable
nation in world affairs. And you, you are the soldiers,
the sailors, the airmen, the Marines and the
Coast Guardsmen who have kept us strong. We will honor your legacy. And we will ensure that
the military you served, and the America that we love,
remains the greatest force for freedom that the
world has ever known. God bless you. God bless all of our veterans. And God bless the United
States of America. (applause)

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