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A New Compact with America’s Veterans

Author: John F. Kerry
August 25, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations

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Senator John Kerry, D-Mass.
San Antonio, TX
August 25, 2003

Let me thank Ray Sisk and Betty Morris for their leadership and Bob Wallace with whom I have worked closely over the years. And as a life member of the VFW, let me thank my own state commander, John Martin of Massachusetts, along with Mary Ann Whalen.

There could be no more fitting place to hold a VFW National Convention than in San Antonio. It was here – at the Menger Hotel’s bar – only a short walk from where we are now, that Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders. Some say that if you look carefully, you can still see TR’s ghost roaming the hotel’s halls – but that’s probably only true if you’ve spent a couple of hours sitting at the bar.

Either way, the spirit of his fellow soldiers lives on. Because when the troops came back from the Spanish-American conflict, they formed the clubs and associations that eventually merged to create the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

For more than a century the VFW has fought for those who have served and carried on that service to the homefront. From the GI Bill to the national cemetery system, from creating the VA to elevating it to the Cabinet the VFW has made us a better America. And whether it is mentoring young people, volunteering in hospitals, tutoring in schools, or teaching children about patriotism, VFW members represent our highest values of citizenship and service.

Yet I am also conscious that I come here today at a time of transformation for our community of veterans. The Greatest Generation – our model and example – is passing their mantle to us – the Vietnam generation. Those who survived the beaches of Normandy, the sands of Iwo Jima, and the Inchon landing are now passing on. We are losing a thousand of them a day, thirty thousand a month. Their service and sacrifice will live as long as freedom does. Today, we stop again to thank them for their service. Year after year, we also welcome to our ranks new generations of veterans from the Gulf Wars, the Balkans, and the War on Terrorism. And we also say thank you to them for service, their sacrifice, and their clear sense of duty.

In the last thirty years, those of us who were in Vietnam have grown older and hopefully wiser, but we have not forgotten the bonds forged in combat. We came back from the war to a country where so many never thanked us. We banded together to press for government recognition of some of our urgent concerns like the effects of Agent Orange. And what we have learned all points to one central truth that came to us first in the heat and the jungle halfway around the world: We are all responsible for each other.

Another lesson we learned in Vietnam is that sometimes politics gets in the way of decisions that are best for the troops. We must never let that happen again. We know that sometimes abstract ideology doesn’t take account of the life of a grunt, the peril of a sailor in a patrol boat or an airman in the belly of a plane, all trying to do right for their country and survive.

We have every reason to be proud of our military today. They are the finest fighting force in the world. We are grateful for the professionalism, courage, and commitment with which they won decisive victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. But winning military victories is only half the struggle. The mission will not be over until we win the peace – and until the last man and the last woman come home. That is now very much at stake. Let me put it plainly: In Iraq even more than Afghanistan, our post-war planning has failed to do the job and in the process we’ve over-extended our troops and our reserves. Today a soldier in Iraq fears getting shot while getting a drink of water. A squad at a checkpoint has to worry whether the old station wagon driving toward them is a mobile bomb.

There are many lessons from the Vietnam War. One of the most important lessons as a result of Vietnam is that when you decide to go to war, the only exit strategy is called victory –mission accomplished. We must succeed ultimately in our goals in Iraq – because to not succeed would have extraordinary negative consequences for the war on terror. So with characteristic American determination and grit we will see this through and we will make America and the world safer and more secure as a result.

But another important lesson of Vietnam is the obligation veterans feel to tell the truth when it matters most – when the life and safety of troops depend on it. Above all, we learned that the interests of the grunts on the ground come before all politics – and all ideology. And what we urgently need now to protect our young men and women in uniform – and America’s role in the world – are decisions based on professional military judgments and strategic vision, not politics and pride. There are too many names on the Vietnam Wall because of the rationalizations and willfulness of armchair strategists.

So let me say unequivocally, I believe a lack of planning and a lack of candor with the American people have placed our men and women in uniform in increased harm’s way. I believe it is wrong for our troops to be turned from warriors into police officers without the training, support, and numbers they need. And it is equally wrong for the administration to have stubbornly refused the offer of other nations to share the risks and authority in Iraq. One thing I know that unites all of us here today is our obligation to make the troops as safe and comfortable as possible – and that means having enough troops on the ground with enough training and ability to disarm those who stand in the way of completing our mission.

It is imperative to get the United Nations to help not because of any politics but because it just makes plain, old American common sense to have as many nations carrying the burden and risk as possible. I want the targets taken off American soldiers as fast as possible because that’s how you protect the troops most effectively.

And by the way, since we are securing an Arab nation for Arab freedom it would be nice to see some Arabs in uniform sharing the struggle for freedom.

September 11th was this generation’s December 7th. And the historic task that falls to us today to is to unite nations across the world around shared values and against a common enemy.

No one who seeks to assume the mantle of responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief can be anything but ready to do whatever it takes to make America safer and stronger. This isn’t an issue for politics and partisanship; it as an issue of our fundamental national security.

Terrorism is the new Fascism, the new Communism, the new totalitarianism – a grave and global threat to our values and our way of life. Like World War II and the Cold War it is not just a battle against nations, it is a competition of ideas. A test of whether freedom and democracy will win out over repression and tyranny. Well, let’s be clear: we can defeat radical terrorism; we must defeat it; and we will defeat it. Not just with hard words, but with the intelligence, the experience and the strength to make the right long term decisions.

We know today even more clearly than before that we need to rebuild a global alliance against this global threat, standing together, sharing intelligence, and fighting side by side. With the threats we face, we can never cede our security to others, but even a nation as great as the United States needs some friends in this world.

We need to inspire average citizens in Central America and Northern Iraq, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia to look to us for leadership and hope. To ensure that they see us as partners and allies in their struggle for prosperity and inalienable rights, for a better life and basic liberties.

And we need to realize that this war will be fought not only in the Mideast, but in the Midwest and all over America. Today, the soldiers on our front lines are joined in battle by firefighters, police officers, and other first defenders. According to a recent bipartisan panel led by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman, these first defenders are “drastically underfunded and dangerously unprepared.” Nearly two years after September 11th, the average fire department only has enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift, breathing apparatus for only one third, and nearly two-thirds of firehouses are understaffed – with more firefighters and police officers being laid off. We wouldn’t send troops into battle without the equipment and strength they need and if we are serious about winning the War on Terror, we have to be much more committed to making our homeland secure. Let me put it bluntly, if we can find the money to open firehouses in Baghdad, we certainly shouldn’t be shutting them in New York State.

We also come here to make clear that in this time of war, as at all times, we must do our part to care for those who have borne the burdens of battle. This is about keeping America’s promise. It is about national obligation. And it is about love of country and the help and honor we owe to those who defend it.

This nation made a sacred covenant with those it drafted and those who enlisted, but the truth is that every day in America the status of too many veterans at the VA is breaking that covenant.

Just consider: each year the VA budget is a struggle. Every year we have to fight for dollars and health care that were promised and earned on distant shores. Every year new promises are made and old ones broken. In recent weeks, the House of Representatives cut $1.8 billion from VA healthcare.

This is morally wrong; it is a betrayal of our veterans – and it must be reversed. And we can reverse it – if we join together, from this Convention to the White House to the Senate and the House – to insist that those who sacrificed for the nation should not themselves be sacrificed because of misplaced national priorities.

But even if we defeat this $1.8 billion cut, the fight for veterans’ health care be far from over. The shameful reality, as so many veterans know, is that VA healthcare is in a constant state of crisis.

· Today over 130,000 veterans are waiting for care in VA facilities.

· Over 50,000 veterans are waiting over 6 months for their first doctor’s visit.

· We are told that things are better than they were – that a year ago, more than 300,000 veterans were on the waiting list. But this so-called progress came only after a whole class of veterans were excluded from the system. And by 2005 that group of excluded veterans will rise to more than 500,000 veterans without access. This is not progress; that is rationed health care.

· Over the last seven years, spending on individual VA patients has actually decreased by an average of $624. And in the last year, VA enrollment has increased by 15% while spending increased by only 7.8%.

· And now we have a budget proposal for increased fees and co-payments designed to drive an additional 1 million veterans – including those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – out of the VA system. Those veterans should be welcomed with open arms, not shown the door.

No wonder so many veterans have been forced to wait to use the VA pharmacy for prescriptions written by an outside physician. We were told last spring that to solve the problem, the Veterans Department needed new legislation. I worked with Senator Harkin and Congressman Leonard Boswell to do it – and then, in recent weeks, even before it passed, access to VA pharmacies was granted to vets who had waited 30 days for a prescription. It’s a long overdue policy and I applaud it. But why did it take two years to do what was right?

Army Sergeant Vanessa Turner from my home state, Massachusetts, became terribly ill while serving in Iraq and was evacuated to Germany where doctors believed her death was imminent. She is a fighter and she survived, but was medically retired from active duty. When she got home to Boston in early July she was told that the local VA would examine her and begin treatment for the severe nerve damage in her left leg – in mid-October. In the meantime, if the pain was too great she should feel free to go to the emergency room of her local hospital. She said, “It’s easier to stay a soldier and be in harm’s way than to come home and get care.”

Well Vanessa’s story should make clear to everyone in our country that just as we wouldn’t be sending our military into battle without the uniforms and equipment they need, we shouldn’t be neglecting to care for our troops and their families before, during, and after the war.

Yet, twenty percent of our Reservists and their families don’t have health care coverage. And the House of Representatives has passed a wrong-headed provision cutting their pay. At the same time that American soldiers are engaged in battle in Iraq, we have seen a proposal for substantial cuts in federal school aid for the children of military families.

And just last week, we learned something that should make our blood boil – that our troops in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan might be about to get a pay cut. We have 148,00 troops in Iraq in 127 degree heat who are in danger of losing their lives everyday and the Pentagon is wrong to be talking about cutting their pay or offering them some vague promises that a check is in the mail.

We’re told we simply can’t afford to pay our troops all they have earned. Well let me tell you, if we can’t afford to pay our soldiers in harm’s way and support the families they left behind, then we have bigger problems than a budget out of balance. It means we have our values out of whack.

We need to make sure our troops are paid enough so that we address problems of retention and enlistment – and we should improve active duty housing for soldiers and their families. And as someone who has helped lead the fight on Gulf War Illness, I know we have to be much more aggressive on health screenings for troops. They are required by law and they need to be given.

Everyone in this hall knows that duty in the field isn’t a vacation at Club Med – hardships go with the territory. But all of us should be concerned by the reports coming out of Iraq in recent weeks about long delays in delivering needed supplies such as water and housing materials. In some cases, this is because the private companies contracted by the Department of Defense to supply goods and services won’t operate in Iraq because their insurance companies believe it’s too dangerous to do so. Well someone should remind these private companies, our troops are in danger everyday – and they’re not making a fat profit; but they do need clean water – and they need it now.

The issue here is simple and fundamental: It is about the character of our country. I believe it is wrong to put the needs of our troops and the claims of our veterans behind a massive tax giveaway for the wealthy that is unwarranted, unaffordable, and unfair. Never in its history has the United States passed a big tax cut in a time of war. We have always believed in shared sacrifice. And it is wrong to pad the pockets of special interests before we fulfill our solemn obligations to those that have served.

Recently, in New Hampshire, I met a vet by the name of Joey Dubois. He sat in a wheelchair but no one stands prouder of their country and their service. Now, Joey Dubois, like so many others, is being forced to pay for his own disability because every additional dollar in VA disability is taken directly from his military retirement pay. No other category of federal employee is subject to this kind of unfairness. It is plainly wrong and it is completely unacceptable that we have heard repeated threats to veto any bill that remedies this injustice and provides full concurrent receipt. There are plenty of places to cut back in government – but Joey Dubois and disabled vets are not one of them. It is time to undo this unfairness and guarantee our veterans concurrent receipt.

Indeed, I believe we have a special duty to all vets with disabilities. Today, there are 280,000 veterans awaiting their disability rating. And 108,000 veterans are waiting on appeals of rating decisions. This is just not acceptable. We deserve leadership that will streamline the VA so veterans hear back about their status and receive their benefits when they need them.

So for us, the fight continues. Every advancement, every recognition of veterans’ valor, every time obligations have been kept, it has been because veterans pushed for it. Agent Orange, outreach centers, extension of the GI Bill, increased funding for Veterans Affairs. All these happened because veterans remembered their brothers and sisters and never stopped fighting to keep faith with the promise to veterans. I believe our veterans have fought enough – and we shouldn’t have to fight, year after year, for the benefits we have already earned. Our veterans health care shouldn’t depend on the yearly whims of budget cutters. They’ve earned their benefits. Those benefits ought to be there. And if I am President, they will be.

Our first commander in chief, George Washington said that “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

That alone should drive our government to do right by our veterans. But something even more is at issue now: We must honor not only those who have served, but the ideal of service. Nothing I hope to do as President will be more vital than reconnecting America’s public life to the ideal of full citizenship.

Too often today, citizenship and duty are dismissed as quaint and corny, as fond memories of a forgotten past. But day after day, they are a way of life for millions. And they have sustained and strengthened our democracy for more than two centuries.

I learned a lot about duty and obligation from my mother and from my father, who enlisted in the Army Air Corps in World War II. But I learned my greatest lessons about what it means to be an American citizen in a place just about as far away from America as you can get.

I volunteered for Vietnam after college because I believed that I owed it to my country to do my duty. I served alongside a band of heroes on a gunboat in the Mekong Delta. Some of us had been to college, others were just out of high school. But we grew up together on that tiny boat with a quarter inch aluminum hull. Our boat was our sanctuary -- and a place for crossing divides between California, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Massachusetts. We were no longer the kid from South Carolina or the kid from South Boston. We were Americans. Together. All of us the same under the same flag and the same God. Giving ourselves to something bigger than each of us individually.

We arrived as strangers; we left as brothers. We didn’t think we were special. We just thought we were doing our part.

So if I am Commander-in-Chief, I won’t just bring to that profound responsibility the perspective of sitting in the Situation Room. I’ll also bring the perspective of someone who’s fought on the front lines. And I will ensure that America always has the best equipped, best trained, most powerful fighting force in the world.

For those of us who came home every day is extra. I believe we – who stand here today – who have stood our ground for our country – carry the legacy of the brave soldiers who didn’t make it back, whose names are on the wall, in memorials, and in hearts all around our country. It is their contribution that lights our way. It’s up to us keep faith with their sacrifice and to ensure that promises made are promises kept. I believe that in this moment of trial, America is calling all us veterans to service again, to reach for a cause bigger than ourselves. To remind our nation of the true meaning of patriotism, of honor and duty, of citizenship and service, America needs you to lead the way.

Thank you.

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