Saturday, July 16, 2005
American Legion Conference
Remarks by Senator Barack Obama
you. It's an honor to be here today with all of you Legionnaires.
Over the last
few months and throughout the campaign, I've been able to travel
the state and meet veterans from all across Illinois. And no matter
how many stories of heroism I hear, I constantly find myself in
awe of your service and inspired by your sacrifice.
Holmes once said that "To fight out a war, you must believe
something and want something with all your might."
In America, we
must never forget how lucky we are to have so many men and women
who believe - who are willing to put aside their own pursuit of
happiness, to subordinate their own sense of survival, for something
bigger - something greater.
When many of you
joined the Armed Forces, you had your whole lives ahead of you -
birthdays and weddings, holidays with family and friends, successes
not yet achieved. And yet, you were willing to leave all of that
behind - perhaps forever - because you believed that your service
would make it possible for the rest of us to live happily, safely,
And so it's this
sense of obligation - of responsibility to one's fellow American
- that we must honor when our veterans return and need our care
and support. Since I joined the Veterans Committee, I've heard a
lot of debate over funding and budget numbers - about what we can
afford and where we can save money. But I know those aren't the
first things that come to your mind when you think about taking
care of America's veterans. And they're not the first things that
come to my mind either.
I think about
my grandfather, who signed up for duty in World War II the day after
Pearl Harbor. He marched across Europe in Patton's army, and when
he came home, it was the education and opportunity offered by the
GI Bill that allowed his family to build their own American Dream.
I think about
stories like the one I heard from a veteran named Bill Allen, who
told me that on a trip to Chicago, he actually saw homeless veterans
fighting over access to the dumpsters.
And I think about
people like Seamus Ahern, who I met during the campaign at a V.F.W.
hall in East Moline. He told me about how he'd joined the Marines
because he was so proud of this country, and he felt that as a young
person in his early twenties he wanted to give something back. We
became friends and we kept in touch over email while he was in Iraq.
One day he sent me one that said "I'm sorry I haven't written
more often - I've been a little busy over here." I had to tell
him "Don't worry - I know you've got your hands full."
But as I listened
to Seamus explain why he'd enlisted, the absolute faith he had in
our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service, I
thought this young man was all that any of us might hope for in
a child. And then I asked myself: When Seamus comes home, will we
serve him as well as he served us?
That's the question
we should be asking ourselves when we talk about veterans' benefits
and the veterans' budget. And that's the standard we should meet.
And so I ask:
are we serving our veterans as well as they've served us when we
find out that veterans' health care has been shortchanged by at
least one billion dollars? A shortfall that could have meant veterans
turned away from doctor's visits, veterans unable to pay their medical
bills, or veterans refused the prosthetics they need to live normal
restored the funding in Congress so that none of this would happen.
But let me be clear - the Department of Veterans Affairs should
never be funded as an afterthought. Republicans and Democrats warned
the administration that there may be a shortfall months ago, and
so we shouldn't have to be scraping for change now to care for those
who risked their lives to defend ours. It should be America's first
And yet, you've
all seen how we keep falling short. How disabled veterans are waiting
hundreds of days just to get their claim processed. How wounded
veterans in Illinois receive fewer disability benefits than those
in New Mexico or Maine. When I first arrived in the Senate, and
saw the Chicago Sun-Times report that ranked Illinois 49th in how
much disability pay our veterans received, we decided to hold town
hall meetings here in Springfield and in Chicago to hear directly
from you. Well you spoke, we relayed your concerns to VA Secretary
Nicholson, he came out to see the problem for himself, and now we've
increased our VA staff by 27% so there are more caseworkers for
But the benefits
are still too low and the waits are still too long, and so we've
got a ways to go. It's not enough to simply wave a flag and welcome
our veterans with words of praise - we need to get serious about
solving these problems and honoring their service. We held a hearing
in Chicago about these issues just the other week, and I heard from
a veteran whose hands had been crushed in an accident. Twenty years
later he's still caught in the VA bureaucracy, trying to obtain
disability benefits. Twenty years later. Meanwhile, we just learned
that the VA's latest solution on disability disparities is to stop
ranking which states are the best and worst. I don't know about
you, but I don't think that burying bad news is any way deal with
If this is the
best we can do for veterans who've already come home, what will
we do for the hundreds of thousands who will, God-willing, return
from Iraq and Afghanistan? Veterans already have difficulty accessing
VA care, and none of us want those who are still fighting to be
greeted by a system that tells them "Thanks for fighting for
your country - now take a number."
We know that soldiers
are already coming home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and
we know that a recent Army study showed that one in six soldiers
in Iraq reported symptoms of major depression. Some experts predict
that more than 100,000 soldiers may need some kind of mental health
treatment when they come home. For tens of thousands of others,
the wounds they suffered in battle will need care that could last
a lifetime. These brave men and women may not have survived earlier
wars, but thanks to advances in technology, these young people not
only have the chance to survive, but to live normal lives. But it's
up to us to provide the resources to make that a reality.
It is not only
our patriotic duty to provide this care, it is our moral duty at
the most fundamental level - and we must rise to that challenge.
We've made some
progress already. In Congress, with the help of the American Legion,
I worked to ensure that our hospitalized soldiers don't get billed
for their meals. And I've also sponsored the Sheltering All Veterans
Everywhere Act, which would strengthen the VA programs our homeless
vets need to get back on their feet. The American Legion has endorsed
this bill, and so I hope we can work together on this and other
initiatives in the future.
Over half a century
ago, it was American Legion National Commander Harry Colmery who
first sat down and wrote the legislation that would become the GI
Bill of Rights - a bill that has since provided education and training
for nearly 8 million Americans, housing for nearly 2 million families,
and led to the creation of the great American middle-class. That
was a bill that told our heroes "When you come home, we're
here for you, because we're all in this together."
Today, we shouldn't
be scraping to find the bare minimum in benefits and health care
for our veterans. And with the largest deployment of troops since
Vietnam fighting for freedom in an increasingly dangerous world,
we should be talking about a GI Bill for the 21st Century.
look to Congress for help, this is the kind of legislation they
should hear about - not budget cuts and funding shortfalls.
It's time to reassess
our priorities. We never hesitate to praise the service of our veterans
and acknowledge the debt we owe them for their service, but now
we must renew our commitment to them by increasing funding for the
VA, and ensure that our veterans receive more than just words of
praise, but also the health care and benefits they've earned.
once said: "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 veterans of earlier wars were
treated and appreciated by our nation."
then what every veteran here knows now - that when we make the decision
to send our troops to war, we also make the decision to care for
them, to speak for them, and to think of them - always - when they
come. Thank you and God Bless you.