John F. Kerry photo

"Protecting Our Military Families in Times of War": Remarks of John Kerry

March 17, 2004

One year ago this week, American soldiers raced across the desert to Baghdad. Ten months ago, George Bush stood on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed "mission accomplished."

But today we know that the mission is not finished, hostilities have not ended, and our men and women in uniform fight on almost alone with the target squarely on their backs. Everyday, they face danger and death from suicide bombers, roadside bombers, and now ironically, from the very Iraqi police they are training.

We are still bogged down in Iraq - and the Administration stubbornly holds to failed policies that drive potential allies away. What we have seen is a steady loss of lives and mounting costs in dollars, with no end in sight.

We were misled about weapons of mass destruction. We are misled now when the costs of Iraq are not even counted in the President's budget. But having gone to war, we have a responsibility to keep and a national interest to achieve in a stable and peaceful Iraq. To leave too soon would leave behind a failed state that inevitably would become a haven for terrorists and a threat to our future, a problem for the Middle East, and a dangerous setback in the war against terror.

But the answer is not a stubborn pursuit of the same arrogant policies; the answer to failure is not more of the same. Instead we must return more effectively to the international community, and share the authority and the burdens with other nations. We need to use the tools of diplomacy as well as the tools of war. All of us support our troops. But if we had built a true coalition, they would not have to fight almost alone - and Americans would not have to bear almost all the costs in Iraq. This President is so committed to tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that he refused to ask them to sacrifice even a small portion of that tax cut to give our soldiers the weapons and equipment they need.

The lesson here is fundamental: At times, conflict comes, and the decision must be made. For a President, the decision may be lonely, but that does not mean that America should go it alone.

And while we should seek allies, we must never give anyone else a veto over our national security. At this decisive time in our history, when we confront ongoing challenges in Afghanistan as well as Iraq - and the mortal challenge of those that would use terror as a weapon and religion as a shield, there is no greater imperative for a President than the Constitution's command to provide for the common defense. If I am President of the United States, we will do whatever it takes to ensure that the 21st century American military is the strongest in the world. I will not hesitate to use force when it is needed to wage and win the War on Terror.

At the heart of that force must be a fully prepared, fully equipped, fully staffed, state-of-the-art military ready to face any adversary, anywhere. Four years ago, George Bush said that our troops lacked the support they needed. Four years ago, he promised them: "Help is on the way." He sent that message to the same military that had been built up in the 1990s and was soon to perform so brilliantly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Well, I say this today: George Bush can't have it both ways. He can't decry the military's readiness in 2000 and then take credit for its success in 2001, before he even passed his first defense budget. Now, in 2004, our armed forces are more extended than at any time in a generation -- and at this time, they are still waiting for help.

Twenty-five hundred of them are still waiting for medical care. Helicopter pilots have flown battlefield missions without the best available anti-missile systems. Civil Affairs personnel, almost all of them reservists, are stretched to the breaking point, building schools and hospitals. Unarmored Humvees roll toward the next perilous turn in the road. The 428th Transportation Company had to ask local businesses back home to donate the steel to armor their vehicles, and when this President heard about it, instead of saying, "never again," he said, "good idea." And tens of thousands of troops were deployed to Iraq without the most advanced bullet proof vests that can literally make the difference between life and death. Lives and blood will always be the cost of war, but we should never send young American's into harm's way more exposed to danger than they have to be.

This President has had his chance; and this President has not delivered.

So, let me say here today, to every soldier and every soldier's family: This time help is on the way, and it won't be coming from George Bush.

If I am President, never again will parents or husbands or wives of soldiers have to send them body armor instead of photographs and care packages. Last month a young newlywed in Virginia who, as her husband was about to ship out to Iraq, gave him a bullet proof vest for Valentine's Day. I can tell you right now: in a Kerry Administration, no one will be getting body armor as a gift from a loved one; it will come from the Armed Forces of the United States of America. We will supply our troops with everything they need -- and we will reimburse each and every family who has had to buy body armor because this Administration made Valentine's Day part of the procurement process.

Our military is about much more than moving pins on a map or amassing expensive new weapon systems. A strong military depends first of all on the courage of the men and women who stand a post or go out on patrol in places around the globe and who carry on every day until the mission is accomplished for real. We need a Commander-in-Chief who honors and supports them, for real; a Commander-in-Chief who repays their risks on the battlefield by providing them with the best weapons and protections as they go into battle, a Commander-in-Chief who recognizes their commitment and sacrifice, and offers their families a decent life here at home.

To all of the military families who are here today, we say thank you. And to my fellow veterans, the band of brothers who have been with me for so long and to whom I owe so much, I pledge that unlike the time when we fought side by side, I will be a President who does what's right for our men and women in uniform.

I will never forget that our true power is measured not only by the strength of our weapons, but by the spirit of our soldiers.

To me, that is not just rhetoric; it is the reality I lived - and it is central to the work of my life. So I come here today to propose a Military Family Bill of Rights - real and specific guarantees - that will keep faith with those who served and the families who share in their sacrifice.

Our military families have the right to expect real leadership of the armed forces from the Commander-in-Chief. They have a right to competitive pay and quality housing, decent health care and dental care. Quality education for their children. First rate training. The best possible weaponry and state-of-the-art equipment. They have a right to timely deployment information. And they have a right to know that, in the event of tragedy, help will be there to care and provide for their families and for them.

America needs a President who will do all that it takes to create the most modern fighting force on earth. When the 4th Infantry Division found Saddam Hussein, they had an unmatched wealth of knowledge about their surroundings and they were connected in an unprecedented way to their commanders. They're known as the "digital division," transformed in the Clinton Administration, when the decision was made to outfit the 4th Division with the latest advances in information technology. Their vehicles in the field have keyboards and touch screen monitors so that troops can access real time maps, track battlefield movements, and even send commands by e-mail. We need to do this across the board. We need to revolutionize our military capability. Our enemies don't use the old tactics and -strategies -- neither should we.

Our emphasis has do be on empowering soldiers to fight more precisely, on reducing the incidents of friendly-fire and on building a military fit for the future, not the past. That means pushing technology down to the smallest units. When we took on the Taliban, precision bombs onboard planes flying from aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean were guided to their targets by U.S. Special Forces riding horses across the hills of Afghanistan. They could do that because of what we did to strengthen the military in the last decade, but there is so much more to do. By pushing real-time information, and the ability to take action, into the hands of those closest to the frontlines, we can prepare ourselves for the perils and possibilities of the years ahead.

The war in Iraq taught us that a lightning-fast information-age military can drive to Baghdad in three weeks, but the instability that follows requires a large force -- and we cannot rely on reservists alone to make up the difference. I propose to add 40,000 troops to the regular Army, not to send to Iraq, but to ease the burden on troops who have been deployed from one global hot spot to the next with no end in sight. This doesn't mean we have to spend more on the military; instead, we have to be smarter about what we spend by shifting priorities within the defense budget, and scaling back some programs that do more for defense contractors than for the national defense.

We are weaker today militarily than we should be, but this Administration stubbornly refuses to admit it. Soldiers in Iraq are paying the price everyday because our forces are spread too thin. There simply aren't enough of them to provide a prudent reserve of active-duty troops to respond if they have to in other hotspots. More than 180,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves are on active duty. Stop-loss programs have kept more than 30,000 troops in the ranks after their enlistments expired. If I am President, I will instruct my Secretary of Defense to conduct a long-range review of the nation's military force structure. And until that review is completed, I will not appoint a Base Closure Commission.

We should not begin that work until we are clear that we are not wasting resources on excess bases, and until we know what our future needs will be at home and around the world.

And as we expand the size of the active-duty Army, we must also recognize that more numbers alone are not enough. The threats of terrorism and the conflicts of the future can only be met with more engineers, more military police, more psychological warfare personnel and civil affairs teams - more special operations forces and more training for peace keeping missions. We need a force that is as well prepared, well-trained, and well-equipped to stabilize a failed state as it is to wage war in an open desert or on urban streets.

America's strength is not found in our military alone, but in every area of American life. In small towns and cities across this country, there are judges, public administrators, educators, economists, civil engineers, and public safety professionals. They represent a vast untapped reserve of citizens capable - and I believe willing - to make their contribution to national security. It is time to marshal their skills and experience in service to America. They are an army unto themselves; and today I propose that we enlist thousands of them in a Civilian Stability Corps, a reserve organization of volunteers ready to help win the peace in troubled places.

Like military reservists, they will have peacetime jobs; but in times of national need, they will be called into service to restore roads, renovate schools, open hospitals, repair power systems, draft a constitution, or build a police force. A Civilian Stability Corps can bring the best of America to the worst of the world -- and reduce pressure on the military.

Yet in the end, at the core of our defense are the men in women who wear the uniform, their families, and all those who I call my brothers and sisters, the veterans of this nation. Their concerns are as critical to our strength as the weapons systems we buy or the troop numbers we deploy. We have a sacred obligation to do our part for those who have borne the burdens of battle. This is about the character of our nation and who we are as a people; it is about keeping America's promise, about love of country, and the debt we owe to those who defend it.

America entered into a covenant with those it drafted and those who enlisted, but the truth is that, with every story of a veteran who goes without adequate health care every day, that covenant is broken. There are countless veterans who fought our wars who are now fighting year after year for the benefits they earned. Last year they had to defeat a Bush Administration proposal to increase fees and co-payments, which was nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt drive an additional one million veterans from the VA health care system. The President then came back with a plan to drive 500,000 from the system by 2005. And then he submitted a similar proposal this year.

If I am President, as part of a Military Families Bill of Rights, we will fully fund veterans health and veterans benefits - and our veterans will no longer be the neglected soldiers of America.

And we have to secure the rights not only of those who served in the past, but of patriots all across this country who serve today - in the active duty military, the Reserves, or the National Guard.

Twenty-percent of our Reservists and their families don't have health care coverage. But George Bush threatened to veto funding for Iraq if it included more money for health care for Reservists, and then tried to cut the pay of soldiers in the field and school aid for children of military families. If I am President, our men and women in uniform will get the benefits they deserve.

This Administration also attempted to cut family separation allowances, imminent danger pay, and impact aid -- the help local schools depend on to give military kids the best possible education. I will protect them all -- and as President, I will sign legislation to provide for those families who suffer a loss in war and to protect the livelihood of reservists who are called up and have to leave their jobs. This legislation will include $250,000 on top of their present life insurance policies for all service members who die in the line of duty.

I will honor the family members of those who fall in service not just with words, but with deeds. People like Cyndi Stever and her ten year old daughter Nichole. When Tony Stever was killed by enemy fire in Iraq last April, Cyndi said she felt she had lost her whole life. But more loss was to come - not just from an enemy, but from her own government. Not long after she buried her husband, Cyndi was told she and Nichole would have to leave their home. Military housing - they were told - is for military families. And since Tony made the ultimate sacrifice, they were no longer a military family.

How can this happen in the United States of America? It's not right to tell a family that has just received that knock on the door, "Oh, by the way - you have to pack up your home and move." Move where? Who among us thinks it's right to say such a thing? Who among us could move on short notice when you don't even know where your paycheck will come from? If this Administration says we can afford to throw massive tax cuts at the wealthiest Americans, then don't tell us to throw bereaved military families out of their homes without a chance to pull life back together.

So the Military Family Bill of Rights, will allow the spouses and children of those killed in action to remain in military housing for up to a year after the loss of a loved one. It will offer help to move on to a new life. It will provide one year of pay to military dependents of soldiers killed in action. It will make permanent increases in family separation allowances, and permanent guarantees of reservist access to military healthcare. For reservists who are called up, it will also permit penalty free withdrawals from their IRAS to cover the unexpected expenses of lengthy activations and deployments. This is the least we can do for those who give the most they can to our country.

To me, guaranteeing these rights and organizing our armed forces accordingly is personal; it is in my soul and it's been a large part of my life. This commitment goes back more than 35 years to the years of my own service. It was then that I learned, together with some of you here today, about our obligations to each other and our country's obligation to those in uniform. And since then, from the struggle for care in our VA hospitals, to post-traumatic stress disorder, to Agent Orange, to the battle for military strength and military pay, to the struggle for answers as we kept faith with our obligations to find the truth about POW/MIA, I have tried to be a voice and a champion for those in uniform who serve our country.

I make this simple pledge: If I am President, I will fight for a constant standard of decency and respect for those who serve their country in our armed forces - on active duty and as veterans. It should be no other way and if I am president, it will be no other way.

John F. Kerry, "Protecting Our Military Families in Times of War": Remarks of John Kerry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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