John F. Kerry photo

Remarks at the 126th National Guard Association of the United States General Conference in Las Vegas

September 16, 2004

I'm honored to be here today at your 126th Convention. I can't tell you how proud I am to stand before you – and how grateful I am to have the opportunity to talk with you today.

I came out here because I wanted to look you in the eye and say thank you. Thank you for your service; thank you for caring; thank you for the sacrifices you and your families make for our country.

I come from a state with a great tradition of service and a great understanding of who you are. You can't live in the shadow of Bunker Hill, Lexington Green, the Bridge at Concord, and not know the meaning of Minutemen and citizen service to country.

For more than three centuries, as you know better than anyone, our National Guard has stood on the frontlines of freedom. The Guard fought in that first great revolution, and has defended our country ever since, here in America and around the world. Like those who came before you, you joined the Guard because for you, threats to our ideals were a call to action. You joined because for you, sitting on the sidelines in a time of peril simply wasn't an option. And you joined because for you, patriotism isn't just about saying you love your country – it's about living it every single day. Please join me in sending our respect, our admiration, and the thanks of a nation to your brothers and sisters in arms who are standing up for freedom around the world.

There's something going on right here at home, too. Every time you open the newspaper or turn on the evening news, you read those heartbreaking stories about floods, and fires, and hurricanes – when you see the indelible images of September 11th –the National Guard is there, often risking your lives to save ours. In the past few weeks, thousands of you have been in the eye of the storm, preparing for Hurricane Charlie, Hurricane Frances, and Hurricane Ivan – and afterwards, helping our citizens rebuild their lives. Behind the headlines, through countless acts of courage, honor and quiet sacrifice, all of you keep America safe – reporting for duty on a moment's notice: "Ready, Reliable, Essential and Accessible." Nothing could make us more proud.

The reach of today's Guard is unlike anytime before. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans, you have been mobilized in record numbers for extended lengths of time. Gone are the days when you could tell your family that it would be just 6 months, just 9 months, just a year. Today, we've got people doing multiple deployments – serving 18, 20, even 22 months. We've got young kids here at home sending letters to their parents asking: When are you coming home? When will I see you again? And week after week, those mothers and fathers can only write back the same frustrating answer: I just don't know.

Last week, we reached a tragic milestone in Iraq: More than 1,000 American servicemen and women have been killed in the line of duty – and more than 100 of them were members of the National Guard. Thousands more have been injured – many of them seriously so. I have visited with some of them in our military hospitals – and let me tell you, I cannot overstate their patriotism, their courageous spirit, and their commitment to our country and to their brothers and sisters still in harm's way. We honor every last one of them for their proud service to our nation, and we pray for their families and loved ones.

But honoring your service with our thoughts and prayers is not enough. Especially when right now, in so many ways, we're shortchanging our men and women in the Guard.

Those in uniform are duty bound to carry out the orders of the Commander in Chief. And I know that for those of you serving there is a natural affection and a sense of duty. I respect that and it should be that way. But in our democracy, which you defend, it is so important to have a truthful conversation about the choices we face in our nation.

Right now, more than 20% of our National Guard and Reserves don't have health coverage. And two days ago, our President came before you, and promised that he'd give you TRICARE for "up to 90 days before [you] report, and 180 days after de-activation." That's a welcome change in their policy, but frankly, I believe that's simply not good enough. I believe we can make better choices. When you sign up for the Guard, you should be eligible for TRICARE every day that you serve – before, during, and after mobilization – end of story.

Right now, thousands in the Guard still aren't getting their paychecks on time -- and some don't get them at all. So people are calling home from the frontlines, and instead of talking about how the kids are doing in school, they're talking about how to cut through the red tape, and how to pay the bills. That's wrong, and we have to change it.

Right now, too many in the Guard still don't have the body armor, night vision goggles, and radios they need to do their jobs. Too many are using outdated equipment and hand-me-downs from regular forces – and they're wondering if today will be the unlucky day when something just doesn't work. That's wrong, and we have to change it.

Right now, those who serve in the Guard can't receive retirement benefits until age 60, and this Administration can't find the funding to lower the age to 55, even while we're spending $200 billion to go it alone in Iraq. That's wrong, and for those who've served in active duty in conflicts aboard, we have to change it.

Right now, members of the Guard serving overseas are losing their paychecks here at home, passed over for promotions, and returning to find that the jobs they once held are gone. That's wrong, and we have to change it.

Right now, our troops over-stretched and over-extended and the Guard and Reserve have been called on to fill the gap. As President, I pledge to you that I will end the backdoor draft of our National Guard.

So today, respectfully, I'd like to ask President Bush a simple question. When our Guardsmen and women are fighting the same war as our active duty troops...when they're facing the same dangers, and coming home in the same wheelchairs, stretchers, and flag-draped can we refuse to give them the same resources and respect we give our Regular troops? I believe we can make better choices.

The way I see it, this is a matter of values and priorities – and on these issues, President Bush and I couldn't be more different. I believe that America's security begins and ends with our men and women in uniform – with every member of our armed forces who stands guard at the gates of freedom. I will be a President who goes into the Oval Office every morning knowing that it is my job to help you do yours. I will fight for you every day, and I will never let you down. General Clark and I were talking on the way out here about the quality of our armed forces. You are America's finest, the most capable, the most skilled troops in our history, led by the best military leaders in the world. And you deserve no less than the best.

And there's something else we owe you and all the men and women serving right now in Iraq. We owe you the truth. True leadership is about looking people in the eye and telling the truth – even when it's hard to hear. And two days ago, President Bush came before you and you received him well, as you should. But I believe he failed the fundamental test of leadership. He failed to tell you the truth. You deserve better. The Commander in Chief must level with the troops and the nation. And as president, I will always be straight with you – on the good days, and the bad days.

Two days ago, the President stood right where I'm standing and did not even acknowledge that more than 1,000 men and women have lost their lives in Iraq. He did not tell you that with each passing day, we're seeing more chaos, more violence, more indiscriminate killings. He did not tell you that with each passing week, our enemies are getting bolder – that Pentagon officials report that entire regions of Iraq are now in the hands of terrorists and extremists. He did not tell you that with each passing month, stability and security seem farther and farther away.

He did not tell you any of this, even though – as the country learned today in the New York Times – his own intelligence officials have warned him for weeks that the mission in Iraq is in serious trouble. But that is the truth – hard as it is to hear. You deserve a president who will not play politics with national security, who will not ignore his own intelligence, while living in a fantasy world of spin, and who will give the American people the truth about the challenge our brave men and women face on the front lines.

The hard truth is that our president has made serious mistakes in taking us to war with Iraq. He was wrong to rush to war without giving the inspectors time to do their job. He was wrong to rush to war without understanding and planning for the post-war in Iraq – which itself has become an ongoing conflict. He was wrong to rush to war without the allies we needed by our side. He was wrong to send our troops into battle without the equipment they need to do their jobs. He was wrong to ignore the best advice of America's own military – including his own Army Chief of Staff – about how many troops we needed to accomplish our mission. So when it comes to Iraq, it's not that I would have done one thing differently than President Bush – I would have done almost everything differently.

And today, because of his wrong choices, America has borne nearly 90% of the casualties, and paid nearly 90% of the bill in Iraq. Contrast that with the first Gulf War, where our allies paid 95% of the costs.

And perhaps worst of all, the mess in Iraq has set us back – way back – in the war on terror. The simple fact is, when it comes to the war on terror, George W. Bush has taken his eye off the ball.

In the months after September 11th, our troops were doing a magnificent job in Afghanistan, and they were hot on the trail of Osama bin Laden. But instead of staying the course and letting them finish the job, George W. Bush turned over critical military operations in Tora Bora to a band of warlords. As a result, Osama bin Laden escaped, and we haven't seen him since.

And today, three years after September 11th, Al Qaeda is operating in 60 countries, and gaining a whole new generation of recruits. And again and again, on the evening news, we see videotapes from bin Laden or his top lieutenants. This administration has said bluntly: It is not a matter of if al Qaeda attacks here at home – it is a question of when.

I believe America can do better than we're doing. We simply cannot afford four more years of wrong choices that undermine our security and our standing in the world.

I also believe that despite the miscalculations, it is not too late to turn things around in Iraq and in our global war on terror. But we need a leadership that sees a better set of choices – better options for getting the job done. Who will bring in our allies. Who will train Iraqi forces at the right pace with the right partners, so our troops can finally come home. Who will never mislead you about the realities you face on the battlefield. And when I'm your Commander-in-Chief, that is exactly what I will do.

We all know too well that after September 11th, we face a new and mortal threat. Terrorist groups like al Qaeda and its copycat killers are claiming the right to execute the innocent. They confuse murder with martyrdom and fanaticism with faith. They use terror as a sword and religion as a shield.

They present the central national security challenge of our generation. But they are unlike any other adversary our nation has ever confronted. They have no president, capital city, territory, army, or national identity. We are not absolutely certain how they are organized or how many operatives they have. But we know the destruction they can inflict. We saw it at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, in a field in rural Pennsylvania. We saw the carnage, the unbearable carnage, in a school in Russia. We have seen it in Indonesia, in Bali and Madrid, in Israel and across the Middle East. And just imagine what the terrorists would do if they got their hands on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

In this new era, it is imperative that we modernize the world's most powerful military – that we build a 21st century military to meet these 21st century threats. Today, we need a stronger, more modern, better-prepared military to meet the challenges of the post-9/11 world.

As President, I will start by expanding America's active duty forces. Today, our armed services are stretched far too thin. Nine out of ten active duty Army divisions are committed to Iraq – either currently there, preparing to go, or recently returned.

The war has been especially tough on the Army's critical post-war specialists. Civil affairs. Military police. Combat support units. Psychological operations units. All are in short supply. All are nearly exhausted.

And since September 11th, we've called on our National Guard like never before. Today, 40 percent of our forces in Iraq are from the Guard and Reserve. Far too many of you have been on the ground for far too long – much longer than was expected or promised. Far too many of you face additional deployments in the months and years ahead. And a new government report warns that soon, we might not even have enough National Guard and Reserve troops to fight the war on terror.

That's why, as President, I will add 40,000 new soldiers to our armed forces -- not to increase the number of soldiers in Iraq, but to help prevent and prepare for other possible conflicts.

I will also double our Army Special Forces to hunt down the terrorists. In Afghanistan, after September 11th, our Special Forces fought the Taliban with remarkable skill. We saw what they could do during the Iraq war, when two teams of American Green Berets totaling 31 men worked with Kurdish troops to defeat an Iraqi force numbering in the hundreds. The victory at the battle of Debecka Pass is a tribute to the flexibility, training, and courage of our Special Forces.

Of course, the battles of today don't just require more manpower. Today, more than ever before, we are facing new threats which require innovative solutions. And that is the third part of my plan – equipping our military with 21st century technology to defeat 21st century enemies.

Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to the threat of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The stark truth is that today, we've got to be prepared for a worst case scenario in which deadly weapons technology falls into the wrong hands. That's why, as president, I will create new forces that specialize in finding, securing, and destroying weapons of mass destruction and the facilities that build them. Failing to do this simply isn't an option.

Finally, if there's one thing we've all learned in the war on terror, it's that, even if we have the troops and technology we need, America can't lead abroad unless we're secure at home. And this Administration has mismanaged a key asset in keeping America safe – our National Guard.

The National Guard was intended to complement, not be a substitute for, active duty forces. Many of you are our first responders here at home – fire fighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians. To take you out of your communities is to take down our critical first line of defense. That's no way to protect America.

As President, I will recognize that homeland security is a Constitutionally-mandated mission of the National Guard. In addition to their current duties overseas, I will assign Guard units an additional mission to a standing joint task force, commanded by a General from the Guard. This task force will prepare, and execute, a coordinated strategy for homeland security, working with the states and the federal government to react in times of crisis. While our military can't solve the entire homeland security challenge, the National Guard can make a real difference in protecting America from terrorism.

More than 200 years ago, when America was little more than a collection of colonies on the edge of a vast continent, your predecessors resolved to fight for our independence. Many were young – not much older than children. They had nowhere near enough weapons or training or supplies. They were just ordinary citizens coming together to fight for the land they loved. And together, they defeated an empire.

Their commitment to freedom shines on in all you do for our country and our world every single day. It's been said that America "...will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave." And today, standing here with all of you, I am confident that the United States of America will always remain the land of the free because it is home to all of you – and you are the brave. As President, I will never forget that our security and our strength begins with you – with a single soldier, standing a single post somewhere in the world. And I will always remain grateful to all of you who do this every day with such grace and such courage.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

John F. Kerry, Remarks at the 126th National Guard Association of the United States General Conference in Las Vegas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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