John F. Kerry photo

Remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars 105th Annual Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio

August 18, 2004

Thank you. I am proud to be a lifetime member of this organization and grateful for your continued deep commitment to veterans and to the defense and security of our nation. For more than 100 years now, you have had many distinguished veterans come before you – some Republican, some Democrat, some presidents. But as a fellow veteran, I can proudly say that there is one title that is more important than all, and that is patriot. You have all earned that title and I am proud to stand with you today.

A few weeks ago, at the Democratic National Convention, I told the American people that I was reporting for duty. I did not say that lightly. I said it paying homage to and drawing strength from my crewmates on stage, the more than 500 delegates who were veterans in the Fleet Center and especially all of you -- every man and woman who has ever worn the uniform of the United States armed forces. We understand that the duty to serve goes on throughout our lives. That is what really brings us here today: our continued resolve to defend America so that all can share in the blessings of freedom. And let there be no doubt – when I am president, you will have a true brother in arms in the White House who understands that those who fought for their country abroad should never have to fight for what they were promised at home.

In the spirit of all the men and women in uniform who we honor here, let me offer this pledge: As president, I will always remember that America's security begins and ends with the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine and Coastguardsman – with every man and every woman in our armed services who has ever stood guard at the gates of freedom. Today, I salute each and every one of you for your commitment, strength and extraordinary courage. America says thank you – and we all join in a special salute to Greatest Generation vets whose memorial finally stands proudly in a place of honor on the Mall in Washington. Thank you for your extraordinary example as citizen soldiers.

I also want to speak directly for a moment to those currently risking their lives as faraway as Iraq and Afghanistan. America's prayers are with you. We honor your service, thank you for your sacrifice and pledge to stand with your families as you stand for ours.

Like veterans of all wars past, today's fighting men and women, deserve our prayers and support and then, when they come home, they deserve the respect and welcome of a grateful nation. After all, the first definition of patriotism is to keep faith with those who have worn the uniform of the United States of America.

One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that those who have served us on the frontlines return to an America that gives them the tools to build strong families and strong communities here at home. This means transitional assistance to help all those returning from war, struggling to readjust to civilian life, and coping with the scars of battle, those both seen and unseen. This is about keeping a sacred promise. It is about love of country. And it is about protecting those who have risked their lives to protect ours.

In recent days, you have heard from some who have claimed that the job is getting done for veterans. Well, just saying the job is getting done doesn't make it so. My friends, let me tell you when the job will be done. The job will be done when 500,000 veterans are not excluded from the VA healthcare system. The job will be done when we're not closing VA hospitals, so that veterans can't reach the care they need. The job will be done when veterans are not asked for increasing co-payments, enrollment fees, and other charges to shift the burden of care to other veterans and drive more than a million veterans out of the system.

The job will be done when 400,000 military retirees get real concurrent receipt. The job will be done when there are no homeless veterans on the streets of America. The job will be done when more than 320,000 veterans no longer are waiting for decisions on disability claims and another 100,000 are not awaiting appeals decisions. The job will be done when the VA Secretary does not have to complain that he needs more than the White House wanted to give him. And the job will be done when the family of 21-year-old Jay Briseno, a veteran facing a lifetime of disability, doesn't have to sleep at his bedside because the VA can't afford to give him the round-the-clock nursing care he needs. It is clear: when it comes to protecting America's 26 million veterans and their families we are far from being able to claim, "mission accomplished."

As President, I will stand with you to complete that mission. The sacrifices that you have made on the battlefield are well known. But what is not as well known is how hard we have fought after we returned from service to keep faith with our fellow soldiers. How we fought to get additional funds for VA hospitals that couldn't provide adequate care. How we put together the first outreach groups to help deal with post traumatic stress disorder. How we pushed to get the GI Bill extended so that no vet lost their chance for a better future. And how we won increases for veteran's allowances and living expenses.

We kept faith. Together, with the help from the leadership of the VFW we can be proud that we put in place the most thorough, the most exhaustive, the most extensive effort to account for missing, captured or dead in all the history of human warfare. We made that happen – we veterans and we should all be proud of keeping faith. I am especially proud that together with Bob Smith and John McCain we led and won this fight.

When I got involved in this issue, there were hundreds of individuals whose fates were unknown. Today that number has been reduced to 35. That means that families now have the peace of mind and the comfort of knowing that their loved ones are resting in peace. I went back to Vietnam to search for our POWs and missing because I believe, as you do, that a soldier never leaves anyone behind.

That is why I fought for the legislation that allowed veterans to be treated in VA hospitals for devastating Agent Orange conditions like cancer and neurological disorders. Again, we kept faith.

I will continue to stand with you as president, leading the fight for a Military Family Bill of Rights and leading the fight for full, mandatory funding for Veterans health care.

Military families are going through difficult times these days. Many of their loved ones are in faraway places, leaving them to care for their families alone. The last thing our servicemen and women need on their minds is the stress of wondering if their loved ones back home will be okay. What they need is a president who protects their families while they are putting their lives on the line protecting the American family. That means making sure families have competitive pay, good housing, decent health care and quality education for their children.

Keeping faith with our veterans also means making sure they get full concurrent receipt. Today, we have only partially met this obligation. I'm not going to come to the VFW to tell you the job is done when it is not done. If you earned a pension – it's yours – just like in the private sector. If you get a disability payment, it is because you have suffered. I don't believe you subtract what you suffered from what you earned. As president, I won't stop fighting until our veterans get the full disability payments they deserve.

You and I who once left our families and our shores to defend the principles that make America great, understand more than most the cost of keeping our country free. When you hear that more than 940 American troops have been lost on the battlefield of Iraq and that more than 6,200 of our troops have been wounded, some disabled for a lifetime ... these are more than numbers to you and me. These are our brothers and sisters ... our sons and daughters ... America's heroes.

They testify to the truth that we will never back down in defense of freedom. We will use superior military force to overcome any enemy. Let me be clear: like you, I defended this country as a young man. And I will defend it as president. I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response. Any imminent threat to our security will be dealt with swiftly and severely. I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security. And I will build a stronger American military.

But, in these dangerous times, there is a right way and a wrong way to be strong. Strength is more than tough words.

After September 11th, I am proud that all our people rallied to the President's call for unity to meet the danger. There were no Democrats, there were no Republicans there were only Americans.

How we wish it had stayed that way.

But since then, we have become a country divided over Iraq – and it didn't have to be that way.

As veterans, we know what kids go through when they are carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place and they can't tell friend from foe. We know what they go through when they're out on patrol at night and they don't know what's coming around the next bend. We know what it's like to write letters home telling your family that everything's all right when you're not sure that's true.

I know what we have to do in Iraq. We need a President who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side because that's the right way to get the job done in Iraq and bring our troops home.

We need to bring in NATO and other nations to share the cost and burdens. Right now, the United States is shouldering the lions share of this effort. Ninety percent of all coalition forces and nearly ninety percent of coalition coffins are draped with American flags. The American taxpayers are also paying the vast share of the cost of this war.

We also need to massively improve and accelerate our training of Iraqi police and security forces so they can defend their own country; and we need ensure that there is far greater security to provide the credible elections in 2005 critical to advance Iraq's transition to stable, representative democracy.

As President, I will always ask hard questions and I will demand hard evidence. I will immediately reform the intelligence system – so policy is guided by facts, and facts are never distorted by politics.

As president, I will wage war with the lessons I learned in war. Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent or family member in the eye and truthfully say: We tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way. But we had no choice.

And now, with so much at stake in the struggle against Al Qaeda the American people want to hear, in plain words the answer to a simple question. How are we going to get the terrorists before they get us? Just what is our strategy – not just for striking back against the terrorists, but for defeating their aims, destroying their movement, discrediting their cause, and bringing old and new friends to our side? What is our long-term strategy for making America safer?

Over the course of this campaign, I have laid out my plans to reshape and rebuild the American military so that it is ready to fight tomorrow's wars, not yesterday's. As a combat veteran who has walked in your shoes, I know that the first duty of a commander in chief is to make sure that our troops are the best trained, best equipped fighting force in the world. And to never send them into battle without a plan to win the peace.

That is why I have called for adding 40,000 new troops, not in Iraq, but to relieve the pressure on our overstretched forces. The fact is, the war in Iraq has taken a real toll on our armed services. Ninety percent of the Army's active duty combat divisions are either in Iraq, have been to Iraq, or are on their way.

I will also double our Army Special Forces so we can find and get the terrorists before they get us.

And we must end the stop-loss and involuntary recall of troops that amounts to nothing more than a back-door draft. To fight this war, we have called up our Guard and Reserves at historic levels. And many of these units are being pushed to the limit. The Administration has extended tours of duty, delayed retirements, and prevented enlisted personnel from leaving the service. And when these troops come home, many have lost the job they left. We're going to see to it that everyone who fought for this country has a good job when they come back to this country.

At the same time, we must strengthen our homeland security and do everything we can to prevent another 9/11. We shouldn't be letting ninety-five percent of container ships come into our ports without ever being physically inspected. We shouldn't be leaving our nuclear and chemical plants without enough protection. And we must make sure first responders have the training and equipment they need.

But, as you know, winning the war on terror demands a team effort. We all know that the best intelligence comes from working cooperatively with other nations – through real intelligence sharing and joint operations. That's why for months now, I have been calling for the creation of a National Director of Intelligence with the authority to oversee all of our intelligence agencies.

Last month, the 9/11 Commission embraced many of these ideas. I have urged the President and the Congress to act – and act now – to implement them. But if we are going to win this war, we will have to listen to another profoundly important recommendation made by the Commission. "Long term success demands the use of all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy and homeland defense."

As President, I will fight a smarter, more effective war on terror. We will deploy every tool in our arsenal: our economic as well as our military might; our principles as well as our firepower. Only then will be able to tell the terrorists: You will lose and we will win.

Finally, I want to say something about the plan that the President announced on Monday to withdraw 70,000 troops from Asia and Europe. Nobody wants to bring troops home more than those of us who have fought in foreign wars. But it needs to be done at the right time and in a sensible way. This is not that time or that way.

Let's be clear: the President's vaguely stated plan does not strengthen our hand in the war against terror. And in no way relieves the strain on our overextended military personnel. And this hastily announced plan raises more doubts about our intentions and our commitments than it provides real answers.

For example, why are we unilaterally withdrawing 12,000 troops from the Korean Peninsula at the very time we are negotiating with North Korea – a country thatreally has nuclear weapons? As Senator John McCain said, "I'm particularly concerned about moving troops out of South Korea when North Korea has probably never been more dangerous than any time since the end of the Korean War." This is clearly the wrong signal to send at the wrong time.

With al Qaeda operating in 60 countries, we need closer alliances in every part of the world to fight and win the war on terrorism. So, as president, I will be a commander in chief who renews our alliances based on shared interests and a common vision for a safer world. For more than 50 years, our allies have joined with us to say: the future doesn't belong to fear; it belongs to freedom.

As veterans, we know we can win the war on terror. As men and women who have worn the uniform of our country, you know better than most that we can make our nation stronger at home and respected in the world.

And so, whether the issue is standing by our vets and their families or standing up for our principles, our values and our freedom, the big question before us is not just who will lead America. It is whether America will continue to lead in the world.

I am running for President because I believe that if we honor our highest values and do right by our men and women in uniform, America will continue to be a beacon of hope and freedom for all the world.

Thank you for your service to our country and God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

John F. Kerry, Remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars 105th Annual Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Simple Search of Our Archives