Bill Richardson photo

Speech: Keeping Our Promise To Our Veterans And Military Families

November 02, 2007

Thank you so much for having me. It is an honor to be with you and especially to be with the veterans and military families who have joined us here today. Thank you for your service to our nation.

When the President asks our military men and women to put themselves in harm's way halfway around the world, we do not expect hesitation. We expect the honorable chorus of "Yes, sir, yes ma'am ... for flag, for country, for the defense of freedom."

We expect that while we tend to the everyday business of our native soil, there are those who have chosen a different path.

There are those who will leave their families to protect ours.

There are those that carry the proud promise of a righteous defense ... passed down from Valley Forge to Iwo Jima to Inchon to Hue to today in the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq.

This solemn tradition of service has stood unbroken for nearly a quarter millennium. Not simply because of a shared uniform or joint drills.

This tradition is bonded by a common faith that human dignity and democratic freedoms are worth fighting for.

This promise of protection is kept alive by generations of courageous servicemen and women.

It is a promise that does not and should not come cheap.

When our troops salute and ship out overseas, they are keeping their promise of service to our nation.

It's about time we kept our nation's promise to them.

It's about time that we said: Yes soldier, yes sailor, yes airman, yes marine ... you and your family are entitled to the best health care.

The best benefits.

To the best our nation has to offer.

President Bush has failed again and again to keep up his part of this promise.

While asking for more and more from our troops and their families ... he has given them less and less.

And his failures are even more insidious because they are too often unseen.

The President has blocked out pictures of the flag-draped coffins coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

We do not see our maimed vets marching in parades -- only in the occasional news exposé of decrepit conditions.

By now we've all seen the disgraceful conditions at Walter Reed. But too few of us have heard about the mental trauma suffered by so many returning combat veterans. Too few have felt the anxiety of military families across the country that can't make ends meet while a loved one is serving abroad.

Put simply, the President has hidden away the heroism of our fighting men and women.

He has traded in our troops' health care for tax cuts, and he has traded on our veterans' service for votes.

It's long past time that ended.

It's long past time we said:

Never in America.

Never again.

It is the sacred duty of any Commander-in-Chief to take care of his or her troops. And I swear to you that when I am President, I will not rest until the promise we've made to our veterans and our military families is fulfilled.

The first step is getting all of our troops out of Iraq. All our troops, with no residual forces left behind.

Only when we make it clear that we are leaving can we expect the Iraqis to make the tough choices necessary for reconciliation. Only when all of our troops are on their way out, will others in the region do what they must to prevent Iraq from collapsing. Only our departure will give us the credibility to convene a Dayton-style conference to build a power-sharing arrangement policed by multilateral, UN-sanctioned peacekeepers.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards have said we have to wait and see how things go before we can know how many troops to bring out and how quickly. I say there has been enough waiting and seeing. If you haven't seen enough to know that we need to get all the troops out then you aren't watching the same war that I and the rest of America are seeing.

Senators Clinton and Obama -- when directly asked -- refused to commit to getting all U.S. troops out by 2013. Tens of thousands could remain in Iraq through 2013 -- and Senator Clinton said she might have troops in Iraq at the end of her second term. Leaving troops is just changing the mission -- we need to end this war and while I respect my Democratic colleagues, their plans simply will not end this war.

How many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives, husbands, and children must lose their loved ones before we get our troops out of the crossfire? How many more of our young people will die before we recognize that our troops cannot win someone else's civil war?

Over 3,800 brave Americans have lost their lives. More than 60,000 have been wounded. Countless more suffer the lonely anguish of mental trauma.

Yet, the administration has shut its eyes to the scars and closed its ears to the cries for help.

It is absolutely unacceptable.

Our veterans fought the enemy abroad. They should not have to fight their government at home to get the health care they have earned over and over again.

Today, almost 2 million veterans are uninsured. That is not right.

When I am President, all veterans will be offered a Heroes' Health Card. If it's inconvenient for them to get to a VA hospital or clinic, you know where they can get care?

Wherever they need it.

While we expand choice, we also need to make sure that the VA system is the strongest it can be. I will guarantee full mandatory funding for the VA.

No more year-to-year, discretionary funding.

No more political calculation.

No more games.

The health of our veterans is not optional. The funding must be mandatory.

When we send our troops into harm's way, we do not ask how much it will cost. When they come home wounded, we should not ask, ‘How much will that cost?'

The answer to both questions is the same. Whatever it takes.

It is essential that we fix Walter Reed and the rest of our military hospitals. The conditions that we saw at Walter Reed were an insult to our veterans and an embarrassment to our nation.

The President should have stood up and taken responsibility. He should have said: "The buck stops with me. This will be fixed."

He didn't.

Instead we saw another game of Washington musical chairs. And when the music stopped, the President scrambled to find himself a comfortable place to sit, well out of the way.

Well, when I am President I will never sit back and watch our veterans suffer.

I will require a regular briefing from the military's senior medical general officer on the status of our nation's medical facilities.

I will stand up ... out front ... every day for our fighting men and women and their families.

We all know that when our troops ship out, they do not serve alone. Their families serve with them. And the power of our military is a testament to the strength of our military families.

When our troops come home wounded, they cannot heal alone. We must support the families that care for our veterans. Our resolve to support these families bears witness to the character of our nation.

Often, spouses and parents are forced to leave their jobs in order to care for a wounded troop. As President, I will offer a comprehensive disability insurance policy that will average forty thousand dollars. It will cover the necessary expenses for the next of kin when a spouse, parent, or other family member stays by the side of a wounded veteran during the recovery process.

I will offer up to a year of paid leave, to ensure the financial stability of the families of recovering veterans.

And we must recognize that not all injuries can be treated with bandages and stents. Mental trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury. These are battlefield injuries.

We cannot ignore them just because we can't see them on a soldier or marine's body. There should be an automatic presumption that mental illnesses are service related.

Indeed, we need to revamp our entire veterans' disability system. Today, we have a system that has been designed to protect the financial interests of the government rather than address the medical conditions of our veterans. That is wrong.

A veteran who has served honorably should not have to prove he or she is entitled to care. Rather, the burden of proof should be on the government to meet its obligations, and to meet them as fully and honorably as our veterans have met theirs.

All of them ... all who have served have committed themselves to the protection of our nation. Many have risked their lives over and over again. And I believe that we, as a nation, have a lifelong duty to our veterans.

As President, I will reduce federal income taxes by five percent for all veterans for the rest of their lives. Senator Jim Webb -- one of our nation's greatest veterans -- is exactly right on this issue, and I will fight for his proposal.

I will also eliminate federal income taxes for all troops in their first year out of the military. It is our responsibility to ease the frequently-difficult transition from military to civilian life.

President Bush cut taxes for our nation's wealthiest citizens. I will cut taxes for our nation's bravest citizens.

I've already done it in New Mexico. We eliminated the state income tax for all active-duty military pay.

I led the nation by purchasing a 400,000 dollar life insurance premium for each and every member of the New Mexico National Guard.

18 other states have followed our lead. Guard personnel and their families around the country are now much better protected against the worst.

I granted free tuition to any New Mexico public university for any child of a New Mexican Guardsman killed in action.

Education is the spark that lights minds. And the GI Bill was the fuse to the economic explosion that powered our nation through the last century.

When I am President, I will fight for a new GI Bill for the 21st century. My national service plan will augment the GI Bill and the Services' College Funds with additional funding for college and career education -- up to 24,000 dollars in loan forgiveness.

Furthermore, my plan will allow a spouse or child to use these benefits, if the service member doesn't.

And I will make sure that all service members get the benefits that they've earned.

What's happened to the Iowa National Guard is outrageous. But, it is a perfect example of how this Administration talks about supporting the troops ... and then denies them the benefits they deserve.

The men and women of the Iowa Guard served the longest tour of any combat unit in Iraq. Their deployment was extended not once, but twice. Some were on active duty for 729 days.

Yet, when they returned home the Administration told them: "Sorry. You're one day short of getting your full benefits." One day short.

This is unconscionable. It is disgraceful. It is just plain wrong.

While I am glad Congressman Braley and others are working hard to fix this problem for these veterans, when I am President I will make sure that this never happens again for any veterans.

I will count all days -- both at home and abroad -- that Guard and Reserve personnel serve on active duty during wartime toward their cumulative total of days served. It is enough that they have served these days -- they should not have to serve them consecutively.

I will also guarantee ... that employers give mobilized members of the Guard and Reserve their old jobs back. No questions asked.

And we've got to help small businesses do their part. I will offer a tax credit for small businesses who go the extra mile and help make up the difference in pay for Guard and Reserve personnel called to active-duty.

One in seven American businesses is owned by a veteran. I will fully implement those provisions of the Veterans Benefits Act of 2003 -- including federal contracts set-asides -- which help support our vet-owned businesses.

These issues are not new to me. I have spent my career fighting for our troops, our veterans, and our military families. It has been my privilege to stand with those who have stood against our enemies. It has been my honor to stand with those who have stood up for our values generation after generation.

And it has been my determination to make life better for our veterans wherever I have served.

I owe my success in bringing people together and solving problems to taking risks. Sometimes you have to lay things on the line to get results.

I have negotiated with some of the toughest dictators in the world and come home successful.

I went to North Korea earlier this year on a bipartisan mission. I came home with the remains of six soldiers Missing in Action since the Korean War.

I've negotiated the release of American servicemen and civilians from Iraq, North Korea, and Cuba.

I recall when one of my constituents was taken hostage in Sudan. He was an American journalist from my own state and he was captured with two aides from the African nation of Chad. They were imprisoned on phony charges of espionage -- I had no reason to be optimistic about their release. But the journalist's wife asked me to go and try to get him out. So I went.

The dictator of that country -- al-Bashir -- he said: "You can have the American, but the other two from Chad -- they stay."

At this point I could have left with the American, but I said "No. I am bringing them all out."

It was not the easy choice but it was the right choice.

We went back into the negotiation and I left with all three men.

There was no time then for polls or consultants.

Nor is this a time for political calculation.

I am going to use the same words I used then when I communicate with our troops in Iraq as their Commander-in-Chief:

"I am bringing you all out."

No one must be left behind to fight someone else's civil war.

And the next President must state unequivocally and without reservation that torture cannot and will not be a part of our foreign policy.

Torture subverts the effectiveness of our intelligence. It sabotages our moral authority in the world. And it sacrifices the safety of our troops.

As President, I will shut down the prison at Guantanamo.

I will follow the Geneva Conventions.

And I will preserve, protect, and uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Let us be worthy of the service that our veterans and military families have given to this nation.

Let us know that when an American troop is wounded, our nation is wounded. For he or she has sacrificed to protect what we all hold dear.

When an American troop dies, a piece of us all is lost forever. For they have given all in the defense of our shared values.

In recent years, too many pieces have been lost forever.

Today, too many wounds remain open.

Together, I know that we can do better.

Thank you again to all the veterans and military families here for your generous and honorable service.

I hope you will join me in fulfilling our nation's obligations to veterans and military families across this great country.

I hope you will join me in honoring those who have given so honorably.

Thank you.

Bill Richardson, Speech: Keeping Our Promise To Our Veterans And Military Families Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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