Hillary Clinton photo

Speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars

August 20, 2007

I am deeply honored to be here, and I greatly appreciate the privilege of addressing you and the invitation to do so.

I couldn't help, as I was preparing to come here today, thinking about my late father, a World War II veteran, served as a Chief Petty Officer in the navy training young men during World War II at the Great Lakes Naval Station. I imagine he is looking down and saying "I never thought I would see my daughter addressing the VFW" and I'm sure many of you didn't either but I am so excited to have this chance and I want to start by expressing my deepest gratitude to all of you and to the veterans you represent across our country for the service you and they have rendered to our nation.

I also want to thank the Commander in Chief—thank you Gary for that very kind introduction. I want to acknowledge and congratulate your Senior Vice Commander in Chief who assume the Commander in Chief position, George Lisicki. And I want to acknowledge both the National Ladies Auxiliary President Linda Meader and Senior Vice President Virginia Carman.

Because it is always true that when we send one of our very best to serve our country, particularly when they go to war, their families serve as well. And I am grateful for the service of the family members who are here today.

I want to acknowledge a few of your guests and friends of mine. I know that Governor Corzine was here earlier—I saw him as he was leaving. Two members of congress who do an excellent job not only for their constituents but for their country and particularly for the values and security of America—Congressman Emanuel Cleaver and Congressman Dennis Moore. And two old friends of mine and of yours—Hershel Gober and Mary Lou Keener who have served with distinction in the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration and I am very pleased that they could be here with me.

I also know you'll be hearing from others who are pursuing their party nominations and immediately after I conclude a friend of mine and a genuine American hero will stand here before you—Senator John McCain.

I want to acknowledge not only John's service to our country, his heroism in the face of unspeakable atrocities, but his continuing leadership. I was privileged to go to Iraq and Afghanistan with Senator McCain. He and I were in Baghdad and Fallujah and Kabul together and I have the greatest respect for him.

Just like him and all of you, in America's darkest hours you answered the call, coming from every corner of our nation – serving every part of the world -- on beaches and in jungles, across deserts and mountains and through bullet-scarred streets. You came from different backgrounds, from all walks of life, but you served because you know that freedom is never granted – it is earned by each generation.

The history of America is forged and sanctified by the men and women who loved their country enough to sacrifice their lives for it. You and your fallen comrades know that in the face of tyranny, cruelty, oppression, extremism, sometimes there is only one choice. When the world looked to America – America looked to you. And you never let her down.

I know how deeply my own father cared about the young men he sent off to the South Pacific and how heartbroken he was when so many of them never returned. When he died 14 years ago I received letters and pictures from many of the men he helped to train and looking at those pictures of all those young faces reminded me of the incredible sacrifice that not only that greatest generation but every generation of Americans have made.

As the poet, Archibald MacLeish, reminds us in his poem "The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak," those we have lost "have a silence that speaks for them at night…They say: We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done…They say: our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them…They say: we leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning."

How do we give those lives their meaning? How do we continue the work you started at Normandy, Guadalcanal, Chosin, Hue, Mogadishu, Sarajevo, Kandahar, Baghdad and so many other places? How, in the twenty-first century, do we preserve our democracy, protect our shores, keep our families safe, and continue to lead the world toward a better more peaceful future?

Your mission says it all. Honor the dead by helping the living—through veteran services, community services, national security, and a strong national defense. But we have to begin with clear -eyed understanding of the new challenges and threats we face in the 21st century. From my service on the Senate Armed Services Committee, to my time as a First Lady and Senator, I have been privileged to travel to more than 80 countries representing America.

Whether I was meeting in Kabul with President Karzai about the threat of the Taliban and al Qaeda, or Israeli leaders about the threat of Iran, or meeting with defense officials in Europe about shared security interests, or pressing officials in China about human rights – I have confronted the complexities of the world as it is – not as I hoped it would be. Because you have to start with what the world is today and with hope and determination and understanding move it toward what we hope it can be. But I have never lost faith in America's essential goodness and greatness. I believe no challenge or threat is too dangerous or difficult for us to meet. If we work together, if we have sensible policies, if we cross the partisan divide that too often substitutes for reason and come together around our shared values and a commitment to that future we want for our children and grandchildren.

That's the American way, I believe. Throughout our history, when we've faced challenges to our position in the world or threats to our security, we've confronted them head on without fear, without delay, without hesitation. And that is exactly what I intend to do as president. I will start by standing up every single day for the men and women who have stood up for us: our veterans.

I know all too well that unfortunately, our veterans haven't always felt welcomed, respected and cared for by the country they served. I think particularly about the young men of my generation—Vietnam veterans, many of whom felt like they returned to America, but never really came home.

Well, let me be clear. Every servicemember is a hero who deserves our respect and our gratitude not just on Veterans Day or Memorial Day – but every single day.

When they put on that uniform – when they make that sacrifice for our American family – then they are all of our sons and daughters, and it's time we started treating them that way.

Unfortunately too, we are far from having a government and a system worthy of our veterans' sacrifice. The truth is that the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed were just one symptom of a much larger problem.

I have met with soldiers around our country and around the world. I have been honored to represent some of the very best as a Senator from New York. I have been often to Fort Drum in northern New York, home of the 10th Mountain Division, the most deployed division in the US Army. I have been to military hospitals. I have listened to the problems and concerns of our veterans and our wounded warriors and their families. Heartbreaking stories of having to confront red tape and bureaucracy after dodging sniper bullets and escaping improvised explosive devices. Stories of struggling just to get the care and treatment they need. It's embarrassing and it's disgraceful that there is one veteran, let alone scores and hundreds of them, who have such stories to tell. It's time we fought as hard for our troops and our veterans as all of you have fought for us going back to the beginning of our country.

And that is what I've tried to do as a private citizen, as First Lady, and as a Senator. I remember when I started getting letters in the White House. We have these massive correspondence units—hundreds of thousands of people write the President, write the First Lady, they even write the pets of the first family. Buddy and Socks got a lot of mail during those years. And I remember that the people working in the correspondence units started coming to me with letters that were addressed to me often from veterans or from their wives about what was happening to people who had been in the Gulf during the First Gulf War and who had come home and now were suffering from undiagnosed illnesses. And I took the letters and I went to my husband and I said "Bill I think there's something happening here." One or two or three letters—that might be a coincidence, but dozens of letters? Where young men who could run marathons and lift weights before they went to the Gulf could hardly climb up stairs now, can't sleep at night. And he said, "Look into it, find out what's going on." So I worked to establish the Commission that recognized Gulf War Illness for the serious problem it was, and began to address it. I still meet some of those veterans and their families. A lot of them are still suffering but at least they feel that we are recognizing that something happened to them when they were serving us.

So when I got to the Senate, I advocated for legislation to track our troops' health before they were deployed and after they were deployed, so that we would have baseline examination. Because too many of the people who came back from the Gulf War were told that the VA or that within the DOD system that we have no evidence that you weren't suffering from something before you went over and I said, "No wait. We have to make sure that we have a system to track the health of each and every person who serves us and then monitor them for illnesses."

I joined with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to increase military survivor benefits from $12,000 to $100,000—hardly any kind of compensation for the loss of a life but a way of recognizing the needs of the families who are left behind.

And I worked for four years with Senator Lindsey Graham, from South Carolina, to provide access to Tricare for National Guard and Reserve members. When I got to the Senate I'm sure many people thought I would never talk to Lindsey Graham, let alone work with him, but I decided that we had a job to do and he in South Carolina and I in New York were seeing the same things—that is, our National Guard and Reserve troops were being activated to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, many of them were considered medically unready because they were uninsured in their private civilian lives. They worked for employers who didn't provide insurance, they were self employed and couldn't afford it, they were young and didn't think that they had to really worry about their health but a thorough exam found problems. So Senator Graham and I said we're going to make sure that if you're a National Guard or Reserve member, you will have access to healthcare and you'll be part of this great American military from the very beginning. We will take care of you and your families.

I join with many of you to fight the so called Cares Commission that tried to close down so many VA hospitals. Well we fought them in New York and I'm proud to say that we had more letters of support to keep Canandaigua hospital in upstate New York open than any other facility in the country. And we were able to keep our hospitals from Canandaigua to Manhattan. At a time when we're getting more returning veterans, what sense does it make to shut down facilities when people have to drive hours and wait months before they can see a doctor at a VA. We need more facilities, more outpatient, more outreach in order to help our returning veterans.

Last year, I authored the Heroes at Home Act that will begin to help servicemembers struggling not only with post traumatic stress disorder but with the new signature wound of these wars, something called traumatic brain injury. I'm fighting as hard as I can to expand my legislation which passed last year because this is taking a devastating toll on our veterans and their families.

I was recently at Walter Reed and I met a young army captain. He'd lost his right arm in an improvised explosive device attack in Baghdad. He'd also lost his ring finger on his left hand because his wedding ring had melted into his finger. And I asked him, I said, "well captain, how are you doing?" He said, "Well Senator, I'm making progress. I'm getting great help. The prosthetic is working. I'm really feeling like I'll be able to get mobility back." But he said, "Senator, where do I go to get my brain back?" He was suffering from traumatic brain injury. He said, "You know, if it weren't for my wife who has moved here to be with me and who gives me a list everyday of where I have to go and what time I have to be there, I don't know what I would do." He said, "You know, Senator I went to West Point and I can't remember where I'm supposed to be at 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock every morning."

That's why I have proposed providing family members the education and training they need to help their loved ones with TBI and giving them the option to become certified caretakers and paying them for providing this care for their own family members.

Two weeks ago I teamed up with Senator Chris Dodd to pass legislation in the Senate to extend the Family and Medical Leave Act to families of wounded warriors. This was a recommendation from the commission the president appointed headed by former Senator Bob Dole, a great American war hero and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. They said "The Family Medical Leave Act is great but it's not enough." If you're going to give up your job and move from the west coast to Walter Reed or somewhere else in the country to be with your loved one who's been injured, you need more time and you need to make sure your job is safe while you're there doing the most important work any of us do—caring for those who care for us.

When I'm President, I will continue this work and this record. I will summon the resources and will of this nation to give our veterans the gold standard health care, earned benefits, and support they deserve. Our veterans have served America – and it is time that America served our veterans.

I will start first by ensuring that my Veterans Affairs Department is on your side. And that my VA Secretary is a true veterans' advocate who understands the problems of our veterans. I'm not going to have a Secretary of Veterans Affairs – I'm going to have a secretary for veterans, someone who will be qualified and committed and dedicated every single day to help our veterans.

I will also work to guarantee funding for VA health. It is outrageous that veterans have to come every year to the Congress begging for the money they need to get the health care they deserve. We're going to work toward mandatory funding and end the yearly budgets.

Health care for our veterans is not an option. It is a fundamental obligation, and we have seen what has happened the last several years. When many of us have fought for increased funding for veterans, only to be denied – and then to come back later and have to put more money in. But, how do you run a veteran's health care system if you don't know what your budget is going to be, from year to year? You can't make the kind of changes that we were on the road to making in the 1990's.

Former Veteran Secretary Jesse Brown, a great American veteran, who we lost too soon, and Hershel Gober and others, had the VA headed in the right direction. We were streamlining the health care. We got the computerized medical records – there are articles being written in medical journals today which say that now the VA system takes better care of many veterans with diseases like diabetes and heart conditions than out in the public. And what did that mean? More veterans started going to the VA. I thought that was great, the administration thought it was a problem.

Well I want to get back to where veterans want to go to the VA, where they feel the choice is best for them, and where we have the services readily available to take care of whatever problems any veteran might have.

Secondly, I have proposed a new GI Bill of Rights for the twenty-first century – and when I'm President, we will pass it and I will sign it into law. We'll have the biggest signing ceremony in the history of the White House.

The original GI Bill of Rights was one of the VFW's signature accomplishments. It didn't just help a generation of veterans build their lives – it helped a generation of Americans build a thriving middle class. So I take personal pride, tremendous personal pride in the fact that the VFW has endorsed my GI Bill of Rights. And I want to pay tribute to my House sponsor, young Congressman from Pennsylvania Patrick Murphy. I met Patrick Murphy when he was a Captain in the 82nd Airborne in Baghdad in 2003 when I was there on my first trip. That was still a time when we could get out of the green zone, we went to Sadr City, and we met with members of the 82nd, one of whom was this bright young Captain named Patrick Murphy. When he left the army he decided to continue his public service in another way. He ran for, and won, a seat in Congress. So when I was thinking about what kind of Bill of Rights, a GI Bill of Rights we needed for the twenty-first century, he was one of the first calls I made – because he had lived it. And together, our bill provides educational opportunities – from college, to trade and technical training, to certification and licensing programs. It expands opportunities for veterans to buy, build, repair and improve their homes. It creates a Veterans Micro-loaning Program to provide loans up to $100,000 at very low interest rates and without collateral, so that veterans can start their own small businesses. And I appreciate your support and we are going to get it done together.

Third, as President, I'll implement a new, seamless career transition assistance program. It will start the minute a servicemember steps back on our shores – either at a base or at a medical center.

Each veteran will be provided a human resources counselor who will be responsible for his or her successful re-integration back into the civilian world. The counselor will have to track and monitor the veteran's progress – and if a veteran is struggling, he or she will not get lost in the weeds of the red tape and the bureaucracy, but someone will be there to help him or her get back on track. And let's go one step further than that. Many companies already give preference for veterans. Let's make that universal. Our veterans have done an extraordinary job fighting for our country – let's make sure they have the jobs they need and deserve right here at home.

Fourth, I want to transform the bureaucracy, we have a 20th century veterans' infrastructure and we need a 21st century system. I will do it by appointing a single, high-level experienced veteran, in the White House, reporting directly to me responsible for streamlining and coordinating all health care, educational and career programs for veterans. The reason I recommend this is because my last trip to Ft. Drum, I spoke to 50 of our 10th Mountain Division soldiers who had just came back from Afghanistan, all of whom had been wounded. The Department of Defense wasn't talking to the VA, the medical records at DOD didn't find them their way to the VA, and this made no sense to me at all. We need a single seamless system, and the way to get it done is to have someone in the White House reporting to the President, who will drive every single agency of this government to take care of every one of our veterans, the way they deserve to be taken care of.

I will also ask this person to oversee what has been another disgrace, because I will devote the resources we need to process, the endless backlog, the disability and life insurance claims. I have walked through VA offices and seen stacks of papers that have not yet been processed. I think we've had enough of the delays. I believe everyone should know that their government is working hard to give them what they have earned. I've already sponsored legislation, calling for an independent review of denied disability claims, and assigning more lawyers and social workers to help people through the claims process.

I've proposed legislation to require an independent review of every single traumatic insurance claim. It's another thing that the soldiers at the 10th Mountain Division told me they would call to get their insurance claim processed, they wouldn't get a human being's voice, they would never get a call back – well we're going to end that. No one should be wrongly deprived of their earned benefits. And we're going to make sure when I'm President we clean up that backlog and make it work for every single one of our veterans.

And finally, finally we will end the prohibition on concurrent receipt for our disabled veterans. I'm a proud co-sponsor of the Retired Pay Restoration Act of 2007. This rule is nothing more than a tax on disabled veterans, and when I'm President, we'll do away with it once and for all.

Yesterday we had another of the debates, that are seeming to come earlier and more frequently in this election season. And one of the questions was whether a candidate represented change or experience. Well, I think we need both in our next President. And, with me, it's not either or.

I have 35 years of experience fighting for real change and I will use my experience to change Washington starting on day one. I know it won't be easy, I know how difficult this job is, I have seen it in an up close and personal way for eight years. And it's going to be especially hard because of all the difficult issues we face. But I believe we can do this, I'm confident and optimistic that we can pull our country together. And, our first order of business here at home, has to be taking care of our veterans.

But when all is said and done, caring for our veterans is about more than laws we pass or programs we fund. It's about the values we promote and the culture we create. A woman I met in Iowa provided a perfect example of what I mean. She told me that when military people come into her salon for a haircut, she gives them a discount as a way of saying thank you for serving our country.

Now, can a President sign an executive order or pass a law to require this? Of course not. But I believe it is the President's job to foster a culture of gratitude and respect for the men and women who serve in our armed forces.

So when I'm President I will call upon our people to come together to support our veterans, in large ways as well as those small important kindnesses and recognition that can mean so much. Whether it's offering a job, or inviting someone to your child's school to speak, or saying a simple thank you line at church or in the line at the grocery store. We owe them everything and that means confronting our national security challenges with courage, strength and wisdom.

We all know that one of our key challenges is what to do about the war in Iraq. I have met with our brave men and women serving in Iraq, and I have seen first hand, the sacrifices they are making.

And when the history of the Iraq war is written, I want future generations to know that our troops did everything our country asked of them, everything their commanders asked of them, everything their comrades expected of them, everything they expected of themselves.

They were asked to get rid of Saddam Hussein and bring him to justice, and they did. They were asked to provide the Iraqi people with free elections so that they could elect their own government, and they did. They were asked to give the Iraqi government the space and time they needed to do what only the Iraqi's could do to stabilize their own country.

There is a vigorous debate in our own nation – and probably among many of you – about the right way forward in Iraq. I know we may disagree about whether there is or isn't, a military solution to this war. Having been there, having studied it, and having seen the heroism and the accomplishments of our troops, I do not believe that we alone can impose a military solution. And I do not think the Iraqi's are ready to do what they have to do for themselves yet. Therefore, I think it is unacceptable for our troops to be caught in the crossfire of a sectarian civil war while the Iraqi government is on vacation. I that it is time that the Iraqi government took responsibility for themselves and their country. Because the American people and our American military cannot want freedom and stability for the Iraqis more than they want it for themselves.

As we move forward in these next months, awaiting a report from General Petraeus, we'll have some very hard decisions to make. I'm not sure there are any good options but one decision I know we will make is to continue to honor the service of our own American troops and to make sure that they are given the respect that they so richly have earned.

Some of us who disagree, I think the best way of honoring their service is by beginning to bring them home, and making sure that when they come home that we have everything ready for them.

But Iraq is not the only serious challenge we face. We have seen in the last months a resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan. I have been one of those who from the beginning have said we never put enough troops into Afghanistan, and we should've stayed focused on wiping out the Taliban, and finding, killing, capturing Bin Laden and his chief lieutenants. Now we're playing some catch up. But Afghanistan is critical, because it is in an arena where the Afghan people are real allies, their government is working hard, they are trying to build an independent, strong military, and we cannot let them fail. These are just some of the challenges we face in this increasingly complex world.

One area that I am particularly concerned about is the spread of global terrorism. As a Senator from New York, I am too familiar with the horrors of the attack on our city and our country on 9/11. I was there the day after with a small group of office holders and I saw those fire fighters coming out of that black curtain of smoke and debris, we couldn't even see them until they broke clear, having worked around the clock, dragging their fire axes. And at that moment, I certainly made a commitment I have tried to follow through on, and that is not only to do everything I could for our first responders, who like our Gulf War veterans suffered because of the work they did at Ground Zero. Many of them not only getting sick, but now dying of the exposures that they breathed, starting after the attacks. But I also made a full commitment to martial American power, resources and values in the global fight against these terrorists.

That begins with ensuring that America does have the world's strongest and smartest military force. We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas particularly in Al Anbar province it's working; we're just years too late changing our tactics. We can't ever let that happen again. We can't be fighting the last war—we have to be preparing to fight the new war and this new war requires different tactics and strategies. We have to be prepared to maintain the best fighting force in the world. I proposed increasing the size of our army by 80,000 soldiers, balancing the legacy systems with newer programs to help us keep our technological edge, reevaluating the training and education programs that servicemembers need in the 21st century. And let's be sure that the American military does not fight terrorism alone. It is time that we demanded that our alliances, including NATO, are united with us in this fight and that their intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security systems are working together with ours. And let's not forget, that the War on Terror like the Cold War is fundamentally a battle over ideas and values.

I'm fighting for a Cold War medal, for everyone that served our country during the Cold War, because you were on the front lines of battling communism. Well, now we are on the front lines of battling terrorism, extremism, and we have to win.

Our commitment to freedom, to tolerance, to economic opportunity has inspired people around the world – they're not just what we fight for, they can be our most powerful weapons in this fight.

I want to get back to a point, where people respect and admire the United States again not just because that would be a good thing, but because that's critical on our fight against terrorism.

People have to root for America, they have to want to be on our side. Somebody knowing that another member of their community is perhaps putting together suicide bombs kits has to think twice about whether to say nothing or maybe to tell somebody. Law enforcement in countries that could become havens for terrorists have to believe that American values are not just about America, but they speak to the human dignity that God given spark that resides in each and every person across the world.

I want to end with this story because it sums for me what I hope to do as your president. It's told to me by my friend, and our former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As some of you may know she was born in the former Czechoslovakia, her family had to deal with the Nazis, they had to deal with the communists, they came as refugees to America. And in 1995 Madeline was asked if she would represent our country at the 50th Anniversary commemoration of the end of WWII and she immediately said yes. And she went to Europe particularly to countries behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain and everywhere she traveled she saw American flags but when she looked more closely she realized that a lot of those flags had only 48 stars. She started asking people, "where did this flag come from?" And everyone told her the same story—that when the American GI's liberated Europe, they passed out these flags. And remember, back then Hawaii and Alaska weren't states yet—that's why there were only 48 stars. And people had saved these flags like family treasures, passing them down from grandparent to parent to child often at great risk because if the Soviet occupiers had found them with an American flag they could have gotten into serious trouble. So Madeline asked them, "Why did you save these flags all these years knowing you could have gotten in trouble?" And everyone said the same thing, "because we love America and we love America's values and we always hoped some day we'd be able to live in freedom like Americans."

They never gave up on America's ideals – and neither should we.

These are the ideals that will light our way forward just as they have illuminated our past. They're the ideals that inspired you to leave your homes and families and everything you knew and loved to fight for our freedom around the world. Standing here with you, I feel that same sense of hope and optimism that has always marked our country. And I want to be the president who restores those feelings about America around the world. We are a good and great nation. We can renew the promise of America here at home and we can stand tall for freedom and democracy around the world again.

I believe that with the right leadership and with a country committed to a future that reflects the best of who we are, the twenty-first century will be America's century.

And we will continue our history in an unbroken line from those first soldiers who fought for our revolutionary ideal that all men are created equal to those young men and women who are fighting for us and our ideals right now. With your help and God's help we can once again be the country that all of us love, admire and know is worth fighting for.

Thank you all very much, and God bless you.

Hillary Clinton, Speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/277605

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