Obama Remarks to the American Legion Legislative Rally

March 01, 2005

Thank you. It's an honor to be here today with all of you Legionnaires. Since joining the Veterans Affairs Committee last month, I've been holding town halls with veterans all over Illinois, and I can tell you that in the days ahead, there will be few issues I'll work harder on than ensuring that the brave men and women who serve our country receive the support they deserve and the benefits they've earned when they come home.

In the coming weeks, you'll hear a lot of debate over the veterans' budget that President Bush submitted to Congress. You'll hear people talk about what we can afford and what adds up on paper, about where we can save money and what percentage increase or decrease we should give to this program or that program.

But I know those aren't the first things that came to your mind when you heard about this budget. And they're not the first things that came to my mind either.

I thought about my grandfather, who signed up for duty in World War II the day after Pearl Harbor. He marched across Europe in Patton's army, and when he came home, it was the education and opportunity offered by the GI Bill that allowed his family to build their own American Dream.

I thought about the hundreds of Illinois veterans I've met over the last few years. We asked them to leave their homes, leave their families, and risk their lives in some far-off place to protect us. And yet, somehow, we're still hearing stories like the one I heard from a veteran named Bill Allen, who told me that on a trip to Chicago, he actually saw homeless veterans fighting over access to the dumpsters. That's what I thought about. And finally, I thought about a young man named Seamus Ahern, who I met during the campaign at a V.F.W. hall in East Moline, Illinois. He told me about how he'd joined the Marines because he was so proud of this country, and he felt that as a young person in his early twenties he wanted to give something back. He was getting shipped out to Iraq the following week, and as I listened to him explain why he'd enlisted, the absolute faith he had in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service, I thought this young man was all that any of us might hope for in a child. But then I asked myself: When Shamus comes home, will we serve him as well as he served us? That's the question we should be asking ourselves when we talk about veterans' benefits and the veterans' budget. And that's the standard we should meet.

But how do we meet that standard and serve our veterans when we have a budget that, when adjusted for inflation, has even less money for veterans than it did a year ago? When we have less for health care, for hospitals, and for disability pay?

This budget tells our veterans that if you want increased funding for the VA, you'll have to pay for it yourself. It's a budget that charges 2.2 million veterans a $250 enrollment fee just to enter into the health care program they were promised upon enlisting. A budget that more than doubles veterans' prescription drug co-payments. That will cut $351 million in funding for veterans' nursing homes, and will eliminate more than $100 million in state grants that are desperately needed by VA facilities across the country.

And this is a budget that tells all those veterans still waiting for help to keep waiting. There are roughly 480,000 compensation and pension claims still unprocessed, but this budget only calls for 113 new employees to help deal with this backlog - not enough to make a dent. In Chicago, veterans are waiting an average of 138 days just to start the sometimes decade-long process of getting their disability claim processed. 138 days. How can we make our heroes wait this long?

As troops continue to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers and the need will only increase. We know that soldiers are already coming home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and we know that a recent Army study showed that one in six soldiers in Iraq reported symptoms of major depression. Some experts predict that more than 100,000 soldiers may need some kind of mental health treatment when they come home. For tens of thousands of others, the wounds they suffered in battle will need care that could last a lifetime.

It is not only our patriotic duty to provide this care, it is our moral duty at the most fundamental level. When our troops return from battle, we should welcome them with the promise of opportunity, not the threat of poverty.

Over half a century ago, it was American Legion National Commander Harry Colmery who first drafted the legislation longhand that would become the GI Bill of Rights - a bill that has since provided education and training for nearly 8 million Americans, housing for nearly 2 million families, and led to the creation of the great American middle-class. That was a bill that told our heroes "When you come home, we're here for you, because we're all in this together."

Today, we shouldn't be scraping to find the bare minimum in benefits and health care for our veterans. And with the largest deployment of troops since Vietnam fighting for freedom in an increasingly dangerous world, we should be talking about a GI Bill for the 21st Century.

Fortunately, my colleague, Congressman Rahm Emanuel, has just introduced such a bill. It's called the Welcome Home Package, and it offers veterans the exact same health care they received during their time in the service, double the education benefit they receive now, and a $5,000 down payment on a home.

When veterans look to Congress for help, this is the kind of legislation they should hear about - not budget cuts and increased fees.

It's time to reassess our priorities. A budget is more than just a series of numbers on a page; it is an embodiment of our values. The President never hesitates to praise the service of our veterans and acknowledge the debt we owe them for their service, and I commend him for that. Now I hope he will renew his commitment by increasing funding for the VA, and ensure that our veterans receive more than just words of praise, but also the health care and benefits they've earned.

George Washington once said: "the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation."

Washington understood then what every veteran here knows now - that when we make the decision to send our troops to war, we also make the decision to care for them, to speak for them, and to think of them - always - when they come. Thank you and God Bless you.