"You will have a fellow veteran in the White House"

John Kerry promises America's soldiers that he will "lead an America where the benefits of American life are available to all who risked their lives defending it."

By Salon Staff

Published September 1, 2004 6:29PM (EDT)

Eighty-five years ago, the American Legion was founded by and for our nations veterans. As one of those veterans who benefited from your advocacy and as one of your members, I am honored to accept your invitation to be here today and proud of what the American Legion does every day to advance the ideals of America.

You are the citizen soldiers who know that our service does not end on the battlefield -- it begins there. You know that the pledge we took to defend America is also a pledge to protect the promise America offers. And let there be no doubt -- when I am president, you will have a fellow veteran in the White House who understands that those who fought for our 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, I want to be clear: As president, I will always remember that Americas security begins and ends with the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine and Coastguardsmen -- 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 far away as Iraq and Afghanistan. Americas prayers are with you. We honor your service, thank you for your sacrifice and we pledge to stand with your families as you stand for ours. These young men and women are the best of America.

In March of 1919, five months after the November Armistice ended the war that was to end all wars, members of the American Expeditionary Force gathered in Paris to establish our American Legion. Their cause remains our cause to this day: "For God and Country we associate ourselves together."

This is not only a pledge, but a principle that we have carried to war and lived in peace. We know that with the privilege of freedom comes an obligation to give back, to serve, and to risk on behalf of others. Thats something I carry in my heart and in my gut and I know you do, too.

And while your service and sacrifice are well known, what is not as well known is how hard we fought after we returned from service to keep faith with our fellow soldiers.

After returning from Vietnam, I saw vets who weren't getting the care they needed -- so we fought hard and got additional funding for V.A. hospitals, and hospital care for places that couldn't provide it.

To help those veterans having difficulty adjusting after the war, we founded the first medical assistance programs in the country, and put together the first ever outreach groups to help those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

We stood with veterans, by getting the GI Bill extended so those returning from war could improve their lives. And fought hard for increases in veterans' allowances and for living expenses so veterans were able to go to school and open the doors of opportunity.

I stand here proud that we kept faith together. It was veterans fighting for veterans. We veterans made that happen. We should be proud of what we accomplished for our fellow servicemen and women.

In recent weeks, you have heard from some who have claimed that the job is getting done for veterans. Well, just saying the job is getting done doesnt 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; when we stop closing VA hospitals, so that veterans dont have to struggle or travel extraordinary distances to get the care they need. The job will be done when the government stops asking veterans for increased 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 full concurrent receipt. If you earned a pension -- its yours -- just like in the private sector. If you get a disability payment, it is because you have suffered. I dont believe you subtract what you suffered from what you earned. The job will be done when there are no homeless veterans on the streets of America; when 320,000 veterans are no longer waiting for decisions on disability claims and another 100,000 are no longer awaiting appeals decisions. The job will be done when the VA Secretary doesnt have to complain that he needs $1.2 billion more, because he was turned down by a White House that spent the money on tax cuts for those at the top instead. I believe veterans come first.

The job will be done when we repeal the tax on military widows. And, mark my words, the job will be done when the family of 21-year-old Jay Briseno, a veteran facing a lifetime of disability, doesnt have to sleep at his bedside because the VA cant afford to give him the round-the-clock nursing care he needs. Thats not right, thats certainly not compassionate, and that wont happen when Im president.

We will always fight for them and we will fight for all our fellow veterans because we know that the first definition of patriotism is keeping faith with those who wore the uniform of the United States. And from standing with John McCain to find the truth about what happened to our POWs and MIAs in Vietnam to writing the legislation that provided help and healthcare to the victims of Agent Orange, I am proud of the fights we have won for our fellow veterans. At this moment, we have the most exhaustive, comprehensive effort to account for missing or captured in the history of human warfare -- and America should be proud of that. As president, I will lead the fight for a Military Family Bill of Rights and mandatory funding for Veterans health care. Thats keeping faith.

We not only honor those who have served, but we will stand by those who are serving today.

We are a country at war -- not only in Iraq, but a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have ever known before. In all corners of the world, our soldiers' lives are on the line. More than 150,000 troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are away from their families -- and thousands more are in harms way elsewhere.

We owe them the truth, we owe the American people the truth. And Im here today to tell you the truth as I see it.

I cant come here and fulfill my obligation as a candidate for President of these great United States and not give you a serious appraisal of the challenge we face in Iraq and the war on terror.

No one in the United States doubted the outcome in Iraq or how swiftly the war would be won. We knew we had the best-trained troops in the world and true to form, they performed magnificently, and we are all proud and grateful.

But the certainty of winning the war placed the most solemn obligation on the civilian leadership of this country, to make certain that we had a plan to win the peace.

The Army Chief of Staff General Shinseki told Congress we would need several hundred thousand American troops to win the peace and do the job properly. His candor was rewarded with early retirement and his advice ignored, sending a chilling message through the ranks of the professional military.

By dismissing the State Departments plan for post-war Iraq and proceeding unilaterally, the civilian leadership simply did not put the mechanism in place to secure the country. They were unprepared for the looting, insecurity, and insurgency that burst out with the fall of Saddams regime.

They failed to secure Iraqs borders, and so allowed thousands of foreign terrorists, Islamist militants, and intelligence agents to penetrate and destabilize post-war Iraq.

Amazingly, they had no real plan for post-war political transition. All of this happened despite clear and precise, bipartisan, warnings from Congress, and regional experts.

Then, as the challenge grew around our troops, the civilian leadership failed to respond adequately; failed to share responsibility with NATO or the UN, which offered assistance; failed to share reconstruction or decision-making, as a way of inviting others to shoulder the burden; and failed to provide the security on the ground necessary for post-war reconstruction.

They rushed and short-changed the training and equipment of the Iraqi police; they failed to recruit enough experts in the language and culture of the region and used those they had ineffectively.

The civilian leadership disbanded the Iraqi military completely so there was no internal structure to maintain order; chose consciously to put an American, instead of an international face on the occupation; failed to prepare for a large number of prisoners; and most significantly, failed even to guard nuclear waste and ammunition storage sites, despite the fact that weapons of mass destruction was their fundamental reason for the war. And some of the weapons we didnt guard are the very weapons being targeted at our troops today.

As a result, today terrorists have secured havens in Iraq that were not there before. And we have been forced to reach accommodation with those who have repeatedly attacked our troops. Violence has spread in Iraq; Iran has expanded its influence; and extremism has gained momentum.

President Bush now admits he miscalculated in Iraq. In truth, his miscalculation was ignoring the advice that was given to him, including the best advice of Americas own military.

So when the president says we have the same position on Iraq, I have to respectfully disagree. Our differences couldnt be plainer. And I have set them out consistently. When it comes to Iraq, its not that I would have done one thing differently, I wouldve done almost everything differently.

I would have relied on American troops in Tora Bora when we had Bin Laden in our sights. I never would have diverted resources so quickly from Afghanistan before finishing the job.

I wouldve given the inspectors the time they needed to do the job.

I wouldnt have ignored my senior military advisors.

I wouldve made sure that every soldier put in harms way had the equipment and body armor they needed.

I would have built a strong, broad coalition of our allies around the world.

And, if theres one thing I learned from my service, I would never have gone to war without a plan to win the peace.

The bottom line is that if I dont believe we had to be shouldering nearly the entire financial cost of this war -- more than $200 billion -- and shortchanging investments in education, health care, and our safety at home.

But the question now is not just what we should have done, but what we can and must do now in Iraq. We do not need what President Bush has called "catastrophic success." We need real success.

We need to bring our allies to our side, share the burdens, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers. And together, we need to more rapidly train Iraqi police and military to take over the job of protecting their country. That's what Ill do as Commander-in-Chief -- because thats the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home.

In an interview two days ago, the President said we cant win the war on terror. I absolutely disagree. With the right policies, this is a war we can win, this is a war we must win, and this is a war we will win. Were the can do people, and theres nothing we cant do if we put our mind and muscle into it. In the end, the terrorists will lose, and we will win. The future doesnt belong to fear, it belongs to freedom.

To win the war on terror, we will add 40,000 active duty troops -- not in Iraq, but to strengthen American forces that are now overstretched, overextended, and under pressure. We will double our special forces to conduct anti-terrorist operations. We will provide our troops with the newest weapons and technology to save their lives -- and win the battle. And we will end the backdoor draft of National Guard and reservists.

To win the war on terror, we also need to know who the terrorists are, where theyre hiding and plotting, what theyre planning, and be able to go get them before they get us. Now how do you do that?

Last year, I called for the creation of a National Intelligence Director. I believe we should have moved earlier and more decisively to strengthen Americas intelligence gathering ability

We need the best intelligence in the world -- so that policy is guided by facts and facts are never distorted by politics. And to get that, we need to have the best cooperation youve ever had from every country in the world. I know we can do a better job of building that cooperation. But to do so, we must use every tool in the American arsenal: our diplomacy, our economic policy, our non-governmental organizations, our humanitarian organizations, our values and our ideals.

I want to speak today about one other great challenge. When the troops who are fighting for us over there come home, we owe them an America where they can plan a future and get a job that lets them get ahead -- an America where military families are part of a growing middle-class, not struggling to join it.

In his 1933 address to this convention, Franklin Roosevelt said that "You men of the Legion have been willing to fight for the benefits of American life. [And] you have been willing to live for American unity."

My friends, I believe that the full duty of the Commander-in-Chief is to lead an America where the benefits of American life are available to all who risked their lives defending it. This is the one hundred percent Americanism that the Legion has always stood for. This is the unified America I will lead as your president.

Our citizen soldiers are hardworking, middle-class Americans who live by real American values: faith and family, service and sacrifice, responsibility and hard work. They need jobs, health care, and a good education to live those values. But for the first time since the Great Depression, America has lost jobs -- 2.7 million manufacturing jobs in the last four years alone. More than 45 million Americans dont have health insurance, five million have lost coverage since 2000. And this year alone, 220,000 more Americans couldnt afford to go to college.

I believe we have an important obligation. When our soldiers come home and need a job, we believe they deserve better than four more years of rewarding companies that ship our jobs overseas. Our plan will close those tax loopholes and provide incentives to create jobs right here in the United States of America.

When our soldiers find those jobs, we believe they deserve better than four more years of jobs that pay $9,000 less than the jobs that were lost. Our plan will create the jobs of the future that pay more, not less -- jobs where after a weeks work, people can actually pay their bills, provide for their children, and lift up the quality of their lives.

When our soldiers plan the family budget, we believe they deserve more than four more years of a government thats going deeper and deeper into debt. Our plan will cut the deficit in half in the next four years. We will do it by passing the reforms John McCain and I have fought for to end corporate welfare -- and by making government stay within a budget, just like you do.

When our soldiers pay their taxes, we believe they deserve better than four more years of a fiscal policy that has raised the tax burden on middle-class families. Our plan will cut taxes for the middle class and working families -- to help them pay for health care, child care, and sending a son or daughter to college.

And when our soldiers and their families get sick, I really believe they deserve better than four more years of rising costs, skyrocketing premiums, and no plan to do anything about it. Health care costs are crushing business and individuals alike. We can make America more competitive by getting the greed and waste out of the system -- and save the average family up to $1,000 a year in their premiums. The first proposal I will introduce will make health care affordable and accessible for all Americans. I will follow it with a full prescription drug benefit for seniors under Medicare.

I believe we have an important obligation to see to it that that America is no longer the only industrialized nation in the world that doesnt understand that health care is not a privilege for the wealthy, the connected and the elected -- it is a right for every single American.

Sixty-one years ago, a World War I veteran sat down on a cold December day and thought about the 15 million men and women who would soon return victorious from the Second World War. In the middle of a war, he was already thinking about what kind of America they would come home to, and dreamed about what kind of America they deserved.

A first lieutenant who had joined the Army Air Service, he probably thought about his own trip back to America, the water beneath him as his boat glided toward the land he loved. He probably recalled the hope that came with his first knock on the door of a home he had left years ago; the look of possibility on the faces of wife and children he hadnt been sure hed see again.

And on that December 15, 1943, in a Washington, D.C. hotel room, he drafted longhand a piece of legislation that would secure that hope and that possibility for all who returned home to the land that they loved. Since its passage sixty years ago, the GI Bill of Rights has 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 we are now trying to save.

And for all who know the ideals upon which this organization was founded, it should come as no surprise that the author of that bill was First Lieutenant Harry Colmery, an American Legion National Commander. Commander Colmery was an American hero, and he deserves the Medal of Freedom that Congress has called on the president to award him.

But to truly honor his memory, we must once again recommit ourselves to the work of building up the great American middle-class. For our soldiers, for their families, and all those hardworking Americans looking to build a better life, we must pursue a path that once again places the American Dream within reach of every American citizen.

And I promise you this: If I am your next president, I will serve with the pledge of the American Legion in my heart: to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy.

Thank you and God bless you and God bless America.

Salon Staff

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