A Sacred Trust

By Senator Barack Obama

as prepared for delivery

VFW National Convention
August 21, 2007

Thank you, Commander Kurpius, for that introduction and for your leadership, and let me acknowledge the incoming National Commander George Lisicki. I want to thank all of the members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States of America for inviting me here today. I’m glad to see Rich Coombe, the State Commander for Illinois. And let me say a word of acknowledgment to the 90,000 Illinoisans who are VFW members.

To America’s veterans, our country must speak with one voice: we honor your service, and we enter into a sacred trust with you from the moment you put on that uniform. That trust is simple: America will be there for you just as you have been there for America.

As a candidate for the presidency, I know that I am running to become Commander-in-Chief – to safeguard this nation’s security, and to keep that sacred trust. There is no responsibility that I take more seriously.

We know that the America we live in is the legacy of those who have borne the burden of battle. You are part of an unbroken line of Americans who threw off the tyranny of a King; who held the country together and set the captives free; who faced down fascism and fought for freedom in Korea and Vietnam; who liberated Kuwait and stopped ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; and who fight bravely and brilliantly under our flag today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Keeping faith with those who serve must always be a core American value and a cornerstone of American patriotism. Because America’s commitment to its servicemen and women begins at enlistment, and it must never end.

Without that commitment, I probably wouldn’t be here today. My grandfather – Stanley Dunham –enlisted after Pearl Harbor and went on to march in Patton’s Army. My mother was born at Fort Leavenworth and my grandmother worked on a bomber assembly line. After my grandfather stood up for his country, America stood by him. He went to college on the GI Bill, bought his first home with help from the Federal Housing Authority. Then he moved his family west to Hawaii, where I was born, and where he and my grandmother helped raise me. He is buried in the Punchbowl, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where 776 victims of Pearl Harbor are laid to rest.

I knew him when he was older. But I think about him now and then as he enlisted – a man of 23, fresh-faced with a wise-guy grin – when I see young men and women signing up to serve today. These sons and daughters of America are the best and bravest among us. And they are signing up at a time when the dangers that America faces are great.

Since the end of the Cold War, threats from distant corners of the world increasingly pose a direct danger to America. Killing fields in Rwanda, Congo and Darfur have offended our common humanity and set back the world’s sense of collective security. Weak and failing states from Africa to central Asia to the Pacific Rim are incubators of resentment and anarchy that can endanger those countries and ours. An assertive Russia and a rising China remind us – through words and deeds – that the primacy of our power does not mean our power will go unchallenged. A new age of nuclear proliferation has left the world’s most deadly weapons unlocked by more and more countries, with thousands of weapons and stockpiles poorly secured all over the world. At the dawn of the 21st century, the threats we face can no longer be contained by borders and boundaries.

That is the lesson of 9/11. We will never forget the 3,000 Americans killed on 9/11 – more than we lost at Pearl Harbor. The threat did not come from a dictator, a state, or an empire – it came from stateless terrorists. These violent extremists are a small minority in the Muslim world. They distort Islam. They hate America. They kill man, woman and child. And they seek a repressive caliphate that would resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Our brave young men and women have signed up to make these burdens their own. They have come face to face with the threats of the 21st century, and they have been asked to bear an evolving and ever-increasing load. Peace keeping missions. Intelligence gathering. Training foreign militaries. Earthquake and tsunami relief. Fighting with Afghan allies to topple the Taliban. Persevering in the desert sand cities of Iraq. The U.S. military has answered when called, and the verdict on their performance is clear: through their commitment, their courage, and their capability they have done us all proud. What we need is civilian leadershipthat lives up this service. We had a chance to deliver a decisive blow to theTaliban and al Qaeda and to bring this country together with unity of effortand purpose. Instead, we went to war in Iraq – a war that I opposed– with no plan for how to win the peace, shifting our focus, strainingour military, splitting our country, and sacrificing our global standing.

I want to be clear. Our troops haveperformed brilliantly in Iraq.They have done everything we have asked of them. They have won every battlethey have fought. They have built schools and trained battalions. I know thereare honest differences about the next steps that we should take. And the truthis – there are no good options.

All of our top military commandersrecognize that there is no military solution in Iraq. And no matter how brilliantlyand bravely our troops and their commanders perform, they cannot and should notbear the responsibility of resolving grievances at the heart of Iraq’scivil war. No military surge can succeed without political reconciliation and asurge of diplomacy in Iraqand the region. Iraq’sleaders are not reconciling. They are not achieving political benchmarks. Theonly thing they seem to have agreed on is to take a vacation. That is why Ihave pushed for a careful and responsible redeployment of troops engaged incombat operations out of Iraq,joined with direct and sustained diplomacy in the region. And that is why Iwill continue to push the President to change our policy.

One reason to stop fighting the wrongwar is so that we can fight the right war against terrorism and extremism. Andmy judgment – based in part on the clear findings of the NationalIntelligence Estimate – is that the most direct terrorist threat to ourhomeland comes from al Qaeda operating in Afghanistanand Pakistan.

That’s why earlier this month, I laidout a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. That plan has five elements.First, we need to end the war in Iraqand focus on the terrorists in Afghanistanand Pakistan, and I wouldre-enforce our mission in Afghanistanwith at least two brigades. Second, we need to develop our capabilities to takedown terrorist networks and secure nuclear weapons. Third, we need to dry upsupport for extremism, because we cannot win the long war unless we win morehearts and minds in the Muslim world. Fourth, we need to restore our values,because as the counter-insurgency manual reminds us, torture sets back ourmission to keep the people on our side. And fifth, we need to protect ourhomeland by setting common sense priorities.

In laying out this strategy, I amguided by the understanding that there is no more awesome responsibility thatis placed in a President’s hand than protecting our country and oursecurity. I believe that this strategy is one that we must pursue, guided bythe principle that we must act swiftly and strongly against clear and imminentthreats to our security. I will act with proper regard for the costs andconsequences of action, based on the advice of military commanders and with aclear statement of purpose and policy to the American people. Because aPresident can choose to go to war, but the country must be prepared to sustainit. That depends upon knowing why we are fighting, what clear goal we arefighting for, and how we plan to win the peace.

And as we implement thiscomprehensive strategy, and phase out of Iraqand bolster our mission in Afghanistan,I believe we can then focus on rebuilding our military and taking better careof our servicemen and women. In an Obama Administration, I will ensure that Americagoes to war with the armed forces it needs. Our troops should not beover-stretched. We need to ensure that our ability to respond to threats aroundthe world is never compromised. And I will always respect – and notignore – the advice of military commanders. But I will also make clearthat when I am President, the buck will stop in the Oval Office.

We know our troops will answer thecall. But we must issue that call responsibly. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been marked byrepeated and unpredictable deployments. Aircraft bound for home have beenturned around. Soldiers and Marines have served two, three or four tours.Retention rates of West Point graduates areapproaching records lows. We need to keep these battle-hardened majors andcaptains so they can become tomorrow’s generals. We need predictablerotations. We need to deploy troops at an appropriate state of readiness.

I will add 65,000 soldiers and 27,000Marines to relieve the strain on our ground forces. I will maintain ourtechnological edge and invest in the capabilities we need to succeed in themissions of the 21st century. That means training for critical languages likeArabic, for civil affairs, and for increased Special Forces. And I will heedthe call for greater civilian capacity. Our troops, trained for war, areserving as water and electricity experts in Baghdadand agricultural advisors in Kandahar.The finest military in the world needs civilian partners who can carry outcritical missions. We need to strengthen and integrate all aspects of Americanmight.

And this is not just about programs andpolicies. It’s about people. Part of our sacred trust with the men andwomen who serve is also providing the equipment they need. We’ve hadtroops deploying to Iraqwho had to buy life-saving equipment on-line. That’s not America.That’s not who we are. As President, I will ensure that everyservice-member has what they need to do the job safely and successfully.

And the strain of service is great in aplace where a threat can come from a pile by the side of the road, a seeminglyfriendly face in the crowd, or a mortar lobbed into a base. Just the other daywe learned there were at least 99 suicides in the Army last year – themost in a quarter century.

To keep our sacred trust, I willimprove mental health screening and treatment at all levels: from enlistment,to deployment, to reentry into civilian life. No service-member should bekicked out of the military because they are struggling with untreated PTSD. Noveteran should have to fill out a 23-page claim to get care, or wait months– even years – to get an appointment at the VA. We need more mentalhealth professionals, more training to recognize signs and to reject the stigmaof seeking care. And to treat a signature wound of these wars, we need clearstandards of care for Traumatic Brain Injury.

We also need to provide more servicesto our military families. Let me thank the VFW for helping families witheverything from repairs and errands to calling cards that bring a loved onenearer. Efforts like Operation Uplink make a huge difference. You are fillingin some of the painful spaces in peoples’ lives. And anyone who hasvisited our military hospitals has seen wonderful spouses who don’t seevisiting hours as part-time. That’s why I passed a bill to provide familymembers with a year of job protection, so they never have to face a choicebetween caring for a loved one and keeping a job.

I have also fought to improve shamefulcare for wounded warriors. I led a bipartisan effort to improve outpatientfacilities, slash red tape, and reform the disability review process –because recovering troops should always go to the front of the line, and theyshouldn’t have to fight to get there.

But we know that the sacred trustcannot expire when the uniform comes off. When we fail to keep faith with ourveterans, the bond between our nation and our nation’s heroes becomesfrayed. When a veteran is denied care, we are all dishonored. It’s notenough to lay a wreath on Memorial Day, or to pay tribute to our veterans inspeeches. A proud and grateful nation owes more than ceremonial gesturesand kind words.
Caring for those who serve – and for their families – is afundamental responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief. It is not a separatecost. It is a cost of war. It is something I’ve fought for as a member ofthe Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. And it is something I willfight for as President of the United States.

It’s time for comprehensivereform. When I am President, building a 21st century VA to serve our veteranswill be an equal priority to building a 21st century military to fight ourwars. My Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs will be just as important as mySecretary of Defense. The VA will also be at the cutting edgeof my plan for universal health care, with better preventive care, moreresearch and specialty treatment, and more Vet Centers, particularly in ruralareas.

I will revamp an overburdened benefits system.The VFW has done a remarkable job helping more than 120,000 veterans a yearnavigate the broken VBA bureaucracy, but you shouldn’t have to do italone. I will hire additional workers, and create an electronic system that isfully linked up to military records and the VA’s health network.

One of the most admired principles ofthe U.S.military is that no one gets left behind. Yet too often America does not keep faith withthis principle. On any given night, more than 200,000 veterans are homeless. We’realready hearing about hundreds of homeless Iraq War vets. That’s notright. That’s not keeping our sacred trust. We must not leave these menand women behind. My principle will be simple: zero tolerance. Zero tolerancefor veterans sleeping on the streets. I’ve fought for this in the Senate,and as President I’ll expand housing vouchers, and I’ll launch anew supportive services housing program to prevent at-risk veterans and theirfamilies from sliding into homelessness.

I’ll also keep faith with America’sveterans by helping them achieve their dreams. We need a G.I. Bill for the 21stcentury. An Obama Administration will expand access to education for ourveterans, and increase benefits to keep pace with rising costs. All who wearthe uniform of the United States are entitled to the same opportunitythat my grandfather had under the G.I. Bill.

And our sacred trust does not end whena service-member dies. The graves of our veterans are hallowed ground. When menand women who die in service to this country are laid to rest, there must be noprotests near the funerals. It’s wrong and it needs to stop. Over 100 years ago, a handful of veterans from the Spanish-American war came together in places like a tailor shop in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, America had no medical care, no pensions for its returning warriors. Folks could raise their voice, but Washington didn’t listen. So these men banded together and started a movement. They cared for each other and made the case for their rights. They founded local organizations all across this country. In 1915 there were 5,000 members. Today, you have nearly 2 million members.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars represents the best of America– the courage to fight for our country abroad, and coming together at home for a cause.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked that “To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might.”

The Americans who fight today believe in this country deeply. And no matter how many you meet, or how many stories of heroism you hear, every encounter reminds you that they are truly special. That through their service, they are living out the ideals that stir so many of us as Americans – pride, duty, and sacrifice.

Some of the most inspiring are those you meet at places like Walter Reed Medical Center. Young men and women who may have lost a limb or even their ability to take care of themselves, but will never lose the pride they feel for serving their country. They’re not interested in self-pity, but yearn to move forward with their lives. And it’s this classically American optimism that makes you realize the quality of person we have serving in the United States Armed Forces.

I know all of us don’t agree on everything. I have heard those of you who disagree with me. I want you to know that I respect the views of all who come to this hall today. I will listen to them as a candidate, and I will listen to them as President. And I will be clear that whatever disagreements we have on policy, there will be no daylight tbetween us when it comes to honoring these men and women who serve, and keeping faith with our veterans. This is not a partisan issue. This is a moral obligation. This must be a beachhead for bringing our country together.

Some like to say this country is divided. But that is not how I choose to see it. I see a country that all of us love – a country that my grandfather served, and that my father crossed an ocean to reach. I see values that all of us share – values of liberty ,equality, and service to a common good and a greater good. I see a flag that we fly with pride. I see an America that is the strongest nation in the history of the world – not just because of our arms, but because of the strength of our values, and of the men and women who serve.

As President Franklin Roosevelt said in his final inaugural: “The Almighty God has blessed our land in many ways. He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth. He has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.” With that strength comes great responsibility – to join our strength with wisdom, and to keep that light of hope burning as a beacon to the world. And there is no responsibility greater than keeping faith with the men and women who serve, so that our country serves them as well as you have served us. Let that be our calling. And let history find us never wanting.