FROM THE 2004 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
the American Legion Convention
September 1, 2004 • Nashville, TN
Eighty-five years ago, the American
Legion was founded by and for our nation’s 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 America’s 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 faraway as Iraq and Afghanistan.
America’s 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
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. That’s
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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 – it’s
yours – just like in the private sector. If you get
a disability payment, it is because you have suffered.
I don’t 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 doesn’t
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
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, doesn’t have to sleep at his bedside
because the VA can’t afford to give him the round-the-clock
nursing care he needs. That’s not right, that’s
certainly not compassionate, and that won’t happen
when I’m 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 health care 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. That’s 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 a 150,000 troops serving
in Iraq and Afghanistan are away from their families – and
thousands more are in harm’s way elsewhere.
We owe them the truth, we owe the American people the
truth. And I’m here today to tell you the truth as
I see it.
I can’t 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
By dismissing the State Department’s 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 Saddam’s
They failed to secure Iraq’s borders, and so allowed
thousands of foreign terrorists, Islamist militants, and
intelligence agents to penetrate and destabilize post-war
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
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 didn’t
guard are the very weapons being targeted at our troops
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 America’s
So when the president says we have the same position on
Iraq, I have to respectfully disagree. Our differences
couldn’t be plainer. And I have set them out consistently.
When it comes to Iraq, it’s not that I would have
done one thing differently, I would’ve done almost
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
I would’ve given the inspectors the time they needed
to do the job.
I wouldn’t have ignored my senior military advisors.
I would’ve made sure that every soldier put in harm’s
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 there’s one thing I learned from my service,
I would never have gone to war without a plan to win the
The bottom line is that if I don’t 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
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 I’ll do as
Commander-in-Chief – because that’s the right
way to get the job done and bring our troops home.
In an interview two days ago, the President said we can’t
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. We’re
the can do people, and there’s nothing we can’t
do if we put our mind and muscle into it. In the end, the
terrorists will lose, and we will win. The future doesn’t
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 they’re hiding and plotting,
what they’re 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 America’s intelligence gathering
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 you’ve 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
don’t have health insurance, five million have lost
coverage since 2000. And this year alone, 220,000 more
Americans couldn’t 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 week’s 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 that’s
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
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 doesn’t understand that
health care is not a privilege for the wealthy, the connected
and the elected – it is a right for every single
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 hadn’t been sure he’d 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.