FROM THE 2004 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
Speech to the
Veterans of Foreign Wars Annual Convention
August 18, 2004 • Cincinnati, OH
Thank you. I am proud to be a lifetime
member of this organization and grateful for your continued
deep commitment to veterans and to the defense and security
of our nation. For more than 100 years now, you have had
many distinguished veterans come before you – some
Republican, some Democrat, some presidents. But as a fellow
veteran, I can proudly say that there is one title that
is more important than all, and that is patriot. You have
all earned that title and I am proud to stand with you
A few weeks ago, at the Democratic National Convention,
I told the American people that I was reporting for duty.
I did not say that lightly. I said it paying homage to
and drawing strength from my crewmates on stage, the more
than 500 delegates who were veterans in the Fleet Center
and especially all of you -- every man and woman who has
ever worn the uniform of the United States armed forces.
We understand that the duty to serve goes on throughout
our lives. That is what really brings us here today: our
continued resolve to defend America so that all can share
in the blessings of freedom. And let there be no doubt – when
I am president, you will have a true brother in arms in
the White House who understands that those who fought for
their 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, let me offer this pledge: As president,
I will always remember that America’s security begins
and ends with the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine and Coastguardsman – 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 pledge to stand with your
families as you stand for ours.
Like veterans of all wars past, today’s fighting
men and women, deserve our prayers and support and then,
when they come home, they deserve the respect and welcome
of a grateful nation. After all, the first definition of
patriotism is to keep faith with those who have worn the
uniform of the United States of America.
One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that those
who have served us on the frontlines return to an America
that gives them the tools to build strong families and
strong communities here at home. This means transitional
assistance to help all those returning from war, struggling
to readjust to civilian life, and coping with the scars
of battle, those both seen and unseen. This is about keeping
a sacred promise. It is about love of country. And it is
about protecting those who have risked their lives to protect
In recent days, 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. The job will be done when we’re
not closing VA hospitals, so that veterans can’t
reach the care they need. The job will be done when veterans
are not asked for increasing 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 job will be done when 400,000 military retirees get
real concurrent receipt. The job will be done when there
are no homeless veterans on the streets of America. The
job will be done when more than 320,000 veterans no longer
are waiting for decisions on disability claims and another
100,000 are not awaiting appeals decisions. The job will
be done when the VA Secretary does not have to complain
that he needs more than the White House wanted to give
him. And 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. It is clear: when it comes to protecting
America’s 26 million veterans and their families
we are far from being able to claim, “mission accomplished.“
As President, I will stand with you to complete that mission.
The sacrifices that you have made on the battlefield are
well known. But what is not as well known is how hard we
have fought after we returned from service to keep faith
with our fellow soldiers. How we fought to get additional
funds for VA hospitals that couldn’t provide adequate
care. How we put together the first outreach groups to
help deal with post traumatic stress disorder. How we pushed
to get the GI Bill extended so that no vet lost their chance
for a better future. And how we won increases for veteran’s
allowances and living expenses.
We kept faith. Together, with the help from the leadership
of the VFW we can be proud that we put in place the most
thorough, the most exhaustive, the most extensive effort
to account for missing, captured or dead in all the history
of human warfare. We made that happen – we veterans
and we should all be proud of keeping faith. I am especially
proud that together with Bob Smith and John McCain we led
and won this fight.
When I got involved in this issue, there were hundreds
of individuals whose fates were unknown. Today that number
has been reduced to 35. That means that families now have
the peace of mind and the comfort of knowing that their
loved ones are resting in peace. I went back to Vietnam
to search for our POWs and missing because I believe, as
you do, that a soldier never leaves anyone behind.
That is why I fought for the legislation that allowed
veterans to be treated in VA hospitals for devastating
Agent Orange conditions like cancer and neurological disorders.
Again, we kept faith.
I will continue to stand with you as president, leading
the fight for a Military Family Bill of Rights and leading
the fight for full, mandatory funding for Veterans health
Military families are going through difficult times these
days. Many of their loved ones are in faraway places, leaving
them to care for their families alone. The last thing our
servicemen and women need on their minds is the stress
of wondering if their loved ones back home will be okay.
What they need is a president who protects their families
while they are putting their lives on the line protecting
the American family. That means making sure families have
competitive pay, good housing, decent health care and quality
education for their children.
Keeping faith with our veterans also means making sure
they get full concurrent receipt. Today, we have only partially
met this obligation. I’m not going to come to the
VFW to tell you the job is done when it is not done. 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. As
president, I won’t stop fighting until our veterans
get the full disability payments they deserve.
You and I who once left our families and our shores to
defend the principles that make America great, understand
more than most the cost of keeping our country free. When
you hear that more than 940 American troops have been lost
on the battlefield of Iraq and that more than 6,200 of
our troops have been wounded, some disabled for a lifetime … these
are more than numbers to you and me. These are our brothers
and sisters … our sons and daughters … America’s
They testify to the truth that we will never back down
in defense of freedom. We will use superior military force
to overcome any enemy. Let me be clear: like you, I defended
this country as a young man. And I will defend it as president.
I will never hesitate to use force when it is required.
Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response.
Any imminent threat to our security will be dealt with
swiftly and severely. I will never give any nation or international
institution a veto over our national security. And I will
build a stronger American military.
But, in these dangerous times, there is a right way and
a wrong way to be strong. Strength is more than tough words.
After September 11th, I am proud that all our people rallied
to the President’s call for unity to meet the danger.
There were no Democrats, there were no Republicans there
were only Americans.
How we wish it had stayed that way.
But since then, we have become a country divided over
Iraq – and it didn’t have to be that way.
As veterans, we know what kids go through when they are
carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place and they can’t
tell friend from foe. We know what they go through when
they’re out on patrol at night and they don’t
know what’s coming around the next bend. We know
what it’s like to write letters home telling your
family that everything’s all right when you’re
not sure that’s true.
I know what we have to do in Iraq. We need a President
who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side
because that’s the right way to get the job done
in Iraq and bring our troops home.
We need to bring in NATO and other nations to share the
cost and burdens. Right now, the United States is shouldering
the lions share of this effort. Ninety percent of all coalition
forces and nearly ninety percent of coalition coffins are
draped with American flags. The American taxpayers are
also paying the vast share of the cost of this war.
We also need to massively improve and accelerate our training
of Iraqi police and security forces so they can defend
their own country; and we need ensure that there is far
greater security to provide the credible elections in 2005
critical to advance Iraq’s transition to stable,
As President, I will always ask hard questions and I will
demand hard evidence. I will immediately reform the intelligence
system – so policy is guided by facts, and facts
are never distorted by politics.
As president, I will wage war with the lessons I learned
in war. Before you go to battle, you have to be able to
look a parent or family member in the eye and truthfully
say: We tried everything possible to avoid sending your
son or daughter into harm’s way. But we had no choice.
And now, with so much at stake in the struggle against
Al Qaeda the American people want to hear, in plain words
the answer to a simple question. How are we going to get
the terrorists before they get us? Just what is our strategy – not
just for striking back against the terrorists, but for
defeating their aims, destroying their movement, discrediting
their cause, and bringing old and new friends to our side?
What is our long-term strategy for making America safer?
Over the course of this campaign, I have laid out my plans
to reshape and rebuild the American military so that it
is ready to fight tomorrow’s wars, not yesterday’s.
As a combat veteran who has walked in your shoes, I know
that the first duty of a commander in chief is to make
sure that our troops are the best trained, best equipped
fighting force in the world. And to never send them into
battle without a plan to win the peace.
That is why I have called for adding 40,000 new troops,
not in Iraq, but to relieve the pressure on our overstretched
forces. The fact is, the war in Iraq has taken a real toll
on our armed services. Ninety percent of the Army’s
active duty combat divisions are either in Iraq, have been
to Iraq, or are on their way.
I will also double our Army Special Forces so we can find
and get the terrorists before they get us.
And we must end the stop-loss and involuntary recall of
troops that amounts to nothing more than a back-door draft.
To fight this war, we have called up our Guard and Reserves
at historic levels. And many of these units are being pushed
to the limit. The Administration has extended tours of
duty, delayed retirements, and prevented enlisted personnel
from leaving the service. And when these troops come home,
many have lost the job they left. We’re going to
see to it that everyone who fought for this country has
a good job when they come back to this country.
At the same time, we must strengthen our homeland security
and do everything we can to prevent another 9/11. We shouldn't
be letting ninety-five percent of container ships come
into our ports without ever being physically inspected.
We shouldn't be leaving our nuclear and chemical plants
without enough protection. And we must make sure first
responders have the training and equipment they need.
But, as you know, winning the war on terror demands a
team effort. We all know that the best intelligence comes
from working cooperatively with other nations – through
real intelligence sharing and joint operations. That’s
why for months now, I have been calling for the creation
of a National Director of Intelligence with the authority
to oversee all of our intelligence agencies.
Last month, the 9/11 Commission embraced many of these
ideas. I have urged the President and the Congress to act – and
act now – to implement them. But if we are going
to win this war, we will have to listen to another profoundly
important recommendation made by the Commission. “Long
term success demands the use of all elements of national
power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement,
economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy and homeland
As President, I will fight a smarter, more effective war
on terror. We will deploy every tool in our arsenal: our
economic as well as our military might; our principles
as well as our firepower. Only then will be able to tell
the terrorists: You will lose and we will win.
Finally, I want to say something about the plan that the
President announced on Monday to withdraw 70,000 troops
from Asia and Europe. Nobody wants to bring troops home
more than those of us who have fought in foreign wars.
But it needs to be done at the right time and in a sensible
way. This is not that time or that way.
Let’s be clear: the President’s vaguely stated
plan does not strengthen our hand in the war against terror.
And in no way relieves the strain on our overextended military
personnel. And this hastily announced plan raises more
doubts about our intentions and our commitments than it
provides real answers.
For example, why are we unilaterally withdrawing 12,000
troops from the Korean Peninsula at the very time we are
negotiating with North Korea – a country that really
has nuclear weapons? As Senator John McCain said, “I’m
particularly concerned about moving troops out of South
Korea when North Korea has probably never been more dangerous
than any time since the end of the Korean War.” This
is clearly the wrong signal to send at the wrong time.
With al Qaeda operating in 60 countries, we need closer
alliances in every part of the world to fight and win the
war on terrorism. So, as president, I will be a commander
in chief who renews our alliances based on shared interests
and a common vision for a safer world. For more than 50
years, our allies have joined with us to say: the future
doesn’t belong to fear; it belongs to freedom.
As veterans, we know we can win the war on terror. As
men and women who have worn the uniform of our country,
you know better than most that we can make our nation stronger
at home and respected in the world.
And so, whether the issue is standing by our vets and
their families or standing up for our principles, our values
and our freedom, the big question before us is not just
who will lead America. It is whether America will continue
to lead in the world.
I am running for President because I believe that if we
honor our highest values and do right by our men and women
in uniform, America will continue to be a beacon of hope
and freedom for all the world.
Thank you for your service to our country and God bless
you and God bless the United States of America.