While the United States is in a time of fiscal restraint, President Barack Obama pledged on Tuesday that the restraint won't include cutting benefits of America's veterans.
Addressing The American Legion's 93rd Annual National Convention in Minneapolis, Obama said veterans wouldn't bear the brunt of federal cutbacks.
"As a nation, we're facing tough choices as we put our fiscal house in order," the president said, getting a standing ovation from the crowd of thousands in the process. "But I want to be absolutely clear: We cannot, we must not, and we will not balance the budget on the backs of our veterans. And as commander-in-chief, I won't allow it.
"As today's wars end, as our troops come home, we're reminded once more of our responsibilities to all who have served, for the bond between our forces and our citizens is a sacred trust. And for me and my administration, upholding that trust isn't just a matter of policy. It's not about politics. It's a moral obligation. That's why my very first budget included the largest percentage increase to the VA budget in the past 30 years. So far, we're on track to have increased funding for Veterans Affairs by 30 percent. And because we passed advance appropriations, when Washington politics threatened to shut down the government last spring, the veterans medical care that you count on was safe."
While pledging to protect veterans benefits, the president also offered a plan to help revive the economy: the hiring of veterans.
"We're going to offer more help with career development and job searches," he said. "I've directed DoD and the VA to create a reverse boot camp to help our newest veterans prepare for civilian jobs and translate their exceptional military skills into industry-accepted licenses and credentials. And today I'm calling on every state to pass legislation that makes it easier for our veterans to get the credentials and the jobs for which they are so clearly qualified. This needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.
"We're encouraging the private sector to do its part. I've challenged companies across America to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans or their spouses. This builds on the commitments that many companies have already made as part of the Joining Forces campaign championed by (Michelle Obama) and the vice president's spouse, Dr. Jill Biden. I've proposed a Returning Heroes Tax Credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans and a Wounded Warrior Tax Credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans with a disability. When Congress returns from recess, this needs to be at the top of the agenda. For the sake of our veterans, for the sake of our economy, we need these veterans working and contributing and creating the new jobs and industries that will keep America competitive in the 21st century."
During his 30-minute address, Obama touched on the economy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the needed care of U.S. servicemembers when they return home - specifically those dealing with hidden wounds such as post-traumatic stress and mental illness.
"We're working aggressively to address another signature wound of this war, which has led too many fine troops and veterans to take their own lives - post-traumatic stress disorder," he said. "We're continuing to make major investments: improving outreach and suicide prevention, hiring and training more mental health counselors and treating more veterans than ever before.
"The days when depression and PTSD were stigmatized must end. That's why I made the decision to start sending condolence letters to the families of servicemembers who take their lives while deployed in a combat zone. These American patriots did not die because they were weak. They were warriors. And every man and woman in uniform, and every veteran, needs to know that your nation will be there to help you stay strong."
Obama told Legionnaires that U.S. servicemembers serving in Iraq will be home by the start of 2012, while the drawdown in Afghanistan will continue.
"Having ended our combat mission in Iraq and removed more than 100,000 troops so far, we'll remove the rest of our troops by the end of this year and end that war," he said. "Having put al Qaeda on the path to defeat, we won't relent until the job is done. Having started to drawdown our forces in Afghanistan, we'll bring home 33,000 troops by next summer and bring home more troops in the coming years. As our mission transitions from combat to support, Afghans will take responsibility for their own security, and the longest war in American history will come to a responsible end."
Those men and women who have served in both campaigns are deserving of a grateful nation's praise, the president said.
"Young captains, sergeants and lieutenants have assumed responsibilities once reserved for more senior commanders, reminding us that in an era when so many other institutions have shirked their obligations, the men and women of the United States military welcome responsibility," Obama said. "In a decade of war, they have borne an extraordinary burden, with more than two million of our servicemembers deploying to the warzones. Hundreds of thousands have deployed again and again, year after year. Never before has our nation asked so much of our all-volunteer force - that 1 percent of Americans who wears the uniform.
"Through their service, their sacrifice, their astonishing record of achievement, our forces have earned their place among the greatest of generations."
Obama said that those men and women who come home injured and file a claim with VA shouldn't have to wait for that claim to be adjudicated, and that the current backlog of VA claims remains a priority for his administration.
"Now, I know that over the past year, the backlog has actually grown, due to new claims from Agent Orange," he said. "But let me say this, and I know Secretary Shinseki agrees: When our veterans who fought for our country have to fight just to get the benefits you've earned - that's unacceptable. So this is going to remain a priority. We're going to keep hiring new claims processors, keep investing in new paperless systems and keep moving ahead with our innovation competition in which our dedicated VA employees are developing new ways to process your claims faster - not in months, but days. The bottom line is this: Your claims need to be processed quickly and accurately, the first time. And we're not going to rest until we get this done."
Obama said he will address the rest of the nation next week with a plan for creating jobs and reducing the nation's deficit. "We Americans have been through tough times before, much tougher than these," he said. "And we didn't just get through them, we emerged stronger than before. Not by luck. Not by chance. But because in hard times, Americans don't quit. We don't give up. We summon that spirit that says, 'When we come together, when we choose to move forward together, as one people, there's absolutely nothing we can't achieve.'"