SEN. BARACK OBAMA, D-ILL., AND SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ., ARE POISED AT A RARE THRESHOLD IN POLITICAL HISTORY. Next month, for the first time in nearly a half-century, voters will elect a sitting U.S. senator to become president of the United States. With no incumbent president or vice president in the mix for the first time in decades, the decision will be neither a referendum on the previous administration, nor a continuation of it. Each candidate has promised to chart a new course for America.
Both have strong beliefs and visions for the future of veterans, national security, the war and the economy. Obama serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. McCain is a decorated combat veteran and former POW of the Vietnam War.
They both believe America has a sacred duty to care for those who have served in uniform. They agree the global war on terrorism is shifting toward Afghanistan, and that our government's relationship with Pakistan is seriously on the rocks. Each candidate has his own distinct plan to control illegal immigration, and his own ideas to reverse the economic slide of 2008. They firmly disagree on the need for a constitutional amendment to protect the U.S. Flag from desecration.
In exclusive interviews with The American Legion Magazine, which included seven questions asked by veterans on video and uploaded onto the 10-million-member Military.com Web site, the candidates took time along their campaign trails in early August to share their thoughts. Video responses to the seven selected questions were posted on Military.com and can be found at www.electioncenter.military.com . Expanded video presentations of the interviews are posted on American Legion TV . American Legion Magazine Editor Jeff Stoffer and Managing Editor Philip M. Callaghan conducted and produced the interviews.
Question 1: American Legion member Michael McDaniel asks: How do you envision your first four years as commander in chief in the global war on terrorism?
OBAMA: I have long believed that the central front in the war on terror is in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and the Taliban – those who killed 3,000 Americans – remain at large. We have seen a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. I want to put two additional brigades in Afghanistan, put more pressure on the Afghan government to engage in the kind of development that will reduce support for insurgents there. We also have to deal with Pakistan and the fact that, along those border regions, you have safe havens for terrorist camps. I think that we've got to work much more effectively with Pakistan and insist they go after those terrorists.
In Iraq, I think the situation there has improved. I'm pleased about that. We can't do what we need to do in Afghanistan unless we start taking some of the troops who are in Iraq to Afghanistan, and I think the time is right. I've said for a long time that Iraq is a war of choice and wasn't a war of necessity. We are there now, our troops have done a magnificent job, but the Iraqis themselves have said that they are ready to take on more responsibility. I want to give them more responsibility. We will still have logistics and training function, and we'll still have a counterterrorism capacity in that area.
The last point I would make is probably the most important aspect of our battle against terrorism. In addition to winning hearts and minds, and rolling up financial support for these organizations, is making sure that we keep weapons of mass destruction out of their hands. The issue of nuclear proliferation has to be front and center in the next commander in chief's strategy.
McCAIN: I believe we will be largely out of Iraq because we will have won the war. But that will be based on conditions on the ground, not according to a time certain for withdrawal, which Sen. Obama supported, which would have meant defeat.
I see us still engaged in Afghanistan, although with an Afghan army and government that's far more effective and us in a much more advisory role.
I see al-Qaida continuing to try to establish cells here in the United States and around the world. I see the threat of radical Islamic extremism with us as long as there's poverty, economic deprivation – governments that are not responsive to the people in those countries. I see us engaged in this struggle not only military – but intelligence, diplomatic and ideological. And we will prevail.
I am confident we will make America safer and the world safer, working with our allies and our friends. But we should not underestimate the force of evil that's out there, that wants to destroy everything we stand for and believe in. It requires a steady, experienced hand at the tiller.
Question 2: Brendan Deaner, an Army National Guardsman, asks: What are you going to do to improve deployment lengths and time away from home that citizen-soldiers have to deal with?
McCAIN: It's been terrible for our Guard and reserve, as well as our active-duty individuals. One of the big mistakes we made after the Cold War and the Soviet Union collapsed, is that, as a peace dividend, we reduced the size of the Army and the Marine Corps, as well as the other armed services, drastically. And then that mistake was compounded by our failure initially in Iraq by not having enough troops on the ground.
I believe we will be able to relieve the burden, as we have. Our surge troops are withdrawing. The president has announced a cutback to 12-month deployments from 15. And there will be troops available for service in Afghanistan. And we are increasing the size of our military.
I'd like to tell you that I will immediately relieve the burden of the men and women who are serving, but it's very tough. In Afghanistan, we will employ the same strategy that succeeded in Iraq – that Sen. Obama opposed and still does not acknowledge succeeded, incredibly.
So, we need a bigger military, we need to continue winning in Iraq – and we are winning – and we need to understand that Afghanistan is also going to be difficult. But we will be winning there over time as well.
OBAMA: Well, this has been one of the untold stories of the Iraq war: the enormous strain that has been placed on military families. Our troops have performed brilliantly, and morale has been extremely high. I just came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and people are proud of the service they are providing. But the burden placed on families could be mitigated.
No. 1, we've got to increase our ground forces – active-duty – Marines and Army. I've called for an additional 65,000 for our Army and an additional 25,000 to 27,000 for our Marines. That will relieve some pressure. Now, it will take time to build that up. In the meantime, obviously, if we reduce our ground forces in Iraq, that will reduce pressure on rotations.
The other thing is predictability; it's not just length. We ought to end the practice of stop-loss. We also have to end the practice of jiggering with deployments after folks are already out in the theater of battle. I think that we have to provide people some constancy and certainty, and that involves more effective planning on the part of our military.
Question 3: Iraq war veteran Sam Hutchinson asks: If elected president, how do you plan to deal with governments that have supported our enemies in the global war on terrorism?
OBAMA: We can't tolerate the aiding and abetting of terrorists – those who attack our troops. Overall, I think that we've done better in cooperating in rolling up terrorist networks in many countries.
Two problem areas where we haven't done better:
I mentioned one in Pakistan. We give them a lot of military aid, but their army and their intelligence services have not acted forcefully, and there is some evidence that they may have, in certain cases, looked the other way when it comes to terrorist base camps in those areas. That has to be dealt with.
The other area of obvious concern is Iran. We can't tolerate Iran sending in weapons that are killing our soldiers. I think that we have to have tough, direct diplomacy with Iran, not only on that issue but on the issue of Iran possessing nuclear weapons and their funding of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.
We've got to have big carrots and big sticks. If they are stopping these behaviors, then we can reward them, and the international community can reward them. If they are not, then the sanctions that are applied have to be much tougher and tighter than the ones that are currently applied.
McCAIN: That is difficult because some of these countries are our – quote – friends. And some of these individuals, for example, who are coming into Iraq as suicide bombers, are not Iraqis. They are from other countries that are our – quote – friends. I would make sure that our "friends" understand that we have various ways of acting to try to stop people who come and try to kill Americans, whether it be in Iraq or Afghanistan or in the United States of America. But I wouldn't threaten people. I wouldn't try to bully them. I would try to get cooperative agreements.
Also, these countries have to make progress toward human rights, democracy, freedom – so that some of the root causes of radical Islamic extremism disappear rather than being a fertile breeding ground for this kind of jihadist.
Question 4: The American Legion Magazine: How can America improve its reputation on the world stage?
McCAIN: Obviously, there are places in the world where America's image isn't what we want it to be. But we now have a president of France who is an ally, the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, the British prime minister, the Poles, the Czechs. A lot of countries are very pro-American. The Baltics – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Even though they are small, they are staunch allies.
So, we have to work more closely together. I will do everything in my power to see that we work more closely and cooperatively. But America leads. When you are the leader, sometimes you get criticism from other countries. Sometimes that's justified. Sometimes it's not. But in the struggle that we are in, and in other challenges we are facing around the world, again, America leads.
OBAMA: One of the most striking things about my trip to Iraq and Afghanistan but also eastern Europe is how hungry people are for American leadership. They want leadership; they just don't want leadership that's all about us acting unilaterally and not listening to other countries' points of views.
We have an extraordinary opportunity as we wind this war down in Iraq to refocus our attention on Afghanistan, to deal with Iran and nuclear proliferation generally, to tackle issues like climate change. These are issues – climate change, terrorism – that we can't solve by ourselves. Other countries want to see us lead. They want to see us lead in the Middle East, in the peace process. I've heard repeatedly that they can't solve these problems without the United States. But we've got to be much more active and much more engaged. And we've got to pay attention to the interests of other countries.
Question 5: American Legion member Angel Juarez asks: As commander in chief, what would you do to secure our borders and ports?
OBAMA: Well, I am a big proponent of comprehensive immigration reform. I've already supported over $350 million for additional border patrols. I think that we've got to have surveillance, virtual patrols. We've got to crack down on the employers that are really the magnets for illegal immigration. That can reduce the flows along the borders. Obviously, we've got a national security and homeland security concern as well, but if border patrols are being pressured by huge volumes of illegal immigrants searching for work, that makes us more vulnerable in terms of looking after our potential security concerns.
When it comes to ports, we need to implement all of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, which we have not done. We still haven't done that when it comes to our borders, as well. We know what has to be done; it's a defined pot of money. I would also say, though, that we've got to re-examine our Department of Homeland Security generally, to find out if it's operating as efficiently as it needs to.
McCAIN: We need very badly to secure our borders. Illegal immigration is a national-security problem. We failed to pass comprehensive legislation (in the 110th Congress) because Americans didn't believe we would secure our borders.
We have to have a temporary worker program that is truly temporary. There are those jobs out there that just are going to be filled by temporary workers. Also, we need to address the issue of the people already in this country illegally, in a humane and compassionate fashion. But they cannot have any priority over those who came legally, or waited legally, to become citizens.
Let me also point out one other aspect of this border problem that we probably have not paid as much attention to as we should, and that's drugs. Right now, border towns on the Mexican side are in danger of being taken over by drug cartels. There's heads (cut off) in the town squares. And for the first time, we've got a Mexican president who wants to work with us to stop the flow of drugs.
So, it's not just illegal immigrants that we worry about coming over the border. It's the drugs that are killing Americans. For the first time, I am happy to tell you, thanks to a thing called the Merida Initiative, the Mexican government and American government are working very closely together. But the Mexican government and police are beset by corruption to an alarming degree. So we have to secure our borders from illegal immigrants but also because of the drugs that come across and kill our citizens.
Question 6: Navy veteran Rick Hood asks: What is your plan to help the United States become energy-independent while alternative fuels are being developed?
McCAIN: Drill offshore, Rick. Drill now. Incredibly, Sen. Obama opposes this and says it wouldn't make any difference. We've got to develop nuclear power. The United States Navy, as Rick well knows, has sailed ships with nuclear power plants around the world for 60 years. We need to store and re-process spent nuclear fuel. The French do it. Eighty percent of their electricity is generated by nuclear power.
I am told by experts that within months, using existing facilities, we could have an increase in our oil supply, and in a very short period of time, we could have an effect on our dependence on foreign oil. We are talking about national security again. We're sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us very much. Some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations.
We need to drill offshore. We need to drill now. We need to have nuclear power, and then we need to push forward with wind-tied solar hybrid cars, hydrogen flex fuels, bio-fuels – all of those things that America is perfectly capable of doing. We've got to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. I call it the Lexington Project.
OBAMA: It starts with energy efficiency. We can reduce in the transportation sector 30 percent of our consumption of oil, if we are developing plug-in hybrids, if we are developing alternative fuels like cellulosic ethanol. I want to put billions of dollars into research and development, an Apollo project, for these new, clean-energy strategies which, by the way, can create millions of jobs. We've got to set up an infrastructure for that. That means a new electricity grid for plug-in hybrids. It means making sure that new clean alternative energies are available at gas stations, and we've got to provide incentives for that. All of this should be tied together with a perspective that this is good not only for our economy, but it's also good for our national security, and it's good for the issue of climate change and the environment. So we get a "three-fer." This is a combination that could really liberate the American economy; it's time we got started now.
Question 7: The American Legion Magazine: As a new generation of veterans enters VA, how do you see the department evolving under your administration?
OBAMA: This is so important to me. My grandfather fought in World War II. I think about his story coming back from Patton's Army and getting that GI Bill, getting (VA home) loans. He's buried in Punch Bowl Cemetery in Honolulu. I remember the burial he received and "Taps" and the flag folded and given to my grandmother, and so I know what his service meant to him but also how this country stood by him as a veteran.
Sometimes we haven't stood by our veterans. Obviously, Vietnam was a particularly painful era where we just didn't do right by our veterans. I think that attitude has changed, but our organization of VA hasn't changed the way it needs to. So a couple of simple principles: full funding of VA and on-time budgets. That should be a must-pass part of the budgeting process, and that will be a priority when I am president.
Number two, electronic medical records that are directly going to the VA through seamless transition, from DoD to VA, eliminating backlogs on disability claims, making sure that there's consistency in terms of how these claims are disposed of and dealt with. When I first came in, Illinois was ranked close to 50th in terms of the levels of disability payments. There should be regularity and consistency across the system. Rural access to the VA: very important, having more VA centers, in some cases VA hospitals. Zero tolerance for homeless veterans; it is inexcusable that we have those who wore the uniform of United States of America on the streets.
Part of that, and this goes towards the whole issue, is making sure mental health care is available for our veterans. We have to have screening for everybody for post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Those are the signature injuries coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan – making sure mental-health services are available on a timely basis so that they don't fester and veterans don't start self-medicating.
McCAIN: First of all, let me say we can never allow the scandal at Walter Reed to ever be repeated. I carry around with me to town-hall meetings a quote from George Washington, who said in 1789 that the willingness of young Americans to serve their country in a time of war is directly related to the treatment that the country accords those who served in previous wars. I know many of our members have heard that many times.
We have to have a VA system that's not only efficient, but, in my view, available. We still have veterans who have to drive a long way to stand in line to stand in line to get an appointment to get an appointment. We've got to expand VA, expand our capabilities, expand particularly PTSD, brain injury and also those kinds of combat wounds that VA is best at treating.
I want to provide veterans with a plastic card. When they have a routine health-care need they can go to the health provider of their choice and get treatment, rather than having to drive from Window Rock to Phoenix or to Flagstaff. There have been some allegations that I want to privatize the system. I just want to give our veterans the quickest access to routine health care they need. I also want to expand VA's capabilities in every way, but especially in the terrible increase – it's tragic – the terrible increase in PTSD. Thank God we are able to save more of the wounded and get them up from the battlefield to medical care. That also means that there's going to be more treatment, as we know. And I thank God for that. But we've got to have the capability for doing that.
So, I want to emphasize again, I think VA is vital. I don't want to privatize it. But shouldn't we allow a veteran with a routine health-care need not to have to go down this winter in Phoenix to a crowded waiting room at the VA? He's got a bad cold? He or she has a bad cold or a routine health-care need? Stop by the doctor! See my point? Anybody who tries to twist it, like those who have no military experience or don't know what the veteran goes through, is being very dishonest. I want to provide all of the health care they need. I want to expand it.
Let's take care of these wounded warriors. Never let the scandal of Walter Reed repeat itself. But at the same time, let's also focus a lot of our attention on what VA is best at, and that's the treatment of our warriors who have those unique challenges associated with the battlefield and provide all the health care they need. Let's improve that ability.
Question 8: American Legion member Dave Warnken asks: What can be done to improve the funding formula for the VA health-care system?
McCAIN: Do whatever is necessary to care for American veterans. That's our first priority. Taking care of our veterans is directly related to our national security. We've got to get the best and the brightest to be members of the military. If we don't treat those who've served in a way they deserve, we're not going to be able to do that. So, it's a national-security issue, as well as an obligation.
The second thing is: don't send me any more bills that have pork-barrel projects on them and call them a bill for veterans. Don't do that. I don't want any museums on it. I don't want any bridges to Alaska. I don't want any of this pork-barrel stuff. I want only to take care of the veterans. A lot of times they will pass one of these bills with pork-barrel projects and say, "We've just given X billions of dollars to veterans." Well, look at the fine print. There's a whole bunch of these pork-barrel projects that have nothing to do with veterans. So, I'm going to veto it. And I'm going to make the ones famous who put the museum on it. And I'm going to say, "Give this money to the veterans, and put it where it's needed." I will maintain a level of funding for our veterans' care that is absolutely necessary, because it will be my highest commitment.
Look, I'm not against mandatory funding, but I also believe that if we did the right thing by the veterans it wouldn't be absolutely necessary. I want to get out there and make the case for the veterans, and I think I can do that.
OBAMA: I think it starts with the president. It starts with the president saying that if I'm budgeting for war, then I am also budgeting for VA. If I've got a half-a-trillion-dollar Pentagon budget, then I'd better make sure that I make some of those billions of dollars available to care for the soldiers once they come home. It should be a non-negotiable proposition that people are receiving the services that they need. This is the reason I joined the Veterans Affairs Committee – because I believe deeply in that principle.
Question 9: The American Legion Magazine: How do you propose to bring down the swelling VA benefits claims backlog?
OBAMA: This is an area where I.T. can make a difference – information technologies – if we've got electronic medical records and personnel records, and these are easily transmitted between DoD and the VA system, that will shorten some of the time. Anybody who has dealt with veterans who are trying to go through the VA process know they're trying to piece together letters and documents, and they send it to VA or they bring it down to the office, and it turns out that they are still missing something, and they've got to go dig it up, and maybe it gets lost. So, record-keeping can be improved. And then you've just got to have more people who are looking over these claims and processing these claims.
One last point, though. I think that sometimes VA in the past has been designed with the mindset, "My job is to deny claims." Whereas, I think just having a different mindset that says, "My assumption is that a veteran who's proud and who served his country is not trying to chisel the government, but is just trying to get what they've earned" – if you have that shift in mindset, I think that can help to expedite some of these claims.
McCAIN: First of all, the Wounded Warrior legislation, which was way too long in passage, as we know, does expedite the process some – better than what it was.
But the first principle, in my view, should be that there is one trip to disability. There shouldn't be one from VA and one from the military. Tell me how that has ever made a bit of sense. If someone has a requirement that an injury or condition is a disability, service-incurred, why should the military and VA have different opinions? I mean, it's crazy.
Second of all, I think we have to see how this latest legislation improves it. But if necessary, we've got to go back and revisit it. If they don't reduce this backlog within a year or so, then they'd better go back and see what needs to be done to fix it.
Right now, many veterans have to prove their case. Maybe, sometimes, we ought to have a more balanced situation, where the government has to prove. See my point? Part of it is the mindset that has to be changed. But I think we made improvements in the Wounded Warriors Act. Let's see what those improvements do over time and then, if necessary, fix it again. It's a national disgrace.
Question 10: Linda Perham, a member of The American Legion, asks: What is your position on the flag-protection amendment?
McCAIN: I am for it. And I've always supported it. I had an experience in prison camp in North Vietnam, in Hanoi, where a young man named Mike Christian made an American flag and sewed it on the back of his shirt. We pledged our allegiance to our flag in our prison cell. The Vietnamese took it out and beat him very, very badly, and then, because he was a brave, brave American, he sewed another American flag, so that we could pledge our allegiance. I have seen Americans literally shed their blood for this flag. I don't think it should be desecrated.
OBAMA: I believe that we have to revere and honor our flag; it is a symbol of all that is good in America. But I have historically believed that part of what we are protecting is our Constitution. And we don't modify that lightly. I recognize how important this is to American Legion members and anybody who has fought on behalf of this country under that flag. But I would also argue that as a consequence of us teaching reverence and love and respect for that flag and for our country, most children, most young people, most Americans abhor the notion of defiling our flag, and so we don't have a lot of flag burning going on out there. I think that's how it should be. This should not be an issue that divides us. It should be an issue that brings us together.