"Thank you for that warm welcome. Thank you to Commander Ronald Conley and the Vice Commanders here today. Thank you to the Legionnaires, including those I just visited with from California and the Bay Area and to the Women of the Auxiliary. It is an honor to be surrounded by so many American patriots.
"I want you to know that being here means a great deal to me personally. Im from one of the millions of families that have been touched by your work. My uncle gave his life at the Battle of the Bulge. Three of my brothers served in the Active Army. Another brother served in the Army National Guard.
"Whenever the American Legion stands up for our veterans and their families, whenever you speak out on behalf of todays men and women in uniform, you ensure that this nation fulfills its sacred obligations to those who serve. Thank you for not letting your service to country end with your service in uniform.
"This is an extremely dangerous moment in our nations history. Around the world, our military is confronting the greatest threat facing America: The clear and present danger of terrorism.
"In Iraq, inspections continue, but war looms on the horizon. And here at home, the nation remains at a high threat level. Threatened by adversaries seeking to destroy our way of life, Americans are appreciating anew the blessings of liberty we cherish as well as the heroes who fought - and often died - so that we could live in freedom.
"Americans have learned again the truth behind the inscription on the Korean War Memorial--'freedom is not free.' And no one has paid a higher price and sacrifice than our veterans.
"Every one of you . soldier, sailor, airmen or Marine active, Guard or Reserve . . .whether you stepped forward as a volunteer or answered your countrys call during the draft . . .every single one of you made an invaluable contribution to this country. And every American owes you a debt of gratitude that words cannot repay.
"In recent weeks, I have met with tomorrows veterans - our young men and women serving in the armed forces today. In January on my first official trip as House Democratic Leader, Congressman Ike Skelton and I traveled to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to visit the B-2 crews that project American power around the world. When we are called into action, we are one team, one fight, and we stand together.
"For my first trip abroad, I chose to pay my respects to the men and women in uniform on the front line. I have just returned from visiting, with Congressmen Jack Murtha and David Hobson, our military personnel who may soon be in combat in Iraq. In Kuwait, we visited with soldiers and marines who would conduct a ground campaign. In Qatar, we visited CENTCOMs forward headquarters and were briefed on battle plans. And in Turkey, we talked with Air Force personnel who have conducted Operation Northern Watch, and who would be part of a northern front should hostilities begin. Whatever you think about the war, if we do go into Iraq, we need the Turkish government to allow us to use its bases to make our troops safer.
"The men and women I met were an inspiration. In recent months, they have waved goodbye to their wives, husbands, and children, their parents and families. They are enthusiastic, working hard, and motivated by a deep love of country. Every day we pick up the paper to see their sacrifice.
"They are the best trained, the best equipped, and the best led force
for peace in the world. One outstanding soldier we met was Captain Jennifer
Schulke, who commands a Patriot missile battery that will protect Kuwait City.
With five years of enlisted experience before receiving a commission, Captain
Schulke, the mother of a daughter who will be 2 years old on March 27, describes
the capabilities of a highly technical weapons system with impressive ease.
There is no doubt that Captain Schulke and her comrades in arms will perform
with distinction and with success, if conflict comes. We were very proud of
their confidence, patriotism, and courage.
"As veterans, you can help guide our nation through this difficult time. As the largest veterans organization, with nearly three million members across the country, you can share the lessons of your lives.
"I commend the Legion for recognizing a fundamental truth: The best answers to oppression, fear, and aggression are justice, freedom, human rights and democracy.
"From the Second World War, the Korean War, through the long Cold War to the Vietnam War, in which Congressman Murtha served, to the Gulf War and the current war on terrorism, you served alongside the forces of other nations. You know that America stands strongest when we stand with allies and friends.
"We also stand strongest when the American people understand the risks
involved, the consequences, and what happens after the fighting ends. And we
should know this before sending our men and women into harms way.
"War is the most solemn choice a nation can make. Military force, as those in the military tell us, is a last resort; we must always first exhaust every possible alternative.
"The pain of war lingers long after the guns fall silent. When our troops come home, we have a moral obligation to help them and their families heal. And if they dont come home, we must insist on the fullest possible accounting of our prisoners of war and missing in action. As we go forward, we must keep this high on our list of concerns.
"And as we do at the Presidio in my district in San Francisco, we must ensure that our national cemeteries remain shrines to those who gave the last, fullest measure of their devotion.
"Americans may debate and disagree about foreign policy. That is the very essence of a democracy. But when it comes to our military men and women, America must stand united. If military force becomes necessary against Iraq and President Bush sends our troops into action, Americans will rally behind our military. Again, it will be one team, one fight.
"And when our troops come home, we will honor them as the heroes they
are. I recently joined dozens of my colleagues, led by Ike Skelton and Jane
Harman, in introducing a resolution commending our armed forces for their service
and expressing our commitment to give them the support they need to succeed.
Congressman Duncan Hunter has now joined in support of the resolution, so I
hope it will be on the House floor soon.
"Of course, forces expect more than rhetoric. They expect resources to maintain their readiness and to modernize the force with the most advanced tools and technologies. Equally important are resources to improve the quality of life - pay, housing, and health care - for our forces and their families who sacrifice so much.
The superb military we have today is the result of investments over many years.
And we need to keep it that way. As a nation, we need to remember the rule that
guides every commander: 'Take care of the troops and their families . . .And
they will take care of you.'
"As America takes care of those who defend our country today, we will have to fulfill our debt to those of you who defended us in the past.
Thats why I am proud to be here to today to recognize the contributions of the American Legion to legislation I have co-sponsored, including legislation: to help veterans exposed to atomic radiation receive disability benefits; to help veterans, including Native Americans, to buy their own homes; to restore full benefits to World War II Filipino veterans; to expand health care options; and to improve pension benefits by ensuring concurrent receipt.
"I dont need to tell you that veterans' health care is in a state of crisis. It is not acceptable that 200,000 veterans are waiting up to six months for an appointment at Veterans Affairs hospitals. These are not just 'numbers' these are American men and women who have served our country, and we will not tolerate these delays. We must take care of our veterans.
"In January, I opposed the Administrations abrupt cut-off of access to VA health care for 164,000 veterans without service-connected disabilities. The Administration said this would apply only to veterans making too much money. Under the Administrations definition, too much money means as little as $25,000 a year. Veterans earning just $25,000 should not have to bear the burden of paying their own health care costs as well.
"This must be reversed. Thats why I am glad to see you here. We need your grassroots help. You are the cavalry coming to take back Capitol Hill.
"We must also find a way to lower the cost of prescription drugs. Today, Democrats are offering seniors a prescription drug benefit that they deserve - one that is comprehensive, affordable, and available for all who receive Medicare -- the same Medicare program they have trusted for nearly 40 years. Most importantly, our plan maintains the choices that matter most - which doctor to go to and what pharmacy to use.
"President Bush has proposed a different course. His plan could force seniors to drop out of Medicare and give up the right to choose their own doctor if they want a prescription drug benefit. Under the Bush plan, seniors who stay in traditional Medicare would only receive a drug discount card that offers minimal savings and catastrophic coverage that does not kick in until they have already spent thousands of dollars out of their own pockets.
"Seniors and the disabled deserve better. As we begin the debate on a meaningful prescription drug plan, Democrats stand ready to deliver. We stand ready to work with the President and Republicans in Congress on a meaningful Medicare prescription drug benefits that gives seniors real relief and real choices. It can be done, and it can be done this year.
"In closing, I want to thank each of you for holding your heads high, and for working so hard on behalf of our veterans and all our men and women in uniform, and on behalf of the American people.
"We need the power of your example - your character, your courage, your strength more than ever. You and your families have always taken care of us. In return, we renew our pledge to always take care of you.
"I am very honored to share my thoughts with you today. Thank you for the opportunity to be with you.
"May God bless our men and women in uniform. May God bless you and your
families. May God bless the United States of America. And may God bless the
President of the United States."
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