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Press Conference; Subject: The Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act of 2007

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Location: Washington, DC


PRESS CONFERENCE
SUBJECT: THE DIGNITY FOR WOUNDED WARRIORS ACT OF 2007
PARTICIPANTS: SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL); SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D-MO); REP. RAHM EMANUEL (D-IL); AND REP. HARRY MITCHELL (D-AZ);

SEN. OBAMA: Hey, guys. Sorry we are late. Thank you very much, everybody. I appreciate you taking the time to be here.

Last week, The Washington Post revealed I think what everybody would agree is the unacceptable neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. We found out that wounded soldiers were returning home from the battlefield in Iraq only to face a new battle to get the care and benefits that they've earned. And today, this morning, the Post reports that top hospital officials have known about these problems for more than three years.

The hard truth is that the conditions at Walter Reed shouldn't surprise us. The fact is that when the wars are over, more than 1.6 million of our greatest citizens will have served. It's a homecoming that has not been seen in a generation. But the fact is that we haven't done what needs to be done to prepare for that homecoming. If we prepare now, then we still have time to get this part of the war right.

That's the reason that we praise the GI bill, for example.

President Roosevelt wanted to make sure that millions of veterans returning from World War II were welcomed home by a grateful and prepared nation. And in 1943, long before the end of the World War II, Roosevelt said this: "We are today laying plans for the return to civilian life of our gallant men and women. They must not be demobilized into a place on a breadline or on a corner selling apples. We must this time have plans ready instead of waiting to do a hasty, inefficient and ill-considered job at the last moment." These are words of wisdom that we ignored on peril, and I think what's happened at Walter Reed suggests that we have not been paying attention.

I am proud today to stand here with Senator McCaskill and Congressmen Mitchell and Emanuel to announce one step we can take to start making proper preparations for our veterans, and that's by passing the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act. It's a bipartisan bill that will only not only fix the problems at Walter Reed, it will also improve care at all our military hospitals.

I have noted that the military's response to the Post series has been quick. Secretary Gates has launched an investigation, sent a small army of construction workers to clean up mold in Building 18. But amid the public efforts to whitewash Walter Reed, the blame game's already started. We're hearing stories that Army officials have pointed blame at junior officers at Walter Reed. Yesterday the Army Times reported that recovering soldiers at Walter Reed have been told not to talk to the press and have been reportedly punished with daily room inspections at 7:00 a.m. That can't be the proper response, silencing and punishing our injured soldiers for trying to get the mold off their walls.

Our bill would take a series of steps that would make a difference. We would fix deplorable conditions at outpatient resident facilities by setting high standards and increasing accountability. We would make sure that when injured servicemembers return home, instead of facing a mountain of paperwork, they are actually getting the kinds of counseling and services that they deserve in a timely fashion, and that the military's disability evaluation system is placed under one roof so that everybody can get those services promptly.

Our bill also puts much of the system online so that servicemembers can manage their documents electronically. Navigating Pentagon bureaucracy should be easy, not onerous. Our bill also calls for new procedures to allow the most severely injured servicemembers to skip unnecessary bureaucratic steps in order to get the help that they need.

We are calling for an increase in the number of caseworkers, and improving the ratio there so that the caseworkers are doing the kind of job that needs to be done. We include in the legislation important new support mechanisms for family members. For example, we create federal protections to prevent a mother of an injured soldier from having to give up her job or threat -- dismissal from her job because she is caring for a wounded child.

We think that this is a comprehensive bill. We think that it will go a long way towards dealing with this issue. We're proud that we have bipartisan support, and we hope that we move expeditiously to resolve this matter.

With that, let me introduce Senator McCaskill.

SEN. MCCASKILL: Thank you, Senator Obama.

I spent three hours at Walter Reed yesterday, had the opportunity to visit with a member of the leadership team at Walter Reed. I want to briefly tell one story, because it tells you the depths of the problem. This isn't about paint on the wall. This isn't about fixing holes in the ceiling. This is about a system that is not designed to make it easy for the wounded to get what they deserve.

I was sitting at lunch with a Missourian who has been at Walter Reed for almost a year. And I said to him, if you could wave a magic wand tomorrow and you were in charge, what is the number one thing that you would fix? And he said, I'm scared about a job. I'm a helicopter mechanic, and I'm not FAA-certified, and I would love to get an apprenticeship when I leave here. And I've been here a year, and I'm now just moving into the second part of the process.

It will still probably be months before he is actually dismissed. But he goes, "I'm really worried about how I'm going to take care of me and my family."

And I'm thinking to myself, you know, he's a helicopter mechanic. How many billions of dollars are we spending with defense contractors that need mechanics?

Now, the interesting thing is as he's saying he needs help getting a job, he says, "I'm looking on the Internet," and I'm thinking to myself, by himself he's trying to find this job, the officials from Walter Reed step up and say, "Oh, we have a great job program. We have -- you know, we can place people." And this soldier didn't know about it. He had no idea that there was a program in place to help him.

That's the systemic problem I'm talking about. There is a lack of communication as to what they're entitled to and how they get it. And that should be a priority of the United States military.

I think probably the two things that are maybe most important in this bill -- and please keep in mind, this is a solid and substantive bill; this is not window-dressing, this is not a paint of coat -- a coat of paint. This is, in fact, something that's solid and substantial. And I think one of the things that's most important, right now in the services they have the highest standard of housing and it's laid out in each service. This bill mandates that someone who has been wounded is entitled to the best barracks, not the worst. They should be trading places. There are men that are permanently stationed at Walter Reed that have nicer barracks than Building 18. They should be shifting those permanent place soldiers into Building 18 and allow the wounded to go into the nicer facility.

These men and women who have been wounded deserve the best we can give them, not the bottom rung of the ladder. And that's what this bill will do.

The other thing in this bill that I think is very important is the review board. Right now at our military academies we have independent review boards that visit them, a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of ears that must go to these facilities and check to see what the conditions are. This bill will mandate that same kind of review board -- an outside, independent-of-the-military review board that must visit three hospitals a year to look at the conditions. Not the medical care -- no one is questioning the level of medical care. We're talking about how these men and women are being treated, if they have services available to them on an outpatient basis.

And I will turn it back to Senator Obama to introduce our colleagues in the House.

SEN. OBAMA: Next, Congressman Harry Mitchell from Arizona.

REP. MITCHELL: Thank you.

The reports of the terrible conditions at Building 18 are difficult for every American to bear. The people in my district -- and I know people all across this country -- are in disbelief that something like this could happen at the military's premier hospital. It's offensive to every man and woman who's ever worn a uniform. The American people are rightfully upset and demanding action.

I want to commend my colleagues who are here with me today, because together we are taking action.

This is an issue that is personally important to me. When I ran for Congress, I heard from so many veterans who told me about the problems they were having getting quality care from the VA. Hearing about these experiences and the treatment of our soldiers are reasons why I asked to serve on the committee for veterans' affairs.

Eventually these wounded soldiers will move from the care and treatment of military hospitals to the Veterans Affairs system. The care wounded soldiers receive in military facilities in the weeks and months after their injuries have a direct impact on their future needs as veterans. The transition our soldiers make from DOD to the VA is tough enough.

Bureaucratic red tape and dilapidated facilities at the DOD make the long-term care of our soldiers' and veterans' needs more even serious and more costly. The Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act recognizes that. It eliminates the red tape and sets important guidelines for inspecting military facilities so that outpatient care once again becomes top-notch.

Most importantly, it puts in place a system to ensure that something like this will never happen again. And it ensures that our wounded receive the care they need in the DOD to help make the transition from soldiers to veterans as seamless as possible.

Thank you.

SEN. OBAMA: Congressman Rahm Emanuel.

REP. EMANUEL: Before I get into my prepared remarks, I want to make a comment about today's Washington Post where they talk about some of the soldiers who were told not to talk to the press.

All this got started because the press did its job and people spoke up. Silence was not what led to action. Exposing something is what led to action, both the secretary of Defense who then decided to take action, and members of Congress of both parties, both in the House and Senate, who took action.

And it's clear, although there was a crew that was sent out to start fixing up, removing the mold, making the paint, it was not silence that led to that. And that lesson has clearly not been learned. And we don't have to relearn that lesson.

It was daylight and the hard work of Dana Priest over at The Washington Post and others that exposed what was going on here that got both the bureaucracy, the secretary of Defense, the administration and members of Congress moving because we all had visited, as I have, as I know the senators have, as I know Harry has. I've been to Bethesda. I've been to Walter Reed. I have a veterans' group I meet with.

There is nobody that cannot be moved by the sacrifice of these individuals. And most importantly -- you shared your story. When we were over at Bethesda, you see these kids -- arms, legs, eyes -- and then their mothers, who are sitting by on a chair, that have slept nights and nights by their sons and daughters.

They have done something for their country, and this is not the welcome home they have received or should receive.

But this legislation ensures that the men and women in our armed services can recover and recuperate with the respect they deserve. In returning home from war, they deserve better than the moldy walls, the dilapidated facilities and the miles of red tape.

Now, when we passed the congressional resolution, we added $3.4 billion to the Veterans Administration, mainly in the health care area, and this is an Army facility; it's not there. So we've already started to make a move on that in a down payment in that area.

But as much as everything this war is teaching us both in Afghanistan and Iraq, you don't send people there without the Kevlar vests or the humvees that they need. And when they return home, you don't send them to a facility that does not have the type of training, equipment or the preparations -- mainly in the areas of the facilities that they're at -- that is not up to the standards for their sacrifice. And this has to be a seamless web approach, that if you're asking people to serve their country, both active duty, enlistees or reserve and Guard, they deserve, from the moment they're sent there, the night-vision goggles, the Kevlar vests, the humvees, the equipment, the training they deserve, and God forbid when something happens to them and they come home, the type of facilities that say we understand the sacrifice you have made on behalf of your country.

And all of us, in one way or another -- this is not the first legislation we've dealt with to deal with our veterans, and that is from -- I've introduced from the last Congress and planning on doing again a Welcome Home GI Bill that deals with our education, health care and job training for -- and buying a home for our soldiers. Some military personal financial information, (TSB ?), traumatic brain injury research, and you have got to upgrade all of our areas -- because we're including a (different area ?) where Iraq and Afghanistan's impacted us. We need to make sure that the government's doing all it can for the people who have made sacrifices on behalf of their country.

SEN. OBAMA: Okay. A couple questions?

Q Senator, is this a scandal? And what does this say about the Bush administration?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think that -- you know, all of us have a responsibility to make sure that our veterans are welcomed home the way they deserve to be welcomed.

I -- Congressman Emanuel just stated -- this administration, I think, has consistently underestimated the resources that are needed to support our veterans.

In my service on the Veterans Affairs Committee, I am consistently seeing the VA come in with budgets that end up being inadequate, and then having to come up with supplementals that we almost have to force on them to admit and acknowledge. And this I think becomes an example of a systemic problem in which we are not taking seriously the need to provide services to our veterans.

And you know, I think the entire failure, not just restricted to Walter Reed but overall, is scandalous. The fact that we've got veterans who are homeless and going through dumpsters is scandalous. This is one example that I think we can fix quickly, and that's why --

Q Senator Obama, do you agree with what -- (off mike) -- Emanuel was suggesting, that this is all part of the same story? Essentially, do you think that -- (off mike) -- that the administration was ill-prepared for the cost?

SEN. OBAMA: I think that the administration has not thought this through. They underestimated the cost. They continue to do so.

This is one example; we can look at other examples. We know that we're going to have huge PTSD caseloads, post-traumatic stress disorder caseloads, coming back, and we don't have sufficient staff to make sure that that happens. We, I think, are lowballing the costs over the long-term of disability payments to veterans. And so across the board, we have not seen the kind of preparation for ensuring that our veterans are properly cared for, and that needs to change. And this gives us an opportunity to change one element of a broader problem, but we're going to keep on working.

Q (Off mike) -- The Washington Post indicating that Congress has failed in its oversight responsibility?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think it's an indication that we've got catching up to do in terms of oversight. We went six years with no oversight, effectively. There were very few questions asked. And, you know, we are now a couple of months into a new Congress where I think that there is a pledge to get serious about oversight.

But I think this underscores what happens when questions aren't asked by Congress. This is part of our role, whether that's true with respect to veterans affairs, whether that's true with respect to how we deal with intelligence, whether it's true with us examining what's been happening in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, Katrina. This is a particular area, though, where there should be no excuses. We know we're in the midst of war. We are asking a relatively small portion of the population to bear the overwhelming brunt of sacrifice in this war. We have a sacred duty to get it right.

Q Senator Obama, have you actually been to Walter Reed before the story --

SEN. OBAMA: Yeah.

Q -- and have you looked -- I mean, did you observe any of the problems -- either of you -- that -- (off mike)?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I confess the first time I took the tour I did not see the problems because I was mainly restricted to the hospital areas, you know, where patients were receiving more immediate services.

And one thing I want to emphasize, I think that the staff, the doctors, the nurses, the physical therapists at Walter Reed are doing an outstanding job. You know, they bleed for their patients and exhibit extraordinary dedication and compassion. So this is not a situation where I want anyone to detract from the efforts of the medical personnel and staff at Walter Reed.

This is a management problem. And, you know, I would say that the higher-ups in charge who knew about this should have addressed it. The fact that they didn't I think is shameful. And I expect that it will be immediately corrected.

Q Senator, in The Washington Post story, one of the points that they make is that even Joyce Rumsfeld, when she went incognito, she got an earful. And then the Post story talks about how she said you mean if my husband was here, he never was shown this, and that they just picked the best things to show him, and the person said yes, and the volunteer then was kicked out.

Do you think that when members of Congress, like yourself, have visited they just tried to show you the best and deliberately didn't show you the --

SEN. OBAMA: I have no doubt that when members of Congress go to visit any federal facility of any sort they are shown the best of that facility. I mean, I think that's what we would expect. In a lot of these -- in these tours, they're not going to go and point out: Here are all the problems we have.

Unfortunately, that kind of approach means that these problems don't get fixed. And I think it is unfortunate that that's the approach that's been taken. You know, I wish that those at Walter Reed would have had the confidence in the system and the outrage at the problem so as to be upfront about these issues.

Now, of course as we read about these reactions in the Army Times, for example, that some of these individual soldiers are being muzzled, it indicates that maybe that culture hasn't changed.

Q (Off mike) -- this muzzling?

SEN. MCCASKILL: Well, I think one thing I learned yesterday is it's very important to talk to the people who are staying there that are not in charge; in other words, the men and women who are living in this facility. Had I not talked to that young soldier from Missouri, and just talked to the guy in charge, I would have thought they had a wonderful jobs program. He talked about: Oh, we've got a printed program and we have them all hooked up. But you talk to the young man, who's sleepless at night because he has no idea about the program. They can get a gin and tonic in the evening at the Mologne House, but they can't get a substance abuse counselor.

Q But Senator, members have been visiting Walter Reed for years now.

SEN. MCCASKILL: But I'm not sure they've been talking to the men and women that are in the outpatient program.

Q (Off mike) -- say something too about the senators?

SEN. MCCASKILL: I think what it says is that we need to be aggressive about peeling away the layers and finding some accountability in the system. That's what it says. We need to not just take the word of the command. We have to dig down deeper and talk to the men and women who are living in this system, and the workers that are in the trenches, and we've got to give them protection so they are not singled out. The idea that the woman who took Mrs. Rumsfeld to Walter Reed was told never to come back again? How dare they?! What kind of nerve does that take?

Q Senator Obama --

SEN. OBAMA: Right here and here. We'll take three more and then we got to get out.

Q Thank you. Until last week, we heard Democrats talking about the best way of supporting the troops as being to get them out of Iraq. This week you guys are talking about this issue but not a whole lot about Iraq strategy. Do the Democrats have a strategy on Iraq right now?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I have a bill in place that (has been ?) introduced. It has co-sponsors not only in the Senate but also on the House side. It calls for a phased redeployment starting on May 1st. And I will continue to push that plan because I think it's the approach that needs to be taken.

Obviously, there are a variety of different plans out there and different approaches. I do think it's important to remind ourselves that there is a consensus that the surge strategy is not going to work. There is a consensus that we need to begin phasing down this war -- among Democrats. And you have the fact that people are constrained by a 60-vote requirement in the Senate and other issues; that shouldn't detract from the fact that the vast majority of Democrats think that this war has gone on too long, has been mismanaged and it's time to start bringing some of our young men and women home.

Q Do you have any hopes for when Democrats might reach a consensus on this?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I have a -- I hope that we should be able to get some of these bills as amendments on the supplemental introduced and voted on.

You know, how much support they all garner, I think is going to depend on not only what we do here in Washington, but what's happening on the ground in Iraq.

I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Q (Off mike.) I wanted to know, how much does this bill cost you now?

SEN. OBAMA: We haven't had it scored yet, and as soon as we do, we'll get that information to you.

Q And where do you expect to draw the money from?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, we don't think actually that many of the steps in here would be outlandishly expensive. I think some of them are common-sense, basic steps that need to be taken. We're talking about a system where the medical care is very sound, and typically that's where a lot of the expenses come in. We're talking here about how we're doing on the outpatient side. And you know, my hope would be that we would get -- this would be attached to the supplemental and we'd make sure that some money is appropriated for it.

Last question.

Q What is being done in regards to the growing numbers of homeless vets on the street? Or do you have any --

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I actually introduced a bill last year that I will be -- Chris (sp), has that been reintroduced already, or were we --

STAFF: (Off mike.)

SEN. OBAMA: Huh?

STAFF: (Off mike.)

SEN. OBAMA: We hope to be reintroducing it. That directly addresses this issue, and it requires the Veterans Administration to step up a range of programs that are proven to work but have such long waiting lists that they end up being ineffective. You know, there are a lot of terrific veterans organizations that have figured out models to create residential housing for veterans that combine that with employment-based services, substance abuse programs, all housed in one facility. And the problem is they just don't have enough resources, and we've got to build on them. So I'll be happy to share with you the bill.

What was the name of it again?

STAFF: Homes for Heroes.

SEN. OBAMA: Homes for Heroes legislation that we introduced last year -- we'll be reintroducing it this year.

Thank you very much, everybody. Appreciate you guys.

(Cross talk.)

Q Do you think Senator McCain should apologize for saying that American troops have been -- lives have been wasted in Iraq yesterday?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, as somebody who has had the same phrase in a speech -- you know, I think that nobody would question Senator McCain's dedication to our veterans.

And I think that, you know, it -- what both he and I have simply tried to express is that when you give a mission to our extraordinarily brave soldiers that's not thought through, it's a failure of civilian leadership. And we have a duty, a sacred duty to make sure that we are honoring their sacrifice by giving them missions in which they can succeed. I'm positive that was the intent in which he meant it. It was the same intent that I had when I made my statement.

You know, John McCain and I may have disagreements. The one area that I don't think he can be questioned is his dedication to American troops. He's been there, he's done that.

Q You looking forward to debating him?

SEN. OBAMA: (Off mike.)

END.


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