Remarks for Senator Joe Biden: The National Guard Association Conference
Thank you, General Umbarger. It's also good to see my friends General Frank Vavala, and General Hugh Broomall.
I come here today with a profound respect for the Guard.
I'm here as a citizen, who knows that our nation depends on the service of those who are civilians in peace, soldiers in war - not only to defend us abroad, but aid us when disaster strikes here at home.
I'm here as a Senator, who has traveled to conflict zones all around the world - Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq -- and disaster areas across America and seen the heroic work our young men and women in arms do to protect our citizens, protect our interests and to demonstrate not only the example of our force... but also the force of our example.
I'm here today as the father of a Guardsman. My son Beau is proud to wear the uniform, and proud to answer the call to serve.
And I'm here as the Democratic candidate for Vice President, knowing that you have served with great distinction time and again.
You have never let us down... but too often, your government has not given you all you've needed.
Issues affecting the Guard sit at the core of our two great national challenges - national security and economic security. Barack and I know that we need to strengthen both. That means supporting your missions at home and abroad, and making sure you return to strong secure jobs and a sound economy.
Yesterday, you heard John McCain claim that behind the positions Barack Obama takes "lies the ambition to be president."
Let me just say this: after the last eight years, the last thing we need is more of the politics of division.
No one party has a monopoly on virtue or good ideas.
We can question each other's judgments. That's what elections are all about.
But we have to stop questioning each other's motives and each other's patriotism.
Whether we're Democrats, Republicans or Independents, we all share a profound desire to do right by America.
We all put country first.
When John and I send our sons to war, they don't wear a Republican flag or a Democratic flag. They wear an American flag.
Our only differences are on how best to protect our national interests, and serve our military.
And we do have differences.
Let's begin where we are right now, right this minute.
We depend on you as never before.
More than half - 52% -- of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans are Guard or Reserve.
That has never happened before.
You have new and increased responsibility, but in my view - we haven't given you the command and equipment in support of those new responsibilities.
But you never complain. You always step up.
It's time for a change.
Change begins with giving the Guard a seat at the table. That table in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs sit.
General McKinley, I not only want to see your fourth star - I want to see you sitting there with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen.
Your men and women are serving and dying. Your voice needs to be heard.
When it comes to equipment -- to train on, to deploy with, and to have available at home for war or natural disasters - we have not provided what you need.
And that's wrong.
Ninety percent of units have serious equipment shortages.
Collectively, over $100 billion worth of equipment has been left in Iraq.
And we've seen the consequences of that.
Simply put, the states have been left with the tab to make up for this equipment shortage.
Since September 11th, 2001, more than half a million reservists have been mobilized and deployed for homeland security missions and combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Every National Guard combat brigade has deployed at least once. Specialty units like military police, special forces, and medical units have deployed multiple times.
In Iraq and Afghanistan 870 members of the guard and reserve have given their lives.
6,785 have been wounded.
Of all serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have some 900 returning amputees, many of them Guardsmen.
And many who come home bear less visible - but nonetheless deep -- scars.
Roughly 320,000 -- nearly 20% -- may have experienced traumatic brain injury.
About 300,000 - nearly 19% -- meet the criteria for either PTSD or depression.
In 2006, the most recently recorded year, we saw 113 Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans lost to the enemy of suicide.
That's a record number, and more than twice the suicide rate for civilians of the same age.
And multiple deployments have added to the financial and marital tension for many of your Guardsmen.
Reports show 11,000 guardsmen and women lost their jobs upon returning home - a clear violation of the law. That must stop.
Barack and I are going to set this straight.
And we have very different ideas on how do it than John McCain and Sarah Palin.
It starts with a guarantee that every returning veteran has the best health care available. We're been fighting for this as Senators, and we'll guarantee it as President and Vice President.
Shift the burden to the government: no more requiring a soldier to prove that their traumatic brain injuries are combat related.
Spend the money and hire the personnel to eliminate waiting time for the VA to decide on a disability claim.
Guarantee that any returning veteran needing a prosthesis will have the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art, for the his or her life.
And zero tolerance for veteran homelessness.
You know Barack is on the Veterans Affairs committee in the Senate. I watched him work with Republicans to pass a major law - with short term fixes and long term solutions - to end the shameful care we were giving our veterans at Walter Reed.
He strengthened programs to help homeless veterans... he fought for fair treatment of veterans' claims and forced the VA to fix disparities... he helped ensure that all service members returning from Iraq are properly screened for Traumatic Brain Injuries... and he demanded a major national research effort into the readjustment needs of returning veterans.
He will see to it that all veterans - all veterans - have access to the VA system.
Military families need help coping with deployments.
We'll expand, Family Medical Leave to include reserve families facing mobilization.
We'll add resources to help military families during deployments, such as more staff for Family Readiness Groups.
Because when soldiers go to war, their families go too.
John McCain says we're a nation at war.
He's wrong, we're a military at war.
The only ones making the real sacrifice are those deployed, and their families back home.
Second, we're going to restore your readiness.
That starts with increasing the end strength of the active military.
We're going to increase our end strength by 65,000 for the Army, and 27,000 for the Marines.
Increasing the size of the active force means they can carry a heavier burden, allowing our Guard to have fewer deployments and more predictable deployments, with more time between them.
To cut down on equipment shortages, Barack Obama and I will end the trend of cannibalizing soldiers and machines from units back home for missions abroad.
We'll consult with governors of the 50 states, so we know what the needs of their Guard units are - both for their combat missions overseas, and their domestic missions at home.
Remember in 2006, when it was reported that the Department of Defense was making plans to cut National Guard force structure and strength?
Barack Obama and I were two of the 75 Senators to send a letter to the Secretary of Defense strongly opposing those plans.
John McCain didn't sign.
We believe we shouldn't be cutting back on the Guard at the very time we're asking you to do more.
Third, we're going to make sure that you have opportunity when you come home.
We'll start by putting the federal government on your side.
The Department of Defense, Department of Labor, Department of Justice - they have an obligation, each of them, to guarantee that laws designed to protect returning veterans are enforced.
A recent survey found that 44% of employers would not hire a reservist - even though that's illegal discrimination - for fear that that employee might be called up.
The Department of Defense currently has no plan to ensure that businesses comply with re-employment laws for our Guard and Reserves. And the Labor Department and Justice Department have failed to vigorously enforce the laws which protect you, the men and women who have volunteered to protect us.
Seventy percent of Guardsmen work for small businesses, and DOD has no outreach program to small business.
You shouldn't have to sacrifice your job in order to serve your country.
But your country owes you more than putting you back in the place you were before you left.
It owes you greater opportunity, because of lost opportunity.
And it all starts with education.
That is why Barack and I were supporters from the start of Jim Webb's GI Bill - which allows National Guard and Reserve members to earn educational benefits based on their total cumulative active duty... instead of their single longest tour, the way they do in existing Title 10 programs.
Because we think that a Guardsman who serves three tours of 6 months should be credited for a year and a half of service, and not half a year.
John McCain is a friend, a patriot, and a hero.
But John and I have some fundamental disagreements as it relates to the Guard, and the interests of veterans.
John McCain voted against billions of dollars in additional funding for veterans' health care - against $2 million for TBI research... against $500 million for mental health issues... against $400 million for inpatient and outpatient care.
John wants to ration veterans' health care to those with combat injuries, which would mean that millions fewer veterans would have access to VA medical care.
And while Barack and I supported Senator Jim Webb's bipartisan bill to update the GI Bill from the get-go, John initially opposed it because he thought it was too generous.
John's version treated the Guard as second class citizens when it came to educational benefits.
Those are the facts. But don't take it from me. Ask Disabled American Veterans, which represents millions of vets. They keep track of these things... John voted with DAV 20 percent of the time.
Barack Obama - 80 percent of the time.
Or ask the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. They keep track, too. They give letter grades, and they gave John McCain a "D". Barack got at B+.
So as much as I admire John, I disagree with him.
Being a veteran isn't the same as being there for veterans.
We need more than a great soldier, we need a wise leader.
Yesterday, John talked to you about the judgment required to be Commander in Chief.
He's right: nothing is more important than judgment.
And time and again, on the most critical national security issues of our time. John McCain's judgment was wrong, and Barack Obama's was right.
Right after 9-11, John was wrong to look beyond Afghanistan to war with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
Barack was right that we should finish the war in Afghanistan -- and that Iraq was a huge diversion from defeating the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9-11.
In the run up to the Iraq war, like the Bush administration, John insisted that Saddam was in league with Al Qaeda and complicit in 9-11...
... that we would be greeted as liberators...
...that we didn't need a lot of troops...
...that victory was imminent...
....that Sunnis and Shiites would get along because "there's not a history of clashes that are violent between" them.
He lauded the administration's conduct of the war, singling out for praise Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney.
On all of those counts, John's judgment was wrong.
Then, John said there's nothing to talk about with Iran.
Barack said hard headed diplomacy is the best way to focus Iran on what it stands to gain if its stops it nuclear program -- and what it will lose if it does not.
Now, even the Bush administration sent our most senior diplomat for direct talks with Tehran. John wrong, Barack was right.
Just three years ago, John said we were succeeding in Afghanistan.
More than a year ago, Barack said we were not -- and we needed at least two more combat brigades.
Now, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs says we are not winning -- and we need more troops. John was wrong, Barack was right.
John rejects a timeline for redeploying our combat forces from Iraq.
Barack says shift the responsibility to the Iraqis and set a timeline to bring our combat forces home.
Now, President Bush and the Maliki government are negotiating an agreement to do just that. John was wrong, Barack was right.
Maybe most fundamentally of all, John McCain continues to insist, against all the evidence and all the facts, that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism.
Barack Obama says that central front is where it has always been since 9-11 - the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On this, John is more than wrong -- he is dangerously wrong -- and Barack Obama is right.
On a question so basic, so fundamental, so critical to our nation's security, we can't afford a Commander-in Chief so divorced from reality and from America's most basic national interests.
And on the most important question for returning members of the guard - the strength of our economy - Barack has it right.
Barack has the plans - which he's introducing today - to stabilize the US and world economic markets.
In the short term, it will keep this financial crisis from getting worse. It will help keep people in their homes, and protect their life savings.
In the long term, it will provide the protections necessary to make sure this never happens again.
We'll create millions of new jobs with investments in infrastructure and new energy technology - many of the same fields in which our guardsmen and reservists have developed skills.
And, by the way, when we produce more of our energy at home, we'll be less reliant on protecting unstable supplies from unfriendly regimes.
We'll make sure that your bravery abroad is matched with opportunity upon your return, by investing in programs like the new GI Bill.
I want to close by sharing something I experienced several weeks ago in Florida.
A retired Marine stood up at an event where I was speaking.
He looked like he had something to get off his chest as he took the microphone from me. "Senator," he said. "I'd be proud to salute Barack Obama as my Commander-in-Chief."
He also told me that he'd be proud to salute me as his Vice President. I told him that nobody salutes the vice president.
Folks, I couldn't say it better myself. I will be proud to salute Barack Obama as my Commander-in-Chief. And I think you will be, too.