"Honor the dead by helping the living." That's what you're all about. That's what the VFW has always been about. Like you, I know that our nation has just one truly sacred obligation: to prepare and equip those we send into harm's way, and to care for them when they come home.
Commander Tradewell - Tommy - you've walked that walk. You served bravely in Vietnam, then came back and kept right on fighting to make sure your comrades got everything they deserved. Thank you for your service, over there, and over here.
To Richard Eubank, who also served at the height of the Vietnam War, I want to wish you the best of luck as you take the helm of this great organization at a critically important time.
And Bob - thank you for having me, and for all you do on behalf of the VFW, every day in Washington. And to Jan Tittle, President of the Ladies Auxiliary. Thank you for all that you do. And to my home state commander, Bob Wilkinson. And to the Ladies Auxiliary, Roberta Walter. Thank you all for your service. I particularly want to acknowledge those veterans of the Korean War, who this summer are marking the 60th Anniversary of the start of that conflict.
Over the last 111 years - from San Juan Hill to the Argonne Forest, Midway to Inchon, Hue City to Kuwait City, and the Korengal Valley to the Sunni Triangle - VFW members have fought for our country on both the frontlines and the home front. You and your predecessors helped establish the Department of Veterans Affairs and build a National Cemetery System. You worked to secure a better future for service members and their families by helping pass two GI bills.
And you have spoken out time and again on behalf of your 2.2 million members, and for all those who have fought in America's wars. This work - your work - has never been more important than it is today.
Over the past decade, our military has embarked on a longer period of sustained combat than ever before in our history. More than two million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, more than half of whom have now returned to a civilian life with the honored title of "Veteran."
Of those men and women - the very best our nation has - almost 40,000 have been wounded and 5,640 have made the ultimate sacrifice.
And President Obama is taking a major step toward concluding one of those wars, just as he pledged to do before he ever took office. One month after his inauguration, at Camp Lejeune, President Obama laid out a plan for ending the war in Iraq responsibly, and we have followed it closely ever since.
As a result, one week from tomorrow, the U.S. combat phase of that war will close. From more than 140,000 troops in Iraq when our Administration took office, by the end of August, 50,000 will remain. Our last remaining combat unit, one that I visited with and know well, the 4th Stryker Brigade of the Army's Second Infantry Division, left Iraq last week.
I'm proud to say that as of September 1, the mission of the United States Forces in Iraq will be to advise, assist, train, and equip the Iraqi Security Forces; to conduct partnered counterterrorism operations; and to provide security for our military and civilian personnel and infrastructure.
I recently went to Fort Drum, to meet with the Army's proud 10th Mountain Division, whose motto is "climb to glory." God, have they climbed to glory. I was there to welcome nearly 3,000 of them back from Iraq, three months early, after they accomplished all of their goals.
These homecomings are something I have long looked forward to, and I know many of you have as well. The day my son Beau returned from a yearlong tour in Iraq, and I watched him embrace his wife and children, was one of the proudest and happiest moments of my life.
By the end of next year - 2011 - our remaining troops in Iraq will have come home to their families and a grateful nation. This is only possible because of the extraordinary progress our military - the finest fighting force this planet has ever seen - has brought about, led by the great General Ray Odierno.
Three accomplishments are worth singling out.
First, violence in Iraq has decreased to such a degree that those who last served there three or four years ago - when the country was being torn apart by sectarian conflict - would hardly recognize the place. Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Shiite extremists remain dangerous, and their attacks still claim innocent lives. But they have utterly failed to achieve their objectives of inflaming sectarian conflict and undermining the Iraqi government.
Second, Iraq's security forces - now more than 650,000 strong - are already leading the way to defend and protect their country. We have transferred control over hundreds of bases, and many thousands of square miles of territory. Some said that our drawdown would bring more violence. They were wrong, because the Iraqis are ready to take charge. And in recent months, operations that they led, based on intelligence they developed, killed two key leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq and purged more than 30 other top terrorists from its ranks.
Third, but no less important, is the fact that Iraqi leaders who once settled disputes through violence are at this very moment, ironing out their differences in face-to-face negotiations.
The Iraqis recently held their second national election that the world all agreed was legitimate, and although it is taking a long time to form a government, I am convinced that this will happen soon.
Another way of putting this is that politics has broken out.
Now, I certainly don't need to tell you that politics is not always pretty, even our own. But the hard work of forming a new government is well underway, and we urge these politicians to match the courage their citizens have shown, by completing that process.
Ever since the President asked me to oversee our Iraq policy, I have been actively engaged, on a daily basis. I have visited the country 13 times; I know all the players from all the leading coalitions; I speak regularly with Iraqi leaders; and I understand Iraq's intricate politics. We have a first-rate Embassy team, now led by Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, that is interacting daily with the Iraqis throughout the government formation process.
Many people point to the Iranian influence in Iraq but I believe this to be exaggerated. The Iranian government spent over $100 million dollars to try to sway the national elections but Iran failed. The Iraqi people voted for their desired candidate, not who the Iranians wanted them to vote for.
Now the Iraqi leaders are working to form a government and we urge them to do so in a way that reflects the will of the Iraqi people. An important step in this process is formalizing a power-sharing arrangement, which the Iraqi leaders are currently undertaking to do.
This process can sometimes be frustrating, and there will be ups and downs, but I am confident that the Iraqis will form a national unity government soon.
And one more thing: Drawing down our troops does not mean we are disengaging from Iraq. In fact, quite the opposite is true. While our warriors that remain there are as capable as any in our armed services - they know how to fight if they have to - their mission has changed. They are there now to help the Iraqis help themselves.
Meanwhile, we are also ramping up a civilian-led effort to help ensure Iraq remains stable, sovereign, and self-reliant. We will continue to help strengthen its economic and political institutions, foster new ties of trade and commerce, and support Iraq's return to its rightful place in the region and the broader community of nations.
While the Iraq war winds down, our troops continue to take the fight to our enemies in Afghanistan. That is where Al Qaeda plotted and trained to launch the devastating attack on 9-11.
Our forces there are now in the able hands of one of our nation's finest generals, David Petraeus - a great warrior, strategist, and friend - whom you are honoring this week with the Eisenhower Award.
Afghanistan poses unique and daunting challenges, including a local population scarred by more than three decades of war and plagued by illiteracy, crushing poverty, and corrupt governance.
The country's harsh terrain is some of the least hospitable our forces have ever had to navigate. I've seen it firsthand, including two years ago when a surprise blizzard forced my helicopter to land between two snowy peaks, on a road not much wider than the rotor blades, about 9,000 feet up, with a steep drop on both sides.
But after too many years of neglect, we now have a clearly defined strategy, backed by the resources needed to implement it - and we are making measurable progress focused on the overarching goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that it no longer threatens America and our allies.
In order to do this, we must deny Al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can begin to assume primary responsibility for their country's future.
Nearly all of the additional personnel President Obama ordered to the region are now in place, along with about 10,000 new troops and trainers provided by our allies for the International Security Assistance Force.
General Petraeus only now has all the resources that the strategy calls for. Together, they are working tirelessly to strengthen the Afghan security forces, and to take insurgents on in regions where they have run roughshod for too long. That effort is being complemented by an unprecedented surge of civilian diplomats and technical experts.
In the meantime, our Ambassador, General Eikenberry, is working every day, pushing the Afghan government to step up its efforts to tackle corruption, and devise a plan of reintegration for the portion of the Taliban that is ready to lay down its arms and join the government.
As General Petraeus has said, we will assess the progress made in December and begin a responsible conditions-based transition to Afghan security leadership, on a province-by-province basis, in July 2011, a date that represents both our sense of urgency for Afghanistan to step up and our resolve to meet our stated goals.
In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers remain with our troops still serving in harm's way, and we will continue to give them the resources they need to succeed. But, as you know better than anyone, providing for our service members overseas is where our responsibility to them begins, not where it ends.
That is why the Obama-Biden Administration has embarked on one of the largest, most comprehensive programs in American history to support our returning veterans, and their families, long after their military service is over.
President Obama trusted a great warrior, General Eric Shinseki, with transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs to meet 21st Century challenges. We're providing him the resources to do exactly that. Even while freezing most discretionary spending, we've given VA one of the biggest budget increases in 30 years - $16 billion, for a total of $114 billion - and followed that up with a request for an increase of another $11 billion next year.
I know we hear some voices - and we will continue to hear more - who say that in tough economic times we can't fulfill that commitment. But I say to those voices: whether or not we keep this promise will say a lot about whether we are who we say we are.
In my view, our nation's obligation to veterans is not negotiable.
Meanwhile, the post-9/11 G.I. Bill is already helping nearly 300,000 veterans - and, for the first time, their family members - earn college degrees. We are revitalizing VA facilities, including $957 million for the already admirable Veterans Health Administration and $46 million for our VA cemeteries - national shrines that must be preserved. We have taken steps to help veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam and those who suffer from a range of ailments related to their service in the first Gulf War.
Tommy, Richard, and others here will remember how veterans from our generation had to prove the source of their ailments in order to get their benefits. The burden was on them. Well, thanks in part to the hard work of your organization they no longer have that burden. It's now the government's.
And also thanks to your help, we will not make the same mistake with younger veterans.
For those with post traumatic stress disorder, our policy will be to trust veterans' own explanations of how it came about, without requiring corroborating evidence. And we've implemented a new rating system to improve how claims of traumatic brain injury are evaluated. We're doing these things because wounded veterans should not have to plead for the care they deserve.
Two landmark pieces of legislation deserve special mention, and not just because the VFW was instrumental in both successes.
For the first time in American history, we have secured advanced appropriations to end, once and for all, the nightmare of long delays in funding for veterans' medical treatment. And since sometimes the best care comes from family members, we passed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act to fund and train relatives who serve as caregivers for wounded warriors.
Almost 18,000 men and women have been wounded so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan that they could not return to duty.
The good news is that medical advances and improved technology allowed so many to survive who might not have made it home from past conflicts. But it also means that many are left with injuries that will require critical care for the rest of their lives.
You know as well as I do that long after the wars are over; after the welcome home parades; after the memorials are built and the streets renamed; you and your fellow veterans organizations will still be needed out there demanding that these wounded warriors get the care they need years and decades from now.
I'm counting on you. An entire generation of veterans - my son's generation - is counting on you. We owe them nothing less, because the warriors we sent to Iraq and Afghanistan have served as ably as any generation of fighting men and women in our nation's history.
But the sacred obligation I mentioned earlier extends also to those who share the burden of veterans' service. That is why First Lady Michele Obama, and my wife, Jill, are leading an unprecedented push for our nation to support and engage military families.
Over nearly a decade, military families have endured multiple deployments, and the wrenching toll that absence takes. When our son Beau was in Iraq, Jill and I came to understand what the poet John Milton meant when he wrote, and I quote: "They also serve, who only stand and wait."
Our military families do far more than stand and wait. We owe them for their service to our country. And we must acknowledge and repay that debt. It is no secret that today more than ever, a small fraction of our citizens bear the lion's share of the cost our wars have imposed.
The call to duty has been answered by a new generation of heroes every bit as honorable as those who came before.
Heroes like Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda, whom I met on a far-flung FOB in a remote corner of Kunar Province, Afghanistan, a few miles from the Pakistan border. With the heart of a warrior and the precision of a cultural anthropologist, he and his soldiers talked me through the myriad tribes and sub-tribes that inhabited his terrain, and the near-constant enemy fire they endured every night sitting on that exposed mountaintop.
Heroes like the seven service members who last week were awarded the Silver Star for valorous acts more awe-inspiring than anything Hollywood could have conjured.
One of them, Sergeant First Class David Nunez, was traveling through the Afghan village of Shewan on May 29, 2008, when insurgents attacked. His body engulfed in flames, he sought to save his comrades' lives by ridding his damaged vehicle of ammunition and explosives, until he made the ultimate sacrifice.
These stories are chapters in the greatest epic of our age. They will inspire future warriors as surely as did those in this room who fought and bled in wars gone by. And our enemies should take them as irrefutable proof of our resolve in the face of the threats we now confront.
As President Obama said upon taking office: "Our spirit is strong and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
On behalf of a grateful nation, I thank all of our troops - and all of you here today - for giving life to those words, and for sacrificing so much for your country. God Bless you. God bless all our troops around the world. And God Bless the United States of America.