By Ashley Parker
Mitt Romney spent Veterans Day with a table full of veterans on Friday, sharing plastic plates of barbecue as well as ideas for improving conditions facing the nation's service members as they return from war.
He also briefly floated the idea of using a voucher system to help veterans get reliable and quality health care, an option that echoed portions of a Medicare plan he recently rolled out at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation's summit.
After listening to several men talk about problems they had encountered with their Veterans Affairs benefits and health care, Mr. Romney mused that it sounded like some free-market competition might help.
"When you work in the private sector and you have a competitor, you know if you don't treat this customer right, they're going to leave me and go somewhere else, so I'd better treat them right," he said. "Whereas if you're the government, they know there's nowhere else you guys can go. You're stuck."
He added, "Sometimes you wonder if there would be some way to introduce some kind of private sector competition, somebody else who could come in and say, you know, each soldier gets X thousands of dollars attributed to them, and then they can choose whether they want to go with the government's system or a private system."
Sitting among roughly a dozen veterans at Mutt's BBQ, Mr. Romney also reassured the group that while he was concerned about cutting the budget, he would not make cuts in defense spending.
"I'm not going to cut the military," he said. "In fact, I'm going to add to our military commitment. I believe our military continues to be critical to protect our freedom. I do not see the world as a safer place. I see the developments around the world as calling for continued investment in our military."
But, Mr. Romney added, he did see "waste in our military system" that could be eliminated to make the system more efficient.
"I do not want to take that money to pay for social programs or even to balance the budget," Mr. Romney said. "I want to take the funds that are being wasted and use them to rebuild our Navy and Air Force, use them to have additional active-duty personnel -- about 100,000 troops -- use them to give the care to our veterans that our veterans deserve. And so I will not look to the military as a place to balance our budget."
Later, he reiterated the same point, explaining that one way to help improve veterans' care would be to divert the money saved by eliminating inefficiencies in the military to agencies such as the V.A.
"As we find savings -- and we will in the inefficiencies of government -- we should apply the proceeds of those savings to help assure that we're providing for our veterans in the way they deserve to be treated," he said.
Mr. Romney began the afternoon event by reminiscing about his visit to the beaches of Normandy as a young man.
"When I went to the cemetery and saw the row upon row, acre upon acre, of service men and women who had lost their lives, it was overwhelming," he said. "It is a sad and constant reminder that the price of liberty is extraordinarily high and to those who put themselves in harm's way to protect our freedoms, we owe the greatest debt of gratitude."
The round table had a conversational feel, with Mr. Romney peppering the men with questions -- How did their V.A. care compare to other health care alternatives? Had they found any companies that were particularly receptive to hiring veterans? What had their experience returning home been like?
Mr. Romney also used the opportunity to criticize President Obama's decision to remove troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
"It is my view that the withdrawal of all of our troops from Iraq by the end of this year is an enormous mistake, and failing by the Obama administration," Mr. Romney said. "The precipitous withdrawal is unfortunate -- it's more than unfortunate, I think it's tragic. It puts at risk many of the victories that were hard won by the men and women who served there."
He did, however, have some praise for Mr. Obama, referring to the president's incentives to encourage companies to hire veterans.
"I also recognize that something the president has put on the table -- I think it's a good idea -- which is providing a credit to employers who hire veterans, hire those veterans in particularly who have been out of work for a while, and those who are coming home," Mr. Romney said. "It's a temporary measure but given the high level of unemployment among veterans and given the large influx of them coming into back into the country, I think it's an idea that has merit."
When a woman asked about how, as president, Mr. Romney would boost the morale of people in the military and their families, Mr. Romney called for a return of the fireside chats of World War II.
"I think when you're at war, and you have men and women at war, you expect the president of the United States to address the nation on a regular basis, to bring the people up to date as to what's happening, and to have the people of America know that you're at war, and why you're at war, and where the successes are and where the problems are," he said. "If you're president of the United States, the people of America deserve a regular briefing."
But despite the focus on military issues, Mr. Romney frequently returned to his experience in the private sector and the need to fix the economy.
"The economy is the biggest single problem facing the returning soldiers," Mr. Romney said. "And we've got to do a better job of helping those coming home find the jobs they deserve."