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National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. McCAIN. Mr. President, I thank my colleague and friend from Michigan. I know he shares my concern about the work that needs to be done in the next few days to try to get this bill completed. We do urge our colleagues to come forth with relevant amendments. As I mentioned, there are at this time, obviously, a number of amendments my colleagues will want considered and debated, including two very big amendments on Iraq, the Salazar-Alexander amendment, as well as the Reed-Levin amendment which I am sure will take up considerable time. Before we move to the wounded warrior bill, which I praise for its bipartisanship and its effort to bring together both sides of the aisle to address one of the most compelling issues of our time, and that is the treatment of the men and women who are serving in the military--I will have more remarks about that later--I would like to draw my colleagues' attention to an editorial that ran last Sunday in the New York Times titled "The Road Home.''

I ask unanimous consent to have that editorial printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:
[From the New York Times, July 8, 2007]

The Road Home


Mr. McCAIN. It is worth spending a few moments to discuss this editorial because it is not often that one of America's flagship papers declares as lost a war which 160,000 brave American soldiers are trying mightily to win.

Beginning with its first line in this remarkable editorial, ``It is time for the United States to leave Iraq without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit,'' the Times editorial advocates a precipitous withdrawal of American forces. It does so conceding that such a withdrawal is likely to increase the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq, not decrease it, and that a redeployment could prompt ``reprisals, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide.'' A remarkable statement that a newspaper that frequently calls for the United States to bring its national power to bear for moral purposes, not the least of which in the Darfur region of Sudan, could so easily throw out consequences that are so terrible.

In the opinion of the New York Times, apparently genocide is not worth fighting to prevent, nor is it worth fighting to prevent ``potentially destabilizing refugee flows'' hitting Jordan and Syria or to stop Iran from filling the power vacuum left behind by our departure or disrupting a likely terrorist sanctuary. No, none of these things are worth fighting for in the Times' opinion because it has concluded that ``keeping troops in Iraq will only make things worse.''

This misunderstanding clouds the entirety of the editorial. The Times appears to believe that because things have been mismanaged since 2003 and because violence remains at unacceptably high levels, things simply can't get worse, so we should withdraw and at least save ourselves. But this is sheer folly. Things in Iraq, however bad they have been and remain, could get far, far worse. Anyone who recalls Cambodia or Rwanda or any of the other places that have seen killing on a massive scale knows just how terrible violence can be when it spirals out of control.

The consequences of a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq include emboldening terrorists, inducing a wider regional war, fanning the flames of a Sunni-Shia conflict, putting millions of lives at risk, and destabilizing an area key to America's strategic interests.

The editorial States bluntly, ``Whatever [the President's] cause was, it is lost,'' because ``additional military forces poured into the Baghdad region have failed to change anything.'' That is a remarkable statement, a remarkable statement. ``Additional military forces poured into the Baghdad region have failed to change anything.'' I just came back from a visit. I know I have been pilloried for saying that there has been progress in Iraq. Well, they can pillory General Petraeus and they can pillory their own reporters who have clearly pointed out that there have been measurements of success--and a long, long way to go, but the fact is, there has been some success.

The fact is, in Baghdad, as General Petraeus attests, it is demonstrably untrue that additional military forces poured into the Baghdad region have failed to change anything. In Baghdad, U.S. military and Iraqi forces are establishing joint security stations and patrolling the city together to manage violence. Since January, sectarian violence has fallen. The total number of car bombings and suicide attacks has declined in May and June, and the number of Iraqis coming forward with information is rising.

The President offered an assessment today. There are some areas of success. There are some areas of no movement, and there are some areas of failure, particularly where the Iraqi Government is concerned. We should know that. In an area south of Bagdad, commanders report increasing numbers of local tribes siding with the coalition against al-Qaida and similar effects north of the city.

This editorial makes the breathtaking assertion that the war in Iraq is ``a dangerous diversion from the life-and-death struggle against terrorists.'' Someone from the editorial board must have neglected to inform our troops on the ground, who, when I visited them last week in Baghdad and Anbar, spent several hours briefing me on their counterterrorism operations. The editors must have also neglected to speak with General Petraeus, who has called Iraq ``the central front of al-Qaida's global campaign.''

In case terrorists remain in Iraq and seek to plan attacks outside the country, the Times has an answer. The United States can set up bases in Kuwait and Qatar and even in northern Iraq because:

..... the Pentagon needs enough force to stage effective raids and airstrikes against terrorist forces in Iraq.

Yet I wonder whether the Times has thought through any of the logistical issues associated with waging a counter-terrorism effort from a neighboring country. Do we send American counter-terrorism teams into Iraq for these operations? Do they remain in place? How are they supplied? We have seen for 3 1/2 years that such efforts are much less successful when our troops are confined to forward operating bases than when our soldiers are deployed among the population, in the cities. I can hardly imagine how difficult it would be to wage the same struggle not from forward operating bases but from a neighboring nation.

These troops would not be needed to help stop an incipient civil war because, as the Times tells us, ``that war is raging, right now.'' Iraq may fragment into separate states, the editorial goes on, but ``American troops are not going to stop that from happening.''

Well, a couple days ago, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari explained that the dangers of a quick American pullout from Iraq could include a civil war. I suspect the foreign minister means a real, full-scale civil war, one that dwarfs the violence taking place today. I also suspect the foreign minister understands there is no clear delineation between sectarian violence, whether or not it constitutes civil war, and terrorist activity. Al-Qaida bombed the mosque in Samara in a deliberate attempt to foment sectarian violence. Zarqawi wrote of his plans to target the Shia before his own death. Walking away from Iraq would not simply leave an ongoing sectarian struggle simmering away at its own pace, sealed off from the world. Civil war in Iraq has real implications for American national security interests.

After the withdrawal prompts the terrible consequences that even the New York Times foresees, it will be incumbent upon the United States to ameliorate the fallout. This, the editorial page tells us, can be done by talking to Iran--by talking to Iran--to pressure it to ``allow Shiites in southern Iraq to develop their own independent future.''

At a time when Iranian operatives are already moving weapons, training fighters, providing resources, and helping plan operations to kill American soldiers and damage our efforts to bring stability to Iraq, I think it is a pretty safe bet that Tehran will not be open to many of Washington's entreaties following a withdrawal. The much more likely course is that Iran will comfortably step into the power vacuum left by a U.S. redeployment. When it does so, though, the Times would have Washington ``persuade Sunni powers like Syria not to intervene on behalf of Sunni Iraqis.'' My friends, that would be a tough sell, to put it mildly, if the Iranians are in the regional ascendance.

Perhaps the root of the New York Times' misconception of the war in Iraq is crystallized by a sentence in its final paragraph. It expresses fierce opposition to "allowing Mr. Bush to drag out this war without end on purpose.'' "Allowing Mr. Bush to drag out this war without end on purpose.'' I think all of us would oppose any war without end or purpose, but this does not describe the conflict in Iraq. We remain in Iraq to bring enough security to allow the Government to function in a way that will protect the people of Iraq and, as a result, the national interests of the United States. That is the purpose and the end goal of this war, as I see it.

But do not take my word for it, Mr. President. Ask the thousands of brave men and women who are putting themselves in harm's way every day. I had the privilege to once again visit many of them in Iraq last week, and I can tell my colleagues they understand the purpose. I wish I could say the same of our journalistic friends in New York.

Mr. President, I wish to remind my colleagues about the statements that have been made by various people who are experts on Iraq and are respected national security advisers, including people such as Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger, and many others who have been involved in this issue, many of whom, like General Zinni, were opposed from the beginning to the conflict but now believe setting a date for withdrawal will be a disaster of monumental consequences.

I hope the editorial page of the New York Times would listen to some of those people. For example, Henry Kissinger, who recently said that setting a date for withdrawal will lead to chaos in the region; including people such as General Zinni, who had opposed our intervention in Iraq to start with, who said setting a date for withdrawal would have catastrophic consequences.

I have seen some interesting op-ed pieces in my time. I have rarely seen one that is farther off the mark than the editorial in last Sunday's New York Times. I am convinced that if we pursued that course, as the editorial leads: that the war is lost, and it is time for the United States to leave Iraq without any more delay, and the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit--is a remarkable statement by one of the largest newspapers in America.

Henry Kissinger--I think we can find wisdom in several suggestions put forward by him. But we also should heed his words, as well as many others. He is correct to say: ``precipitate withdrawal would produce a disaster,'' one that ``would not end the war but shift it to other areas, like Lebanon or Jordan or Saudi Arabia,'' produce greater violence among Iraqi factions and ``embolden radical Islamism'' around the world.

My friends, I hope the editorial writers for the New York Times would pay attention to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's deputy chief, who said that the United States is merely delaying our ``inevitable'' defeat in Iraq, and that ``the Mujahideen of Islam in Iraq of the caliphate and jihad are advancing with steady steps towards victory.''

Their target is not Iraq. Pay attention to their words. Their target is the United States of America.

Recall the plan laid out in a letter from Zawahiri to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi before his death. That plan is to take shape in four stages: establish a caliphate in Iraq, extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq, clash with Israel--none of which will commence until the completion of stage one--expel the Americans from Iraq.

If the New York Times editorial board does not pay attention to the words of people like me and General Scowcroft and General Zinni and Dr. Kissinger, and many other people who are experts, I would hope they would pay attention to the words of Zarqawi, Zawahiri, and others who have made very clear what their intentions are in Iraq.

Mr. President, at this time I yield the floor and ask unanimous consent that Senator Levin offer the wounded warrior legislation or whatever he wants.


Mr. McCAIN. Mr. President, I begin by echoing the remarks of the chairman of the committee that we appreciate the partnership with the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, a partnership led by Senator Akaka and Senator Craig. We have worked closely together in trying to come up with one of the most aptly titled pieces of legislation that I have ever been involved in, the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act.

It is important to point out that we are making this part of the Defense authorization bill, which we believe has a very good chance of being signed by the President, as the quickest way to get this legislation enacted. There was a great deal of discussion back and forth as to whether it should stand by itself or should be part of the Defense Authorization Act.

I know I speak for all of us, and that is if something happens to this legislation, we would come back with a separate piece of legislation so that we can make sure we act as quickly as possible.

We were all deeply disappointed by the conditions at Walter Reed that were reported in February of this year and the problems that our wounded warriors faced after their inpatient care was complete--living in substandard conditions at building 18, being treated poorly, battling a Cold-War disability evaluation process and, for some, falling through the cracks.

Since February of 2007, there have been many encouraging changes. First and foremost, Secretary Gates insisted on accountability for the leadership failures that led to the tragedy at Walter Reed.

In April of this year, the Army stood up a new warrior transition brigade at Walter Reed to attend to the needs of wounded and ill soldiers in both Active and Reserve components. This model of soldiers caring for soldiers is now spreading throughout the Army.

I think we are on the right track to address the problems at Walter Reed, but there is much more to be done. And I emphasize, we all recognize there is much more to be done. But I do believe this legislation is a very important and valuable contribution to the effort that must be ongoing. We must match the heroism of the wonderful young men and women who have given so much for our country.

Let me tell you who some of my heroes are: SGT Ted Wade was grievously wounded in Iraq in 2004, who together with his young wife Sara has bravely battled for 4 years the maze of health care and benefit evaluations of the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Social Security; lost medical records, confusing and conflicting medical and physical evaluations, and Sara even lost her job. These brave young people have also lost time. Four years is too much to ask of someone who has given so much for his country.

SFC Jeff Mittman is a brave Army soldier who was wounded 2 years ago by an RPG that tore away a significant portion of his face. Today, Jeff is still on active duty, though he returns to Walter Reed frequently for special surgery. Together with his wife Christy, they have continued to raise their children. Jeff is back at school. As a testament to his heroism, Jeff says of his extraordinary injuries: ``I got hit hard, but I'll walk it off.'' This weekend, he and his family will celebrate the second anniversary of his being alive.

SGT Eric Edmondson, a soldier who suffered severe traumatic brain injury in October 2005 and was thought to be without hope of recovery, today is standing on his own, thanks to the work of his remarkable therapist and his own strong determination to survive.

Petty Officer Mark Robbins is a Navy Seal who lost his eye from a sniper's bullet after saving the lives of his buddies in an RPG attack in Iraq in April of this year. Mark, who walked to the medical evacuation helicopter on his own after being wounded, is recovering today at his home in San Diego. His determination to carry on in the fight in spite of his injury is not the exception among our young men and women, it is a tribute.

I also think it is appropriate from time to time, even though what happened at Walter Reed was a disgrace and a scandal and a source of national shame, and it is important that we continue to emphasize that there are thousands and thousands of people who work in our armed services hospitals and clinics and also in veterans affairs who are present at our hospitals, who take care of our aging veterans from the ``greatest generation,'' Korea, and the Vietnam war. These people labor most of the time without credit, most of the time without publicity, and do a magnificent job.

The system is broken, not the people--not the people--who serve with dedication and patience and care, and love our veterans in a way which should be an example to all of us, and we should never forget that as we try to fix a broken system.

As I mentioned, these are some of America's heroes, my heroes, who have sustained terrible wounds, whose lives have been saved by the finest medical professionals in the world, and who, with their families, face the challenge of a long recovery and rebuilding their lives.

This legislation, the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act, will make a difference in the lives of our wounded warriors and their families. It bridges the gap in health care coverage for the severely wounded and ensures their access to the broadest possible range of health care options.

It authorizes additional care and support for families who are caring for the wounded. It requires the Secretary of Defense and Veterans Affairs to develop and implement new policies to better manage the care and transition of our wounded soldiers. It empowers a special board to review disability ratings of 20 percent or less and to restore to a wounded soldier, if appropriate, a higher disability rating or retired status.

Mr. President, that issue alone, of disability ratings, is one that, frankly, the Senator from Michigan and I cannot understand why it continued; that from one medical evaluation board, a certain level of disability and compensation would be adjudged while on active duty, go directly to the VA, and then another assessment is made with a different level of disability. It is just nonsensical. And I would like to say to all my colleagues, and I know we share a responsibility as well, we blamed the military, we blamed the VA, and we blamed a lot of people, but part of the responsibility lies right here with those of us who are supposed to have been paying better attention than we did. So I wish to make that perfectly clear, that I personally--and the Congress--share in the responsibility for having not fixed this system and some of the problems that have existed for a long time.

This legislation empowers a special board, as I mentioned, to review disability ratings. It authorizes additional funding for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, encouraging public and private partnerships to address these signature injuries of the war, and supports efforts to erase the stigma associated with seeking care.

We found out, much to our sorrow, that in this kind of conflict, brain injuries are probably far more prevalent than almost any other conflict in which our Nation has engaged. We also have found out, thank God, that we are able to save a higher percentage of those wounded than we have in any other conflict--again, a testimony to the incredible professionalism of those who labor and work with dedication in our military medical health care system.

The legislation improves benefits related to the administrative separation from the military due to injury, increasing severance pay for service-members with disabilities incurred in a combat zone, and eliminating the requirement that severance pay be deducted from VA disability compensation for disabilities incurred in a combat zone--another remarkable situation which should have been fixed long ago. It requires the Secretary of Defense to immediately implement pilot projects to test improvements to the disability evaluation systems, to fundamentally change and improve those antiquated systems. It requires the Secretary of Defense to inspect and improve medical treatment in residential facilities and to study the accelerated construction of new facilities at the National Medical Center at Bethesda. The current facilities of Walter Reed have served the Nation well, but we can, and must, do better.

This legislation is an important step toward restoring trust for America's wounded and our veterans, but it is not our final destination. Our work also must be informed by the Presidential Commission on Care for America's Wounded, cochaired by one of my personal heroes, Senator Dole, an enduring American hero. This report will be filed in another few weeks, and I am confident we will work to implement the recommendations of that report as quickly as possible.

I am pleased that the Senate Committees on Armed Services and Veterans' Affairs held a joint hearing on the care of the wounded earlier this year. On June 27, the Committee on Veterans' Affairs reported a bill, portions of which will be offered as an amendment to the underlying bill. These add new resources for traumatic brain injury and mental health evaluations provided by the VA and extend the eligibility for care for combat veterans from 2 to 5 years.

I believe additional conversation and legislation are needed to ensure that veterans with service-connected illnesses and disabilities have timely access to quality health care service through the Veterans' Administration. Given the strain on the veterans health system and the limits of our resources, I believe this can best be achieved through partnerships with civilian health care specialists, based on the health care needs of our wounded veterans. I don't think there is anybody in the world who is better qualified and better trained to address direct combat injuries. I do believe there are many areas of health care in America that are better at certain types of illnesses, certain types of mental therapy that is required, and other areas where health care specialists exist. Those health care specialists should be made available to our veterans. I am a fiscal conservative, as everybody knows, but in this area, the care and treatment of wounded warriors and veterans, we cannot retreat, no matter what the cost.

I wish to again thank the distinguished chairman of this committee for his leadership. I again thank Senator Akaka, Senator Craig, and every member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee as well as the Armed Services Committee for our coming together and coming forward with this legislation. I only regret that it was needed.

I repeat the words of President George Washington in 1789, as I have so often during these times:

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country.

Again, I thank all the members of the committee, and I thank Ted and Sara Wade, Jeff and Christy Mittman, Eric Edmondson, Mark Robbins and his parents, and all of our wounded and their families. The solution to your trials requires cooperation among us all--in Congress, within the executive branch, and among veterans in military service organizations. With this amendment, I believe we are on the right path.

Again, I want to add my appreciation for the veterans service organizations--the VFW, the DAV, the AMVETS, the American Legion, and so many veterans organizations that labored day after day, in obscurity but with courage and with dedication on behalf of our veterans. Without them, we would not have received the valuable guidance and information and knowledge they have provided us as they address these challenges every single day.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.


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