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Remarks by Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) at the International Association of Fire Fighters 2008 Bipartisan Presidential Forum

Location: Washington, DC


SEN. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am truly honored to be here. Thank you so much, brothers and sisters.

Let me begin by thanking Harold for his outstanding leadership. Day in, day out, he is somebody who evokes enormous respect, not only among your membership but throughout the halls of Congress. Congratulations for your continued leadership. We truly appreciate it. (Applause.)

To Secretary-Treasurer Bollon, thank you so much for having me here today, and to all of you. This hall is filled with heroes. To all of you who do the work every day to protect us and to save us, thank you. To the heroes who are serving and saving lives in desert sands thousands of miles away, we thank you.

To the heroes who have been called to another house, we miss you.

It's a noble calling to see a building ablaze and want to rush in. It's a noble calling doing what you do. You know that, and I know that, and the country knows that. The alarm sounds, and you're there.

You were the strength they needed to help rescue and recover after the tragic tornadoes in Alabama. You were the force to tame the wildfires in California. You were the calm in the chaos of Katrina. We love you for what you did on September 11th.

It's a noble calling, what all of you do. You know that, and I know that, and the country knows that. Sometimes, though, Washington forgets that. They praise your work. They cheer you on when you race up the stairs. But when it's time to get you health care, or buy radios or the equipment that you need, those supporters sometimes disappear like a puff of smoke.

Instead of making your job easier, they create other kinds of fires that you have to put out. They tried to cut funding so you couldn't buy mats and the suits that you needed. They wanted to stop the hiring of 75,000 new firefighters. They wanted to hide the U.S. Fire Administration under layers of bureaucracy at Homeland Security. And five years after September 11th, they still won't give our first responders the health care they earned by doing the Lord's work everyday. Instead of making your job easier, they have tried to create these other kinds of fires. Well, we are working together today to put those fires out.

What keeps Washington from doing all that it needs to do to better protect our firefighters, our police officers and EMTs -- it's not a lack of ideas; it's not a lack of solutions. Everybody in this home knows what needs to be done. It's the smallness of our politics.

Washington has become a place where politics has become a business instead of a mission, where power is always trumping principle, where cynics and lobbyists have turned our government into a game where only they can afford to play, a place where we spend a lot of time keeping score about who's up and who's down, and not enough time rolling up our sleeves and figuring out what to do about better serving our first responders, our veterans, our men and women who are standing guard in Iraq.

The reason I'm running for the presidency of the United States is because I believe and you believe we can't afford to play games anymore. The times that we live in are too serious, the challenges too great. So I know what some of the pundits have said, that I haven't been in Washington that long, that I should spend a little more time getting to know the place. It's true that I haven't been in Washington that long, but I've been in Washington long enough to know that Washington needs to change. That I know. (Applause.)

The American people are in a serious mood. They want Washington to get to work. With more than 820 of your brothers and sisters serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, we owe you nothing less.

When you're saving lives here and saving lives on the streets of Baghdad in a war that should have never been authorized, your actions teach us how to be better citizens. You run marathons and raise money for our veterans, you help train Army transportation units to care for the wounded, and you've donated thousands of t-shirts to our soldiers fighting overseas with the Hero to Hero program. You sign the shirts with messages of hope and support your friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. Your brothers and sisters from all across the country are working with police officers.

And you sent, from what I understand, over 10,000 shirts to our soldiers. Now, I'm not a firefighter and I'm certainly not a hero, but I did make sure that I brought one more shirt, from me. And it reads, "Thank you. Be safe. You're coming home soon." And that's a message that all of us, I think, want to send the great heroes that are serving on the other side of the world. (Applause.)

I mean what I say. They need to be coming home soon. Your brothers and sisters and the more than 1.6 million of our best and bravest who've been deployed since 9/11. They'll be part of a homecoming, a homecoming not seen in a generation, and this is a personal issue for many of you. You know someone who used to ride next to you on the truck who's on their second tour in Iraq. Some of your family members are serving in Iraq. Many of you have served in the Guard and the Reserves, and you know, just like these people who say that they support firefighters and then disappear when it's time to give them health care or pension benefits or the necessary equipment, that there's the danger that they do the same with our troops. We've been reading about it. They say that they support them. They give long speeches about valor and sacrifice. They say the war is with a preacher's ease.

But when it comes time to send our troops into battle with the proper equipment and ensure that veterans have what they need when they get home, they don't do anything except slap a yellow ribbon the back of their SUV. (Applause.)

That's how body armor doesn't reach Baghdad. That's how our men and women have to use scrap metal to protect their humvees. That's how Walter Reed happens. Our veterans end up lining -- end up living among mice and mold. They stare at stacks of paperwork. They're given the run-around when it comes time to get their care. They're learning to walk again and talk again. They thought they left the front lines in Iraq, but they come home to a new front line of red tape and bureaucracy. And that's unacceptable.

When our veterans come home, I don't want them forgotten in run- down buildings. When our veterans come home -- (interrupted by applause) -- when our veterans come home, I don't want them crawling around a dumpster for food or for shelter.

When our veterans come home, I don't want them drowning in whiskey to silence their PTSD. When our veterans come home, I don't want them begging to see a doctor. When our veterans come home, I don't want their wives or mothers or husbands to have to choose between caring for their loved ones or keeping that job. When our veterans come home, I don't want them sitting in a room all alone with tears in their eyes because they can only get voice mail at the VA. I don't want that for our veterans, and you don't want that for our veterans. We know they deserve more. (Applause.)

Brothers and sisters, you and I believe in the sacred trust between this country and those who serve it. That trust begins the moment a soldier signs on. If they put on the uniform and serve this country, then this grateful nation will train them and equip them with what they need to complete their mission. If they put on a uniform and serve this country, an honorable nation honors that service by making sure our veterans' cares and concerns are met when they return home.

This trust is sacred, and we need to build it back, so that the best and the bravest will always put on the uniform.

And our veterans who come home with their bodies broken and their nerves shattered -- today we have more than 631,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a recent VA health care report, one- third, more than 205,000, have sought treatment at VA health facilities. That number is much larger than the 23,000 wounded in action, the number that the Pentagon tells us and what gets reported on the news.

The reason the number of veterans seeking care at VA facilities is so high is because the wounded in action number is incomplete. It doesn't include the nearly 7,000 who have been injured and needed to be medically evacuated out of Iraq. It doesn't include the nearly 19,000 who have been stricken with a disease and needed to be medically evacuated out of Iraq. The total number of soldiers who have been hurt in Iraq is almost 43,000. Help me get the truth out, because whether or not a veteran is wounded in action, injured, or becomes sick, they still deserve recognition and the best care in the world.

So, brothers and sisters, let's make a promise today to put this fire out, too, and to say that right here, right now, is when we begin to put together a comprehensive plan together for our veterans. That is something that we can do in this country. (Applause.)

But part of taking care of our veterans is making sure that they come back to an America that's strong. It's time for us to start taking care of our own again, to say what we mean and to mean what we say. If we support first responders, then let's give them the equipment they need to save our lives. If we support our troops, then let's send them into battle with the body armor they need. When we say we support our veterans, let's give them the hero's welcome they deserve.

And when they come home, let's make sure that we have created the kind of America with the health care that people need, with the education that our children need, with the energy plan that is going to make sure that we are not forced to send our young people simply to secure our energy supplies. Let's make sure that we are creating the kind of America that will make all of us proud when they come home. It's time for us to renew a sacred trust with the American people.

Last weekend I was in Iowa and I took a bus ride with a group of firefighters. We rode together from one event to the next. And I did a lot of listening on that bus as they told me about their concerns. And these are concerns that I know all of you experience each and every day.

They talked about how cities and towns were expanding around them, and yet as more and more people were moving in, there were fewer and fewer dollars available to hire more firefighters. And because fewer firefighters were having to serve a larger geographical area, more firefighters were placed at risk. They were deeply concerned about that, that as we expand into rural areas and the suburbs grow, we ought to be able to hire more firefighters to keep us safe.

On that bus ride we talked about the need for higher wages. Budgets are tight across this country. Folks are worried that as wages stay flat and health care costs go up, mortgage rates go up, the cost of kids' clothing, the cost of your college tuition for your children go up, that some of our best people may not be able to do the job that they love -- fighting fires. They can't afford it. These folks have been able -- haven't been able to negotiate higher wages for years, simply to protect the health care benefits that they already have.

What I told them is that if firefighters are putting their lives on the line to save, then it shouldn't cost them the shirts off their backs.

That's the message I carry back with me. We need here in Washington to get to work so you can do the work you love without having to worry about paycheck to paycheck.

So it's time for us to change politics in Washington so that we're safer, and we can do this. We can change the politics in Washington, push the big money and the special interests aside. We can put ordinary people's hopes and dreams and concerns back at the center of our public debate. I believe we can end the can't-do, won't-do, won't-even-try style of politics in this country and tackle the challenges that we face.

We can do this. We can reform a health care system that spends more than any country in the world, but still has families who skip seeing the doctor because they can't afford the bill. We can and we will have universal health care in this country by the end of the next president's first term. By the end of my first term as president, we will make sure that everybody has universal health car in this country. (Applause.)

We can stop sending $800 million a day to Middle East dictators for oil that's a danger to our planet and a drag on our economy. We can start using renewable fuels that are grown right here in states like Iowa and my own home state of Illinois. And we can help our car companies use technology that we already have to start churning out cars that use less oil. We can do that.

We can start giving our children the education that they deserve, the education that they're going to need to compete not just with folks in Texas or California, not just competition among ourselves, but competition with children in Beijing, China; Bangalore, India. We can recruit a new army of teachers who we pay more and support more and ask more of. We can end the Washington mindset that says that the answer to better schools is either more money or more reform, because all of us know that it's both.

But none of this is going to happen until we do what everyone in this room knows that we must do, and that is to bring this war in Iraq to a close. (Applause.)

As many of you know, I opposed this war from the beginning, in part because I believed that if we gave this president the open-ended authority to invade Iraq, we would end up with an open-ended occupation that we find ourselves in today. Now, nearly 3,200 of our soldiers have given the last full measure of their devotion to our country.

Tens of thousands more are returning home with wounds that last a lifetime. Yet each and every day we still send our sons and daughters, our friends and neighbors to fight in the crossfire of somebody else's civil war. We learned that 14,000 National Guard members across the country are leaving for a second tour before they're supposed to, before they're ready, before they have the proper equipment to do the job that they're being sent for. That means one more suit hangs on the hook every time the alarm bell sounds. That means one more set of boots sits still for months. That means one less brother and sister to watch your back in a burning building.

We shouldn't be sending more troops to Iraq. We should be bringing them home. It's time to find an end to this war, and that's why I have a plan that will begin withdrawing our troops from Iraq on May 1st of this year with the goal of removing all of our combat forces from the country by March of 2008. (Applause.)

I've also said that we have to make sure we're not as careless getting out of this war as we were getting in. That's why withdrawal would be gradual and we'd keep some U.S. troops in the region to prevent a wider war and go after al Qaeda and other terrorists. But above all, it's a plan that recognizes the fact that just about everybody in the world outside the White House now understands -- that there's no military solution to this war. Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last best hope to pressure the Sunni and Shi'a to come to the table and find peace.

It's time to find an end to this war. It's time to refocus on the wider struggle against terror and restore our standing in the world. And all of you can help. Thanks to your e-mails and your letters and your support we now have 50 members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, supporting our plan, and if you keep it up, we can get more. We can pass this plan and send a message that even George Bush can't ignore.

So when those voices start sounding the alarm that we can't change Washington, that its ways are set in stone, we can start engaging in a serious debate about the serious times that we face. When people say that cynicism reins, we can remember three words that have made America what it is today: "Yes, we can."

When people say that we can't take care of your brothers and sisters when they get sick from breathing in too much soot and too much smoke, we can say, "Yes, we can." When they say we can't finally buy the radios you need to talk to each other in case of emergency, we can say, "Yes, we can." When they say that we can't bring your brothers and sisters home from Iraq so they can do the job they love back home, we can say, "Yes, we can."

You know, the basic premise of America has always been that in the face of adversity, in the face of difficulty, whenever people say that we can't do something, we shouldn't bother trying something, that we can't rebuild the middle class in this country, that we can't take care of the poor, that we can't ensure that our children have a better future than the ones that we've had, there's always been a generation that stepped up and said, "Yes, we can."

Today is our time. This is our moment. We can remake not only this country but the world, but we're all going to have to get involved, and we all have to get engaged. When people talk about this campaign, they ask me why it is that we're generating so much excitement. I say, it's not me. It's not me that's generating interest and excitement; it's the American people waking up after a long slumber and making a determination that we can have a better America.

This campaign is going to be about your hopes and about your dreams. And if I falter or if any of the candidates falter, just remember this, that if a million voices, if the people in this room and all your friends and all your neighbors and your communities stand up, if the voices of America insist that change can happen, then change is going to come.

Thank you very much, everybody. God bless you. (Applause.)


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