Obama pledges better mental health services, other initiatives for military, vets


President Obama greets veterans after speaking at the American Legion’s 96th National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Heralding a new "culture of accountability" at the Department of Veterans Affairs, President Obama Tuesday announced a number of executive actions to help active-duty military members, their families and veterans,  ranging from strengthening access to mental health care to making it easier for troops to reduce mortgage payments.

Speaking at the American Legion’s annual convention in the wake of a scandal involving falsified records and long wait times at VA facilities, Obama reaffirmed his support for America's veterans and said his administration will do all it can to ensure current and former members of the military receive the full benefits they deserve.

"They were there for America. We now need to be there for them," Obama said at the Charlotte Convention Center to a crowd of mostly elderly veterans who tepidly applauded the president.

Obama called the scandal, which led to the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, "outrageous and inexcusable," and said that America has to do more to uphold its "sacred trust" to those who have served in the armed forces.

He  announced 19 executive actions to help improve mental health care for veterans, including a pilot program of mental health peer support, automatic enrollment of outgoing military members who are receiving mental health treatment into a bridge program and an expansion of suicide prevention programs.

“We can’t stand idly by on such tragedy,” Obama said of military suicides. "So long as any service member or veteran is suffering or feels like they have nowhere to turn or doesn’t get the support that they need, that means we haven’t done enough. We all know we need to do more."

Obama was joined by Veteran's Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, who Obama said is "instituting a new culture of accountability. Bob doesn’t play," Obama said. “So my bottom line is this: Despite all the good work that the VA does every day, despite all the progress that we’ve made over the last several years, we are very clear-eyed about the problems that are still there."

The problems, Obama said, “require us to regain the trust of our veterans and live up to our vision of VA that is more effective and more efficient and that truly puts veterans first. And I will not be satisfied until that happens.” Earlier this month Obama signed a bill injecting more than $16 billion into the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs to help the agency improve care to veterans.

Obama's speech at times took on the tone of an address on international and domestic policy, touching on the financial crisis, energy independence and the strife in the Middle East. Addressing an audience who “carries the scars” of combat, the president said that America must use its power wisely.

“History teaches us of the dangers of overreaching and spreading ourselves too thin and trying to go it alone without international support, or rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences,” Obama said. “You know that we should never send America’s sons and daughters into harm’s way unless it is absolutely necessary and we have a plan and we are resourcing it and prepared to see it through.”

That means not sending troops to Iraq, a point Obama has reiterated since ordering air strikes against Islamic militants in the country and a humanitarian mission to aid a persecuted minority sect earlier this month. "Let me say it again: American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq," Obama said.

The president went on to caution that although eliminating a “cancer” like the Islamic State “won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” the way to fight such groups is not with large-scale deployments that “overstretch our military” but rather with a broader-based strategy led by the new Iraqi government.

“So we’re strengthening our partners, more military assistance to government and Kurdish forces in Iraq and moderate opposition in Syria,” Obama said.

That was the only time Obama directly addressed Syria, over which Obama authorized reconnaissance flights this past weekend. The White House said Obama has not authorized military action inside Syria, where the Islamic State is believed to have captured and beheaded American journalist James Foley.

“But our message to anyone who harms our people is simple. America does not forget, our reach is long, we are patient, justice will be done. We have proved time and time again we will do what’s necessary to capture those who harm Americans, to go after those who harm Americans,” Obama said. “And we’ll continue to take direct action where needed to protect our people and to defend our homeland.”

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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