Text: Remarks by John F. Kerry to the American Legion

FDCH E-Media, Inc.
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; 1:06 PM

Senator John F. Kerry delivered the following remarks at the American Legion national convention in Nashiville, Tenn., September 1, 2004.

John, thank you, and thank you to all the Legion for honoring me by the opportunity to be here with you today.

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And I really want to just begin, if I can, by thanking someone who served in two wars. And when he was in the Pacific, he flew with Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. I'm sorry for some of you.


And he was -- Ted Williams was his wing man. And then he came home to serve Ohio and to serve his country in the United States Senate after he served all of us as an American hero when he went into space. No one will ever forget when John shot off on his first space flight, and Scott Carpenter offered a prayer that is indelibly in all of our minds when he said, "Godspeed, John Glenn. "

And then, when at the age of 77, he returned to space for his last trip, I think every single one of you will agree he's a remarkable guy.

I do have some exciting news. I promised John that when I get to the White House, if he wants to, he can go into space one more time.


And without missing a beat, John said, if he does go, it'll save the government money, because now he gets the senior discount.


Will you guys all join me, ladies and gentlemen, in saluting an American hero, John Glenn?


Also want to thank John Brieden, our national commander, and his wife Terry. When I was talking with John out there before I came out this morning, I was talking about all his years of service and the years he's put in on behalf of all of us as veterans. And I know that every one of you joins me in thanking both he and Terry for their great sacrifice and commitment to the veterans of our country. We are deeply appreciative.


Also want to thank Katherine Morris, the president of the American Legion Auxiliary, and her husband John. I've seen the work the Auxiliary does, and the ladies of the Auxiliary are absolutely extraordinary in their commitment and their faith and their upholding of the values of the Legion. And we thank them.

And I also want to recognize...


I'd like to recognize -- allow me to be parochial for a moment, if I can. I want to recognize the Massachusetts state commander, Milton Lashus and my friends in Post #63 in Salem, New Hampshire. Honored to be here with them.


Also want to recognize past national commanders, Judge Jim Dean (ph) and Bill Detwiler, and Jim's wife Carolyn. And I want to thank them particularly for coming up north. And they shared with us the moments of the Democratic convention as observers, but I think they shared a lot in being there, and they brought something to us, and we're grateful to them for doing that.

Earlier today, because they were at the convention as observers, they gave me three pieces of advice about this speech. Rule number one, absolutely no balloons.


I said, "No problem."

Rule number two, absolutely no confetti or streamers. I said, "No problem. "

Then they told me rule number three: "Keep your speech under 10 minutes. " I said, "Now we got a problem."


Eighty-five years ago, as all of you know, the American Legion was founded by and for our nation's veterans. As one of those veterans who has benefited from your advocacy, and one of the members, I'm honored to accept this invitation to be here today.

KERRY: And I am proud of what the American Legion does every single day to advance the ideals of America. We are grateful.

You are the citizen soldiers who know that our service doesn't end in our duty station or on the battlefield; it begins there. You know that the pledge that we took to defend America is also a pledge to protect the promise that America offers.

And let there be no doubt: When I am president, you will have a fellow veteran in the White House who understands that those who fought for our country abroad should never have to fight for what they were promised back here at home.


In the spirit of all the men and women in uniform who we honor here, I want to be clear: As president, I will always remember that America's security begins and ends with the soldier, sailor, airmen, Marine and Coast Guardsman, with every man and woman in our armed services who has ever stood guard at the gates of freedom.

And today, I salute each and every one of you for your commitment, strength and extraordinary courage.

America says thank you, and we all join...


And I particularly want to say thank you, as I think many of you do -- my dad was a greatest generation vet. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1939. He was among one of the first classes that went through the Air Corps. And he was retired out because he got tuberculosis.

I was born at an Army hospital -- Fitzsimmons Army Hospital during the war in 1943.

And so, having joined with many of you in Washington at the dedication of the memorial, I think every single one of us here wants to join together in a special salute to the greatest generation veterans whose memorial finally stands proudly in an appropriate place of honor on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Thank you for your example -- extraordinary example as citizen soldiers.


I also want to speak just for a moment directly to those who are currently risking their lives as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan and in other parts of the world.

America's prayers are with you. We honor your service and we thank you for your sacrifice and we pledge to stand with your families as you are standing with our families now.

These young men and women, as you've heard from General Myers and from others -- I had occasion to be just the other day visiting General Shalikashvili who had a stroke recently. And I was in Washington and went to the hospital and while I was there I met with some of the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. And I've been out to Walter Reed to meet with them there, too.

They're extraordinary. Their spirits are so high. Their commitment to our country is so stunning, so deep. These young men and women are the best of America and they deserve the gratitude of our nation.


In March of 1919, five months after the November armistice ended the war that was to end all wars, members of the American Expeditionary Force gathered in Paris to establish our American Legion. Their cause remains our cause to this day: For God and country, we associate ourselves together.

This is not only a pledge, but it's a principle that we have carried to war and I think lived in peace. We know that with the privilege of freedom comes an obligation to give back, to serve and to risk on behalf of others. That's something that I carry in my heart and in my gut and I know that you do, too.

And while your service and sacrifice are well known, what is not as well known is how hard we fought, veterans -- how hard veterans fought after returning from service to keep faith with fellow soldiers.

After returning from Vietnam I saw vets who weren't getting the care that they needed in our hospitals.

So we fought hard together and we got additional funding for the VA hospitals, and we got hospital care for places that weren't able to provide it.

To help those veterans who were having difficulty adjusting after the war, we founded the first medical assistance programs in the country. We put together the first ever outreach groups to help those with post-traumatic stress disorder. Others of other wars had known it. People of World War I and World War II had known what was then called shell shock, but coming out of Vietnam with all of the problems of the war and the divisions, there was a different attitude.

And so, we needed to fight as veterans to help to provide that assistance.

And I'm proud that today in the VA there are outreach centers and there's a formal recognition of PTSD.

We stood with veterans by getting the GI Bill extended, because so many of those returning had, kind of, gone underground and gotten lost and they came back after the date had come down on them and they couldn't use it. So we were able to open the doors of opportunity to vets so they could improve their lives.

We fought hard for increases in veterans' allowances for living expenses, so veterans could actually go to school and open the doors of opportunity.

And I stand here proud as I know you are proud that we kept faith together.

It was veterans fighting for veterans. We veterans made that happen and I think we should be proud of what we accomplished for our fellow service men and women.

Now, in recent weeks you've heard from some who have claimed that the job is getting done for veterans. Well, I say to you respectfully that just saying that the job is getting done doesn't make it so. My friends, let me tell you when the job will be done.


The job will be done when 500,000 veterans are not excluded from the VA health system.


The job will be done when we stop closing VA hospitals so that veterans don't have to struggle to find the care or travel extraordinary distances to be able to get the care that they need.

The job will be done when the government stops asking veterans for increased co-payments, increased enrollment fees, increased charges that shift the burden of care to other veterans and drive more than a million veterans out of the health care system.


The job will be done when 400,000 military retirees get real, full concurrent receipt.


Let me tell you, this is common sense.

I think it's in keeping the full Americanism that is at the heart and core of the charter and the oath of the Legion.

If you earned a pension, it's yours. It's just like the private sector. You worked for it, you obeyed the rules, you rose in the ranks, you got your pay grade and you got your money.

If you get a disability payment it's because you suffered something. It's a disability. And the disability is supposed to make up for the suffering.

I don't believe the government should subtract what you have suffered from what you have earned. I believe you deserve a full concurrent payment.


And the job will be done when there are no homeless veterans on the streets of America; when 320,000 veterans are no longer waiting for decisions on disability claims and another 100,000 are no longer waiting for appeals decisions.

The job will be done when the VA secretary doesn't have to complain publicly that he needs $1.2 billion more because he was turned down by a White House that spent the money on tax cuts for those at the top instead. I believe veterans come first.


The job will be done when we repeal the tax on military widows.

And mark my words: The job will be done when the family of 21- year-old Jay Breseno (ph), a veteran who is facing a lifetime of disability, when that family doesn't have to sleep at his bedside because the VA can't afford to give him round-the-clock nursing care that he needs.

That's not right. That's certainly not compassionate. And when I'm president that won't happen.


My friends, we have a great tradition of fighting for our veterans, all of us together, and we will fight for our fellow veterans because we know that the first definition of patriotism is not talking about it, it's keeping faith with those who wore the uniform of the United States.

And from standing with John McCain to find out the truth about what happened to our POWs and MIAs in Vietnam, to personally writing the legislation that provided help and health care to the victims of Agent Orange, I'm proud of the fights that we have won for our fellow veterans.


At this moment, we have in place -- we as a nation -- the most exhaustive, comprehensive effort to account for the missing or captured and the most extraordinary procedures now in place in the event of war that have ever been put in place in all of the history of human warfare, and America should be proud of that.

As president, I will lead the fight for a military family bill of rights and mandatory funding for veterans' health care.


I believe that that is keeping faith.

And we not only honor those who have served, but we're going to stand by those who are serving today. We are a country at war. We know that too well. The president talked about it yesterday, others are consumed by it.

We're a country at war and not only in Iraq but a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have known before. In all corners of the world our soldiers' lives are on the line. More than 150,000 troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are far away from their families and thousands more are in harm's way elsewhere.

My friends in the Legion and my fellow Americans, we owe them the truth. We owe the American people the truth. And I'm here today to tell you the truth as I see it.

I can't come here and fulfill my obligation as a candidate for president of these great United States of America and not give you an honest and serious appraisal of the challenge we face in Iraq and the war on terror.

No one in the United States doubted the outcome in Iraq or how swiftly the war would be won. No one. We knew we had the best trained troops in the world and, true to form, they performed magnificently, and we are all proud and grateful.


But the certainty of winning the war placed the most solemn obligation on the civilian leadership of this country to make certain that we had a plan to win the peace. The Army chief of staff, General Shinseki, told Congress we would need several hundred thousand American troops to win the peace and do the job properly.

His candor was rewarded with early retirement and his advice ignored, sending a chilling message throughout the ranks of the professional military.

By dismissing the State Department's plan for postwar Iraq and proceeding unilaterally, the civilian leadership simply did not put the mechanism in place to be able to secure the country.

They were unprepared for the looting, insecurity and insurgency that burst out with the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

They failed to secure Iraq's borders and so allowed thousands of foreign terrorists, Islamist militants and intelligence agents to penetrate and destabilize postwar Iraq.

Amazingly, they had no real plan for postwar political transition.

All of this happened despite clear and precise bipartisan warnings from Congress and regional experts.

Then as the challenge grew around our troops, the civilian leadership failed to respond adequately; failed to share responsibility with NATO, the greatest alliance we've ever built; failed to share it with the U.N., which also offered assistance; failed to share reconstruction or decision-making as a way of inviting others to shoulder the burden; and failed to provide the security on the ground necessary for postwar reconstruction.

They rushed and short-changed the training and equipment of the Iraqi police. They failed to recruit enough experts in language and culture of the region and used those that they had ineffectively.

The civilian leadership made a decision to disband the Iraqi military completely, so there was no internal structure to maintain order. They chose consciously to put an American instead of an international face on the occupation; failed to prepare for a large number of prisoners; and most significantly, failed even to guard nuclear waste and ammunition storage sites, despite the fact that weapons of mass destruction was their fundamental reason for the war.

And some of the weapons that we didn't guard are the very weapons being targeted at our troops today.

As a result, today terrorists have secured havens in Iraq that were not there before. And we have been forced to reach accommodation with those that have repeatedly attacked our troops. Violence has spread in Iraq. Iran has expand its influence and extremism has gained momentum.

Now, I know that some of these things are hard to listen to. I know that it's always tough to talk truth to power. But I think the president himself on Monday admitted that he miscalculated in Iraq.

In truth, his miscalculation was ignoring the advice that was given to him, including the best advice of America's own military.

So when the president says we have the same position on Iraq, I have to respectfully disagree. Our differences could not be plainer, and I have set them out consistently.

When it comes to Iraq it's not that I would have done one thing differently, I would have done almost everything differently.

I would have relied on American troops in Tora Bora, the best troops in the world, when we had Osama bin Laden in our sights, trapped in the mountains. I would not have sent Afghans up into those mountains who a week earlier had been fighting on the other side. I would have sent the best-trained forces in the world to get the number one criminal and terrorist in the world.


I never would have diverted resources so quickly from Afghanistan before finishing the job. I would have given the inspectors the time they needed to do the job, not because that might have done the whole job of getting the weapons, but because by doing so we could have brought other countries to our side, which is the way you provide our troops with the best protection and the way you provide America with the greatest chance of success.

I would have made sure that we listened to our senior military advisers.

I would have made sure that every soldier put in harm's way had state-of-the-art body armor, state-of-the-art Humvees and the equipment we needed.

I would have built a strong, broad coalition of our allies around the world because every one of you sitting here knows, no matter what -- take away party affiliation: This isn't Democrat. This isn't Republican. This isn't independent. This is just common sense. Because everyone here knows that the best way to protect the troops is to make sure not only they have the equipment, but that you're going from the maximum position of strength.

If there's one thing I learned from my service, which was a difficult time as we all know, I would never have gone to war without a plan to win the peace. That I think is critical.


Now, the bottom line, fellow Legionnaires, is this: that I don't believe we, you, have to be shouldering nearly the entire financial cost of this war -- more than $200 billion -- and short-changing investments and health care and veterans, in education, and our safety at home.

But the question now is not just what we should have done, but what we can and must now do. I don't think we need what President Bush has defined as a catastrophic success. I think we need a real success.

We need to bring our allies to our side. We need to share the burdens, the cost to the American taxpayer. We need to share the burden and reduce the risk to American soldiers. Together, we near to more rapidly train Iraqi police and military to take over the job of protecting the country.

That is what I will do as commander in chief because I'll tell you what, that's the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home as fast as possible.


In an interview two days ago the president said, "We can't win the war on terror. " I know he said something different to you yesterday, but I absolutely disagree with what he said in that interview in a moment of candor.

With the right policies, this is a war we can win. This is a war we must win and this is a war we will win because we're the can-do people and there's nothing we can't do if we put our mind and our muscle into it.

In the end, the terrorists will lose and we will win because the future does not belong to fear, it belongs to freedom.


Let me tell you how we're going to do that.

To win the war on terror, we're going to add 40,000 active duty troops to our military, not in Iraq -- emphasize, not in Iraq -- but nine out of 10 of our Army divisions are now either in Iraq, going to Iraq, coming back from Iraq, getting ready to go to Iraq -- nine out of 10 -- even as Iran and North Korea get more dangerous.

Our troops are overstretched, overextended, under pressure. I intend to double our special forces to conduct anti-terrorist operations. I'm going to provide our troops with the newest weapons and the newest technology to save their lives and win the battle.

And we will end the backdoor draft of the National Guard and reservists that is taking place today.


Ladies and gentlemen, to win the war on terror you have to know who the terrorists are. You have to know where they are and what they're hiding and plotting. And you have to know what they're planning. And you have to be able to go get them before they get us.

Now, how do you do that? Last year I called for the creation of a national intelligence director. I believe that we should have moved earlier and more decisively to strengthen America's intelligence- gathering ability. Why? Because we need the best intelligence in the world so that policy is guided by facts, and facts are never distorted by politics.

And to get that, to have the best intelligence in the world, to know where Osama bin Laden is, to know who's plotting what before they come, you've got to have the best cooperation that we've ever had from every country on this planet.

I know that we can do a better job of building that cooperation, but to do so we have to use every tool in our arsenal: our economic policy, our diplomacy, our nongovernmental organizations, our humanitarian organizations, our values and our ideals.

I will do that as president. And I am convinced that if the United States reaches out in a way that we have traditionally with the great alliances of World War I and World War II and all through our history, including the Cold War, those alliances have been the bedrock of our strength, and I believe we can do a better job of revitalizing those alliances and of taking pressure off the American taxpayer and the American troop.

Now, I want to speak today about just one other challenge.

When the troops who are fighting for us over there come home, we owe them an America where they can get the ability to plan a future, get a job that lets them get ahead; an America where military families are part of a growing middle class, not struggling to join it.

In his 1933 address to this convention, Franklin Roosevelt said, "You men of the Legion have been willing to fight for the benefits of American life and you've been willing to live for American unity. "

My friends, I believe that the full duty of the commander in chief is to lead an America where the benefits of American life are available to all who have risked their lives defending our country.

This is the 100 percent Americanism the Legion has always stood for.


Our citizen soldiers are hard-working, middle-class Americans who live by real American values: faith and family, service and sacrifice, responsibility and hard work. They need jobs, health care and a good education to live those values.

But for the first time since the Great Depression, America has lost jobs: 2.7 million manufacturing jobs in the last four years alone.

More than 45 million Americans don't have any health insurance at all and some 25 to 30 million don't have it for part of the year. Five million Americans have lost their health care coverage since the year 2000.

This year alone, more than 220,000 more Americans could not afford to go to college.

I believe we have an important obligation and I think you share it.

When our soldiers come home and need a job, we believe they deserve better than four more years of rewarding companies that take the jobs overseas.


Our plan will close the tax loopholes and actually provide new incentives to create the manufacturing jobs here in America and to increase the numbers of high-paying jobs that we need.

When our soldiers find those jobs, we believe that they deserve more than finding a job that pays on average $9,000 less than the job that we lost that goes overseas.

Our plan will create the jobs of the future that pay more, not less; jobs where after a week's work in America people can pay their bills, provide for their children, lift up the quality of their lives.

And we can do this by moving into new manufacturing techniques, by doing science and research, by pushing the curve of discovery, as we did in the 1990s when we not only paid down the debt, we not only balanced the budget, we not only cut the deficit, but we created 23 million new jobs at the same time.

And when our soldiers plan the family budget, we believe that they deserve more than four years of a government that's going deeper and deeper into debt.

Ladies and gentlemen, there's nothing conservative about building up deficits as far as the eye can see.


Our plan will cut the deficit in half over the course of the next four years. And we will do it by passing reforms that John McCain and I have fought for together, to end corporate welfare and by making governments stay within a budget just like you do.


And when our soldiers pay their taxes, we believe that they deserve better than a fiscal policy that has actually, over the last four years, raised the tax burden on the middle class and lowered the tax burden for the wealthiest people in America.

We believe that our soldiers, when they return, deserve a tax policy for the middle class and for working families that will help them pay for health care, child care and sending a son or daughter to college, which is why we provide a $4,000 tuition tax credit to help parents be able to do it.

And when our soldiers and their families get sick, I really believe that it is part of the moral fiber of our nation, the richest nation on the face of the planet, the only industrial nation in the world not yet to do this, to understand that people deserve more than four more years of rising health care costs, unaffordable prescription drugs, skyrocketing premiums and no plan to do anything about it.

Health care costs are crushing businesses and individuals alike and it's one of the reasons so many companies are deciding to move offshore because they need to get out from under.

We have a plan to make America more competitive by getting the greed and the waste out of the system. It's not a government plan. There's no new bureaucracy. We don't order you to do anything. You choose your doctor, choose your plan. But we provide powerful incentives that people will grab a hold of and that will save the average family up to $1,000 a year in their premiums.

It is the first proposal that I will send to the United States Congress next January. We will make health care affordable and accessible to all Americans.

And I intend to follow it up immediately by sending back to the Congress the flawed prescription drug bill that prohibits Medicare from actually negotiating a lower price so that you, the taxpayer, and you, the senior, can actually put money in your pockets instead of putting it into the pockets of the largest drug companies in America.

I'm going to send that bill back and we're going to get a real Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors in our country.


My friends, I'd just close by saying to you that I have a deep belief that the United States of America has an obligation to see to it that America is not the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't understand the truth about health care.

Senators and congressmen give themselves the best health care in the world and they give you the bill. I believe that every American's family is as important in their health care as any politician in Washington, D.C. And we're going to see to it that you get the health care you deserve.


My friends, 61 years ago a World War I veteran sat down on a cold December day and he thought about the 15 million men and women who would soon return victorious from the Second World War. In the middle of a war he was already thinking about what kind of America they would come home to and he dreamed about what kind of America they deserved.

A first lieutenant who had joined the Army Air Service, he probably thought about his own trip back to America after World War I; the water beneath him as the boat glided towards the land he loved after a long and tough war. He probably recalled the hope that came with his first knock on the door of a home that he'd left years ago and the look of happiness and joy and possibility on the face of a wife and faces of children that he hadn't been sure that he would see again.

And on that December 15th day, 1943, in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, this veteran who didn't forget drafted in longhand a piece of legislation that would secure that hope and that possibility for all who returned home to the land they loved.

Since its passage 60 years ago, the G.I. Bill of Rights has provided education and training for nearly 8 million Americans, housing for nearly 2 million families, and led to the creation of the great middle class that we are now trying to save.

And for all who know the ideals upon which this organization was founded, it should come as no surprise that the author of that bill was 1st Lieutenant Harry Colmery, American Legion national commander.


For that act and for his vision, Commander Colmery was an American hero and he deserves the Medal of Freedom that Congress has called on the president to award him.

But to truly honor his memory, we, all of us, must commit ourselves to the work of building up the great American middle class. We have to get over the divisions. We have to find a way not to have the politics that looks for the lowest common denominator, but one that reaches for the highest common denominator, one that finds it possible for people to be able to find the common ground together.

John McCain found that common ground with me when together we traveled back and I stood in his prison cell. He and I coming from very different places, but we worked together for our country to strengthen our nation.

For our soldiers, for their families, for all those hardworking Americans who are looking to build a better life, we have to pursue a path that once again places the American dream within the reach of every American citizen.

And I promise you this: If I am your next president, I will serve with the pledge of the American Legion in my heart, to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy.

Thank you and God bless you and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.

© 2004 FDCH E-Media