President Obama paid tribute Sunday to America's disabled veterans, saying the country must "move heaven and earth" to make sure they get the benefits they deserve and warned against rushing into war unless it is absolutely necessary.
Obama, speaking at the dedication of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, did not overtly mention the scandal involving the Department of Veterans Affairs over wait times for accessing care or his decision to open up a military campaign against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria.
But the specter of war — and supporting those going into it and thanking, honoring and taking care of those returning from it with wounds both mental and physical — imbued the somber speech. Obama acknowledged the "painful truth" that the country had not always supported its veterans and said memorials such as this one are a step forward toward fulfilling what he has called a solemn, critical obligation.
"In the United States of America, those who have fought for our freedom should never be shunned and should never be forgotten,” Obama said, standing near a reflecting pool with a flame in the middle that is part of the memorial, which sits adjacent to the Botanic Garden.
"When our wounded veterans set out on that long road of recovery, we need to move heaven and earth to make sure they get every single benefit, every single bit of care that they have earned, that they deserve," Obama said.
The memorial, which has been 16 years in the making, is the first in the country to specifically honor disabled veterans. Eighteen quotes from veterans and their families are etched into the glass panels, bronze sculptures and granite walls.
"If you want to see the character of our country, a country that never quits, look at these men and women," Obama said to the 3,100 people gathered on a sparkling fall day, many of them in wheelchairs or with lost limbs. At one point he asked those who have been wounded in battle to stand or raise their hands; hundreds of people did so.
Obama came into office vowing to end wars and made mention of the fact that the combat mission in Afghanistan is to wind down at the end of this year. But he started another offensive last month, authorizing military action against the Islamic State in Syria. He did the same in Iraq in August. As he has in the past — including to the annual convention of the American Legion in August — Obama warned against engaging in war unless there was a clear, pressing reason to do so.
"Let’s never rush into war — because it is America’s sons and daughters who bear the scars of war for the rest of their lives. Let us only send them into harm’s way when it’s absolutely necessary. And if we do, let’s always give them the strategy, the mission and the support that they need to get the job done," Obama said. When the mission is over, he said. "let us stand united as Americans and welcome our veterans home with the thanks and respect they deserve."
Obama said it is here at the memorial that he sees the perseverance and determination of men and women who have been wounded both physically and mentally in battle. The "unseen wounds of war," Obama, who in August announced 19 executive actions to help improve mental health care for veterans, said, "are just as real as any other, and they can hurt just as much, if not more."
Obama thanked the family, friends and support networks of disabled veterans, and he told veterans that, if they are hurting, they should never be ashamed to ask for help. He urged Americans who see veterans, "maybe with a prosthetic arm or leg, maybe burns on their face — don’t ever look away." He added: "You go up and you reach out, and you shake their hand, and you look them in the eye and you say those words every veteran should hear all the time: 'Welcome home, thank you.'"
Obama was flanked onstage by VA Secretary Robert McDonald, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and actor Gary Sinise, who played Lt. Dan in "Forrest Gump" and has become a veterans advocate.
McDonald, who was confirmed as VA secretary in July, months after Eric Shinseki resigned, also did not mention the scandal. Instead, he called disabled veterans the VA's "most important focus."
"Few have given more to America," McDonald said. "This imposing memorial stands as a powerful reminder of their service and their sacrifice."