Calling it a moral obligation, President Barack Obama on Tuesday outlined steps to help veterans and restore trust damaged by a series of “outrageous and inexcusable” problems and scandals.
“But what I want you to know is that we’re focused on this at the highest levels,” he told delegates to the American Legion convention in Charlotte.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of these problems. We’re going to fix what’s wrong. We’re going to do right by you. We’re going to do right by your families. And that is a solemn pledge.”
Obama’s speech at the Charlotte Convention Center was his first to veterans since the VA scandals that forced the ouster of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. It came the same month he signed a $16.3 billion bill to begin clearing the long backlog at the Veterans Administration.
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The president spoke during a whirlwind visit to Charlotte, his first since the Democratic National Convention almost two years ago.
His appearance came moments before those of North Carolina’s two U.S. senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan.
The VA problems have emerged as an issue in Hagan’s re-election race against Republican challenger Thom Tillis, whose campaign has accused her of not doing enough to fix the problems.
The two senators joined Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter on the tarmac to greet the president as he stepped off Air Force One.
In coming to North Carolina, Obama visited a state with one of the nation’s highest populations of veterans and more than 116,000 active duty military personnel.
Obama’s visit was on the same day a new report came as a reminder of problems at the Veterans Affairs department.
Government investigators found no proof that delays in care caused veterans to die at a Phoenix VA hospital, but they found plenty of problems at the Veterans department.
Investigators uncovered large-scale improprieties in the way VA hospitals and clinics across the country have scheduled veterans for appointments, according to the report released by the VA’s Office of Inspector General.
Obama outlines priorities
In Charlotte, the president promised veterans a “new culture of accountability” at the Department of Veterans Affairs, one in which it would be easier to find – and fire – employees who fall short.
He vowed to focus on the problems of veterans, especially those recently returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Specifically, he renewed a pledge to focus on five priorities involving health care, including mental health, homelessness and jobs.
He promised to:
• Find more resources for the VA, even beyond the money approved this month. “But as you know, it’s not enough,” he said.
• Help a new wave of veterans deal with mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder. He announced 19 executive actions designed to improve the mental health care of veterans, including suicide prevention programs.
“We have to end this tragedy of suicide among our troops and veterans,” he said. “As a country, we can’t stand idly by.”
• Continue chipping away at the VA’s health care backlog.
“We don’t just want those claims processed fast,” he said. “We need to make sure they get processed right.”
• Continue fighting homelessness among veterans. He said the number of homeless vets has fallen by a third in recent years.
“And that means on any given night, there are 25,000 fewer veterans on the streets or in shelters,” he said.
• Help veterans transition to civilian life by making it easier for them to buy homes, get jobs and go back to school.
He said while veterans are entitled to low mortgage rates, the burden is on them to seek them out and prove they’re eligible.
“So today we’re turning that around,” he said, adding that “America’s biggest banks and financial institutions” have promised to simplify the process and make it easier to enroll in the program.
Jeff Miller, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement that the plan falls short of what’s needed.
“VA’s problems festered because administration officials ignored or denied the department’s challenges at every turn,” the Republican said. “What we need from the president right now is more follow-through and less flash when it comes to helping veterans.”
Veterans want results
Though Obama was greeted with a standing ovation from several thousand delegates, his reception generally seemed restrained. Although many veterans liked what they heard, they remained skeptical.
“He said the things we needed to hear, but I want to see him follow through,” said Paul Spedaliere of Lebanon, Conn. “We need action in place of words.”
Shirley Frederick of Hackensack, Minn., said, “If he follows through on what he said, it would be wonderful.”
“We put (vets) over there in danger and now we need to take care of them. If Congress works with him, he’ll follow through on it.”
Jerry McClough of Greensboro, a Marine Corps veteran of the Desert Storm and Somalia campaigns, praised the administration for reaching out to vets.
“I really think it should have been done a lot sooner than his administration,” he said. “This goes way back, deeper than the past four to six years. This is not something new. It just happened that the American Legion stepped up and went to battle for us.”
‘It needs to be done’
Curtis Leary, a Coast Guard veteran from Cary, said he’d be happy to “hear the truth out of (Obama) for once.” But he praised the president’s mental health initiatives.
“Of course it needs to be done,” he said. “It’s got to be recognized and treated and supported. That’s why we have all these suicides. I know it’s going to cost money, but I’d rather spend it in the United States than in some foreign country.”
At the end of his remarks, Obama saluted three veterans by name. One was Carol Barker of Greensboro, a former master sergeant assigned to a medevac unit.
“She helped save the lives of our wounded warriors in those critical first hours when life so often hung in the balance,” Obama said. “And here at the Legion, she continues to serve, helping homeless veterans come in off the streets. Thank you, Carol.”
Observer staff writers Erin Bacon, Joe DePriest, Bruce Henderson and Ely Portillo and the Associated Press contributed.