EL PASO – President Barack Obama returned to Fort Bliss two years after his first visit at the end of the Iraq war to tell the troops that after a decade of war America has not forgotten its wounded warriors.
He promised the troops on August 31 more counselors, more clinicians, more care and more treatment. “Today we’re taking another step. I’ve signed a new executive order to give our troops, our veterans, and our families better access to mental health care,” Obama said.
The president said that he was here for a simple reason, but it was clear that his reasons went far beyond that. He was here with a plan to address the wounds of the decade of war that has sapped this country’s strength and of course, to try and sway as many military votes his way in the upcoming election.
As befits a man who has been called the rock star president, Obama received a warm welcome from the crowd of an estimated 2,000 soldiers and their families. Whatever their political leanings, there was no doubt that the personality of the Commander in Chief made a distinct impression on this group of men and women.
The event was not open to the general public, rather the audience included selected soldiers and significant others, Gold Star Families, a cadre of pre-credentialed media, and elected officials. Major General Dana J.H. Pittard opened the event with some remarks followed by General Lloyd Austin, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army who introduced the President of the United States.
The president initially made it clear that he had returned to Fort Bliss to mark the sacrifice and achievements of the U.S. military. “Two years ago, I was here to mark a historic moment in the life of our nation and out military – the end of major combat operations in Iraq. It was a chance for me to say on behalf of the American people to you and all who served there – welcome home and congratulations on a job well done.”
Two years ago, he stressed the need for more work to be done even though the war in Iraq was over. He had spoken of taking the fight to Al-Qaeda and he stressed the fact that in regard to this he had kept his word and, with allies and partners, more top Al-Qaeda terrorists had been taken out than at any time since 9/11 including Osama bin Laden.
Though he spoke of victories and achievements, he also had words for the many fallen and wounded warriors. Before the remarks, he had taken time from his schedule to meet with some Gold Star families and left them with the message that “their loved ones live on in the soul of our nation and we will honor them always.”
He said that the war in Afghanistan would continue until the U.S. turned over operational control to the Afghan military. We would end this war responsibly, he said, bringing to a close a full decade of war, but he stressed that the work would not end when the last soldier came home.
The next battle would be healing the wounds of war, he said. He made a pledge that, as president, he would insist that America serve the soldiers and their families as well as the soldiers and their families had served America.
The wounds of war would be addressed and, as much as possible, healed, he said. Just as America gave soldiers the best equipment and technology on the battlefield, it would also give soldiers the best support and care available when they return home.
Prior to his official remarks, Obama said that he had taken part in a roundtable with some soldiers and their families, talking about the struggle of coming home, especially for the wounded warriors.
The government has poured a tremendous amount of resources into this effort, giving unprecedented support to the soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
Finally, he reiterated another promise that he made at Fort Bliss two years ago – that when a soldier takes off the uniform for the last time that he, or she, will be helped to fully participate in the economy. Every single soldier deserves his or her chance to live the American dream, he said.
In support of this pledge, the Transition Assistance Program has been overhauled, creating a kind of reverse boot camp. As soldiers transition through this program, they will receive help finding a job, pursue a degree or start a business. Soldiers and their families will be helped to pursue their education under the Post 9/11 GI-Bill.
He also stressed that the government would be cracking down on those schools that have been trying to take soldiers’ money and then rip them off by not giving them the education that they paid for.
He pledged that the government would keep hiring the newest veterans in the federal government and in communities as police officers and firefighters and first responders. As a result of tax credits more businesses can hire veterans and wounded warriors. He also spoke of new regulations that would make it easier for veterans to transfer their military skills to the licenses and credentials that are needed to get a civilian job.
After all, he said, if a veteran has been a medic in theater, he or she should not have to start at Nursing 101. He spoke of a challenge he had made to the private section to hire 100,000 veterans and he revealed that patriotic companies had hired 125,000 veterans to date.
Finally, in support of his plan for aiding returning veterans he called on Congress to pass the Veterans Jobs Corps that provides tax credits to businesses that hire vets.
He finished his remarks by describing a wounded warrior he met the last time he was in Afghanistan – Sergeant Chase Haag, then 22. This past spring, Haag and his team were hit by an IED shortly before the president landed.
So when Obama arrived at the hospital room, Haag and his team were in pretty bad shape. Haag’s injuries were extensive and the President did not want to intrude. However, Haag’s physician insisted that the president should speak to the young man even though he appeared to be sleeping.
Obama said a few words and then turned to go when the young man’s hand slowly came up from under the blanket that covered him giving the president a firm Army handshake. After a pause, the president said that the actions of that wounded soldier captured the spirit, the resilience, the tenacity, the discipline, the resolve, and the patriotism of all soldiers.