Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the President expressed humility standing before an audience that represents perhaps the greatest American tradition: "Whether you wear the uniform today, or wore it decades ago, you remind us of a fundamental truth. It's not the powerful weapons that make our military the strongest in the world. It's not the sophisticated systems that make us the most advanced. The true strength of our military lies in the spirit and skill of our men and women in uniform. And you know this."
He honored every generation that has taken part in that tradition, including the current generation that has served so nobly in Iraq and Afghanistan. He noted that as one percent of the American population, the troops have shouldered the massive burden of American security almost exclusively on their own, and explained that his commitment to diplomacy and engagement is a commitment to sharing the sacrifice, if even slightly, across the other 99%:
So the responsibility for our security must not be theirs alone. That is why I have made it a priority to enlist all elements of our national power in defense of our national security -- our diplomacy and development, our economic might and our moral example, because one of the best ways to lead our troops wisely is to prevent the conflicts that cost American blood and treasure tomorrow.
He pledged that our military would only be engaged as an absolute last resort, that every resource would be dedicated to ensure they have the equipment they need, and that "we will plan responsibly, budget honestly, and speak candidly about the costs and consequences of our actions."
He gave a straight-forward assessment of our two wars:
In Iraq, after more than six years, we took an important step forward in June. We transferred control of all cities and towns to Iraq's security forces. The transition to full Iraqi responsibility for their own security is now underway. This progress is a testament to all those who have served in Iraq, both uniformed and civilian. And our nation owes these Americans -- and all who have given their lives -- a profound debt of gratitude. (Applause.)
Now, as Iraqis take control of their destiny, they will be tested and targeted. Those who seek to sow sectarian division will attempt more senseless bombings and more killing of innocents. This we know.
But as we move forward, the Iraqi people must know that the United States will keep its commitments. And the American people must know that we will move forward with our strategy. We will begin removing our combat brigades from Iraq later this year. We will remove all our combat brigades by the end of next August. And we will remove all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. And for America, the Iraq war will end.
By moving forward in Iraq, we're able to refocus on the war against al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That's why I announced a new, comprehensive strategy in March -- a strategy that recognizes that al Qaeda and its allies had moved their base from the remote, tribal areas -- to the remote, tribal areas of Pakistan. This strategy acknowledges that military power alone will not win this war -- that we also need diplomacy and development and good governance. And our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies.
In the months since, we have begun to put this comprehensive strategy into action. And in recent weeks, we've seen our troops do their part. They've gone into new areas -- taking the fight to the Taliban in villages and towns where residents have been terrorized for years. They're adapting new tactics, knowing that it's not enough to kill extremists and terrorists; we also need to protect the Afghan people and improve their daily lives. And today, our troops are helping to secure polling places for this week's election so that Afghans can choose the future that they want.
Now, these new efforts have not been without a price. The fighting has been fierce. More Americans have given their lives. And as always, the thoughts and prayers of every American are with those who make the ultimate sacrifice in our defense.
As I said when I announced this strategy, there will be more difficult days ahead. The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight and we won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick, nor easy. But we must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is a -- this is fundamental to the defense of our people.
He then returned to a theme he and his Secretary of Defense have harped on since his presidency began – that fiscal responsibility and a strong defense go hand in hand:
So this is pretty straightforward: Cut the waste. Save taxpayer dollars. Support the troops. That's what we should be doing. (Applause.) The special interests, contractors, and entrenched lobbyists, they're invested in the status quo. And they're putting up a fight. But make no mistake, so are we. If a project doesn't support our troops, if it does not make America safer, we will not fund it. If a system doesn't perform, we will terminate it. (Applause.) And if Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with a bunch of pork, I will veto it. We will do right by our troops and taxpayers, and we will build the 21st century military that we need. (Applause.)
Towards the end of his remarks, he spoke at length of his dedication to ensure that no area of a veteran’s life goes neglected by that veteran’s government. For those suffering from physical or psychological injury, better care, more treatment centers, and a health system that stays with them from their time of service throughout their life; for those seeking an education for a new life, a new GI Bill; for those struggling, a commitment to end homelessness amongst veterans – all of that just as a start.
To crystallize his point, his closed with a story:
These are commitments that we make to the patriots who serve -- from the day they enlist to the day that they are laid to rest. Patriots like you. Patriots like a man named Jim Norene.
His story is his own, but in it we see the larger story of all who serve. He's a child of the Depression who grew up to join that greatest generation; a paratrooper in the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne; jumping in a daring daylight raid into Holland to liberate captive people; rushing to Bastogne at the Battle of the Bulge where his commanding general -- surrounded by the Germans and asked to surrender -- declared, famously, "Nuts."
For his bravery, Jim was awarded the Bronze Star. But like so many others, he rarely spoke of what he did or what he saw -- reminding us that true love of country is not boisterous or loud but, rather, the "tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime."
Jim returned home and built a life. He went to school on the GI Bill. He got married. He raised a family in his small Oregon farming town. And every Veterans Day, year after year, he visited schoolchildren to speak about the meaning of service. And he did it all as a proud member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. (Applause.)
Then, this spring, Jim made a decision. He would return to Europe once more. Eighty-five years old, frail and gravely ill, he knew he might not make it back home. But like the paratrooper he always was, he was determined.
So near Bastogne, he returned to the places he knew so well. At a Dutch town liberated by our GIs, schoolchildren lined the sidewalks and sang The Star-Spangled Banner. And in the quiet clearing of an American cemetery, he walked among those perfect lines of white crosses of fellow soldiers who had fallen long ago, their names forever etched in stone.
And then, back where he had served 65 years before, Jim Norene passed away, at night, in his sleep, quietly, peacefully -- the "tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime."
The next day, I was privileged to join the commemoration at Normandy to mark the day when the beaches were stormed and a continent was freed. There were Presidents and prime ministers and veterans from the far corners of the earth. But long after the bands stopped playing and the crowds stopped cheering, it was the story of a departed VFW member that echoed in our hearts.
(President Barack Obama addresses the annual VFW convention in Phoenix, AZ on Monday, August 17, 2009.
Official White House photo by Samantha Appleton)