By Danielle Nordine, Red Wing Republican Eagle
President Barack Obama told thousands of American Legion members what many hoped to hear Tuesday as he pledged to improve their health care and fight unemployment and homelessness among veterans.
“As today’s wars end, as our troops come home, we’re reminded once more of our responsibilities to all who have served,” he said during the Legion’s national convention in Minneapolis.
In his second Minnesota visit in 15 days, Obama touched those major issues, saying America must take care of veterans “as well as you have taken care of us.”
Veterans Administration benefits and unemployment were on the minds of Legionnaires before and after the president’s speech.
“It was a good speech,” said Don Tietje of Ceylon, Minn. “He was really sticking up for veterans.”
Tietje and others are happy with the investment Obama has made in Veterans Affairs and his promise Tuesday to speed up claims and make records and paperwork available electronically.
“With these historic investments, we’re making dramatic improvements to veterans’ health care,” Obama said. “We’re improving VA facilities to better serve our women veterans. And we’re expanding outreach and care for our rural veterans.”
Obama said the VA would be better equipped to care for those diseases caused by wars, including agent orange in Vietnam and post traumatic stress disorder from any combat.
“When our veterans who fought for our country have to fight for the benefits that you’ve already earned, that’s unacceptable,” he told the crowd to strong applause.
Obama also said he would protect veterans’ services from cuts.
“I want to be absolutely clear: We cannot, and we must not, balance the budget on the backs of our veterans,” the president said to a standing ovation and strong applause. “And as commander in chief, I won’t allow it.”
What some Legionnaires worried about was follow-through.
“Now he has to get the Senate and House on board,” said Legionnaire Steve Klinkner of Madelia, Minn. “That’s his biggest hurdle.”
“It was good to hear,” added Ferdie Haberman of Brewster, Minn.
“Now it’s getting it done,” said Harberman, attending his 46th national convention.
“I’ve seen them all,” he joked of past presidents’ visits.
The Legion invites the president, as commander in chief, to its gathering every year.
Obama touched on issued faced by veterans of all wars, but also focused on what he called the “9/11 generation” – those who have served since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011.
“They enlisted in a time of peace, but they instantly transitioned to a war footing,” he said of military personnel of Sept. 11, 2001.
Unemployment is a key challenge for this group. Recent veterans – those serving after Sept. 11 – face a nearly 11 percent unemployment rate compared to an 8.5 percent rate for the general population, according to a congressional study released this spring.
Veterans in the group aged 18-24 face an even higher rate — nearly 20 percent across the country and almost 23 percent in Minnesota, another study showed.
“After a decade of war, it’s time to focus on nation building here at home,” Obama said. “And our veterans, especially our 9-11 generation veterans, have the skills and the dedication to help lead the way. “
To give new veterans a better chance at jobs, Obama said that he ordered the Defense Department to create a “reverse boot camp” to help them turn their military skills into skills for civilian jobs.
Obama challenged private businesses to hire 100,000 unemployed veterans and highlighted a plan to give tax breaks to companies who hire veterans. He also promised to unveil an overall jobs-creation plan next week.
Unemployment and Veteran’s Affairs efficiency and accuracy were main points of discussion when Obama met with veterans in Cannon Falls after his town hall-style meeting on Aug. 15, said Bob Davis, Goodhue County veterans’ service officer.
“That was a good lunch, by the way,” Obama joked Tuesday.
The Legion will take action on hundreds of resolutions throughout the conference, which ends Thursday.
This year’s convention, which kicked off Friday, is back in Minneapolis after 15 years, revisiting the city where the first meeting took place in 1919.