Thank you for the warm welcome. It's a great privilege and honor to be with you today at our final convention this century.
This morning I had the opportunity to spend time with the Ladies Auxiliary. They are a remarkable group of people who exemplify how blessed this nation is and that service to its noble ideals is and always will be a family affair.
Recently, I authored a book called "Faith of My Fathers," about my family's military tradition. I wrote it, not for myself, but for my father and grandfather, both Navy Admirals. I wrote it for all veterans whose service has been inspired not only by love of country, but love of family and tradition. And I wrote it for a special hero in that storymy mother. If this book can contribute in some small way to a greater appreciation of military service and the family's role in defense of America, I will have considered it a worthwhile endeavor. God bless our country and God bless our families.
As the days remaining in the 20th Century -- the American Century -- dwindle down, we look with justifiable pride upon our country's role in world history. We are proud - and humble. Humble in the knowledge that we enjoy our freedom because of the devotion of Americans who sacrificed greatly to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity those brave Americans to whom duty, honor and love of country were more dear to them than self.
And, we are humble as we remember our sons and daughters who stand their posts today in foreign lands and ships across the globe--the thousands of young men and women who guard our freedom. Their service and sacrifice is our nation's highest honor, and always will be.
The world that many of us served in was a dangerous one, but more stable than the world today. It was a world where we confronted a massive, organized threat not only to our interests overseas, but to our very security at home. Our enemy was evil, but not irrational. And for all the suffering endured by captive nations; for all the fear of global nuclear war; it was a world made fairly predictable by a stable balance of power between two superpowers.
Yet that world had much cruelty and terror, some of which it was my fate to witness personally. I have memories of a place so far removed from the comforts of this blessed country that I have learned to forget some of the anguish it once caused me. But I have not forgotten the friends who did not return with me to the country we loved so dearly.
The memory of them, of what they bore for honor and country, causes me to look in every prospective conflict for the shadow of Vietnam.
I don't let that shadow hold me in fear from my duty as God has given me light to see that duty. But it no longer falls to us to bear arms in our country's defense. It falls to our children and their children. Should their duty lead them to war, I pray that the battle will be necessary and the field well chosen.
But that is not their responsibility. It is the duty of the nation's civilian commanders, and those of us privileged to be America's political leaders, to ensure the service of our sons and daughters is ordered for causes important enough to justify the sacrifices we ask of them.
It is up to us to follow rules that should govern the use of force; rules that we have learned from bitter experience. It's up to us to make every possible effort to guarantee that the men and women we send into harm's way are amply provided for -- as a superpower with global responsibilities should provide for its forces.
Almost 100,000 Americans are serving overseas in an unprecedented number of contingency, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Our armed forces are deployed to more countries in greater numbers for these purposes than at any time in our history. While we debate the merits of all these contingencies, it is beyond dispute that a decade of declining defense budgets and ever-more-frequent deployments have stretched the services perilously close to the breaking point.
Many of us who have been criticized for sounding the alarm bell in the past now have the empty satisfaction of seeing the Clinton Administration admit that there is more to maintaining a strong defense than falsely promising to do so.
After six years of severely under funding the military, the President reversed himself and proposed increasing the defense budget. Once again, however, his rhetoric has far exceeded his actions.
Please don't mistake these observations for a partisan tirade. Congress deserves as sharp a rebuke as the President. While many Republicans and Democrats in Congress recognize our problems and wish to devote greater resources to the military, they often cannot restrain the oldest of all Congressional afflictions, an all-consuming addiction to pork barrel spending.
While Congress increased the President's budget requests, it diverted far too much of the additional money to garden variety pork barrel projects that had little if anything to do with readiness and the well being of military personnel. And in the most galling and self-interested neglect of national security, Congress repeatedly refuses to close bases that everyone knows we no longer need and can no longer support.
It is unconscionable that we spend money on outdated facilities or unneeded weapons systems when 12,000 enlisted personnel, proud young men and women, subsist on food stamps. That, my friends, is a weak defense and this nation deserves better service from us than that.
The President's empty promises and the irresponsible spending habits of Congress offer little real remedy to our readiness crisis.
I believe that military service is the most honorable endeavor an American may undertake. But I've never believed that lack of military service disqualifies one from occupying positions of political leadership or as Commander and Chief. In America, the people are sovereign, and they decide who is and is not qualified to lead us.
But, as in every walk of life, experience counts and in an administration with so few in its upper echelons who wore the nation's uniform, the inattention to our military and our veterans, while inexcusable and dangerous, is sadly, not surprising.
The American people must recognize the gravity of the problem before their employees in Washington will fear to do the wrong thing more than they currently fear to do the necessary things. I, and others who share my concerns have failed to make our case to the people. I regret our failure very much, and I promise you that I will try harder in the future.
Until America's political leaders show one tenth the courage and patriotism that have been the hallmark of Americans in uniform, we will keep squandering this priceless national asset - the greatest military in the history of the world.
We should be especially careful not to use the relief we feel over our apparent defeat of Mr. Milosevic to indulge an impulse to pronounce ourselves smugly satisfied with the means we used to win that conflict.
It would be a tragedy far outweighing the enormous good that was achieved by our victory if we used it as a model for meeting future military challenges. Nearly running out of cruise missiles, and the inexcusable delay in getting Apache helicopters to the theater, should have raised an alarm, as should the fact that we went for a period of time without an operational carrier in the Pacific.
Had North Korea chosen that moment to commit a truly irrational act or China decided to resolve by force the Taiwan question we would have faced much graver consequences of that neglect.
The failure to learn the lessons of Kosovo and repair our flagging readiness would be a perilous mistake, because surely even greater threats to peace and our national interests lurk ahead, particlarly in Asia where China remains a potential flash point.
It surpasses outrage that while 37,000 young Americans stand their posts in harm's way on the Korean peninsula, and our carriers must be ready to rush into the Straits of Taiwan to check Chinese sabre rattling, political donations from a subsidiary of the People's Liberation Army are funneled into the Clinton administration's campaign coffers and nuclear secrets are hustled out the backdoor of our defense laboratories. That's wrong my friends, terribly wrong.
And, our goal in Asia must be no less ambiguous: a stable and secure region, in which we staunchly support its free and democratic nations, while we confidently support and encourage political change in China. That is the best guarantee that China will become a responsible great power.
To the leaders of China we must say, if you desire to be a responsible member of the world community we will support you. But, if you want to join the club, you must play by the rules.
Press reports indicate that China is preparing major new military exercises near Taiwan this fall. President Clinton should use his upcoming meeting with the Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, to make crystal clear that the United States categorically opposes military provocation in the region. If true, reports that China has decided to use force against Taiwan should convince the Clinton administration to change its failed policy of pressuring only Taiwan to avoid open hostilities. China must be made to understand that the use of force would be a very serious mistake in judgment, a serious mistake with grave consequences.
Throughout American history, patriots like you have answered the call to defend the rights we cherish as God-given. And as you honored our nation's commitments, a grateful nation should honor its commitment to you.
Many of the extraordinary contributions you and other veterans have made to our great country have been memorialized in bronze and marble. But more personally, America - our government and our peopleshould show the same concern about your well-being, as you have showed for our country.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the health care delivery system in our country - about pending legislation that is being called the "patients' bill of rights." It is a vital issue of enormous importance to our country. But what about a "veterans' bill of rights?"
You know - and I know - that many of the promises of benefits that were made or implied to active duty personnel and to us veterans have been ignored, changed or abandoned over the years. This primarily is true in the area of veterans' health care benefits. This disgrace - this dishonesty - must end.
With regard to health care, the veterans' bill of rights should be relatively simple - honoring the promise that we made to every veteran, particularly those with service connected conditions and those who cannot afford other medical attention. You have earned the right to receive timely, high quality medical care in an atmosphere of respect for the individual veteran.
In 1997, despite the increasing needs and costs of an aging veteran population, Congress froze the veterans' health care budget. But we added further insult to that grievous injustice by cloaking our action with the kind of scam that is the fodder for the scornful reputation that many politicians too often deserve. We based future budget increases on collection of money owed to the VA by insurance companies - collections that are not being made - and may never be made.
I'm ashamed that Congress finds billions of dollars for pork barrel spending on subsidies for reindeer ranches and power plants fueled by chicken waste, but finds it so difficult to fulfill our promise of access to quality health care for those who unselfishly answered our country's call.
It's time we repair this disgraceful abrogation of our public responsibilities. That's why it was not just my privilege but a duty to lead a fight in the Senate this year to add $3 billion to the VA's budget authority and to work for a reversal of a Congressional plan to transfer $17 billion from veterans funding to pay for highway pork. Veterans deserve better than that.
The Veteran's health care system is your system, and changes to it should be made with the advice and consent not only of the elected leaders in Congress, but more importantly, with the veteran who has earned that consideration.
It's clear that the current health care system is failing to measure-up to our expectations and our needs. We have much work to do to repair this abrogation of our responsibilities. That's why among other initiatives I pushed for legislation to test an initiative directing Medicare to reimburse the VA for Medicare-eligible veterans' health care costs - providing them with continuity of care - one of the program ideas presented in the Legion's proposed "GI Bill of Health."
Veterans demand of their health care system exactly what their country demanded of their service: excellence and commitment. It's time we apply the creativity, focus and funding necessary to make access to quality health care for veterans not simply a promise but a reality. We must increase funding to improve the quality of care and expand the options available to veterans for receiving that care in a timely, convenient and respectful manner.
We have let you down, and we have let down the men and women who wear the uniform today. And I pledge to continue to do all I can to ensure that our commitments to our veterans are honored - no matter what office I am privileged to hold.
Out of respect for your service and as a reminder to political leaders of our responsibilities, I want to close by recounting an experience I had a few years ago that struck in me a deep chord of remembrance about the meaning of patriotism.
I was asked to speak at a small moving ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where a memorial was dedicated to the Marines who fought in the last combat action of our war in Indochina - the rescue of the Mayaguez, the American ship that had been seized by the Khmer rouge.
I don't know how many here remember the rescue and the losses we suffered in its execution. Among the casualties was a Marine fire team mistakenly left behind, almost certainly alive, the details of whose fate we may never know, but who probably fought for days, even weeks, before all trace of them disappeared.
That tragic, closing episode in our long involvement in Vietnam is not ranked in the first order of American battles. It was a quick, confused engagement that did not go according to plan. Except for its brevity, the Mayaguez rescue could have served as a fitting metaphor for the whole of our war in Southeast Asia.
Like the war, the Mayaguez incident is recalled, when it is recalled at all, only for its mistakes and not for the lessons of duty and honor exemplified in the conduct of the men who fought it.
That is a shame. For in that encounter, as in the war that preceded it, Americans fought for love of country, and their service should be remembered in this country as an affirmation of human virtue and a priceless element of our nation's self-respect.
When the time came for them to answer their country's call and fight on a field they did not know, they came. And on a small island they served well the country that sent them there. In the fog of a hard battle gone wrong, they held high a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor.
Where they rest is unknown. But their honor is eternal and will live in our country for so long as she remains worthy of the sacrifice of such brave men. They were family and friends to some, heroes to all - these men who lived, fought and died for duty, honor and love of country.
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