U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell delivered the following remarks today at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky.
Thank you, John Hamilton, for that kind introduction. It’s an honor to address this assembly of America’s Veterans of Foreign Wars. Welcome to Louisville, Kentucky.
In a little while, you’ll also be hearing from my good friend and colleague for Kentucky, Senator Rand Paul. We’re both happy to welcome you to the Bluegrass State, and are pleased Kentucky is hosting your 114th national convention. You represent nearly two million members of the VFW and its Auxiliary: men and women who promote patriotism, honor military service, and care for our veterans and their families.
I want to particularly thank my good friend VFW Inspector General Carl Kaelin, of Leitchfield, Kentucky. He is the first Kentuckian to become inspector general, and he’s been tirelessly working on behalf of veterans ever since he first joined VFW Post 1170 in Middletown, Kentucky, in 1969. It’s good to see you as always, Carl.
In addition to Carl and Commander in Chief John Hamilton, I also want to thank my good friends Brian Duffy and John Ranson, as well as Ladies Auxiliary National President Leann Lemley, and the national officers and members of the VFW and Ladies Auxiliary. It’s an honor to share the hall with you today.
I can think of no better place for the VFW to meet than here in Kentucky. The people of this state are no strangers to the hardship and the heroism entwined with military service.
We are home to 339,000 veterans, and 58,000 active-duty and civilian employees of the armed forces in posts including Fort Campbell, Fort Knox, and the Blue Grass Army Depot, as well as many members of the Reserves and the National Guard.
Kentucky ranks ninth of all 50 states in the number of active-duty military personnel stationed within its borders. I think it’s clear that this Commonwealth has a great understanding and empathy for the men and women who have worn the uniform. For those of you who have traveled far, I hope you’ll find your stay with us to be an enjoyable one.
Let me turn to what I know is an important topic for many of you—the current state of affairs in Washington.
I’ve got to say, as honored as I am to be selected by my fellow Kentuckians to serve in the nation’s capital, it’s a real relief to be back in Louisville. Only in Washington can people become lost in thought because for them, it is such unusual territory.
As you know, overspending by the federal government has reached never-before-seen heights. Deficits are out of control, and the debt has nearly reached 17 trillion dollars. Unlike some of my friends in the Senate on the other side of the aisle, I believe the root of this problem is not that Americans are taxed too little, but that their government spends too much.
The American people know that spending must be reined in, and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress agreed when both parties voted to cut government by $2.1 trillion over the next 10 years. We should not go back on this agreement now, or cut even a penny less that we promised.
Any Kentuckian will tell you it’s completely ridiculous to think Washington can’t find a way to cut two to three percent of the federal budget at a time when we’re nearly $17 trillion in debt. I meet Kentuckians who have had to figure out how to make ends meet with a little bit less in their paychecks all too often. I’m sure many of you have had to do so as well. Are we saying Washington can’t do the same? That’s absurd.
This shift is about reshaping the government’s priorities.
Let me say, however, that even in a time when government must tighten its belt, I believe support for America’s veterans must always remain a top priority.
Every American who served made a solemn promise to this country. The least your government can do is uphold its promise to you in return. We must never break faith with the American veteran.
I’m proud of my record of support for veterans and the military. But advocacy for veterans is a team effort, and I have been very fortunate to be able to team up with the VFW on a number of issues over the years.
Whether it is supporting veterans’ education, or veterans’ healthcare, both the national and the Kentucky VFW have been extremely helpful keeping me abreast of developments that affect veterans.
Nor has my work with the VFW been limited to the VA. When the Department of Defense suggested that a new military decoration, the Distinguished Warfare Medal, should take precedence over the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, my friends at the state VFW, including Carl, Brian, and John, quickly brought the matter to my attention. Ray Kelley of the VFW national office did the same.
I cosponsored legislation to ensure the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart would retain their appropriate positions and not be shoved below the Distinguished Warfare Medal.
I also expressed this belief by letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and as you know, the Defense Department reconsidered and decided not to reduce the positions of precedence enjoyed by the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. I’m glad they did—and let me take this opportunity to say, to the Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipients assembled today, thank you for your service.
On the local level, Carl and other Kentucky veterans urged that the Louisville veterans hospital be named after Robley Rex, a service member from the World War I era who was well known for his prolific service in support of his fellow veterans. I was happy to get enacted legislation that did just that.
Another issue the VFW and I have worked together on is the backlog of VA disability claims. The size of this problem is a national disgrace.
At the beginning of 2009, there were 390,000 claims filed by veterans and awaiting action—way too many. Today, however, that backlog has almost doubled in number. This is totally unacceptable.
In the past four years, the number of claims pending for over a year has grown by over 2,000 percent. This despite many promises from the Obama administration to address the issue, despite attempts to modernize the VA’s claims system, and despite a 40-percent increase in the VA’s budget.
In fact, five years ago I supported funding to the VA that was over $750 million more than the VA itself requested, specifically to address this unacceptable backlog.
Yet today, the average waiting time for a veteran who has filed a claim is nearly a year. And more than 750,000 veterans are still stuck in the backlog.
750,000. Just to put that in perspective, that is as many people as the entire population of Louisville.
For this reason, I have personally advocated, and will continue to advocate, the president himself to take direct action and involvement to end the VA backlog.
An issue this important demands attention from the very top. Veterans ought to be able to count on their government. And they ought to be able to count on their commander-in-chief.
On another matter, I think we all can agree that it’s of the utmost importance that our government do all we can to ensure the safe return of every service member who is currently believed to be of POW or MIA status. Take the specific case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, captured in Operation Enduring Freedom and currently held in enemy hands.
On behalf of Kentucky veterans, I’ve expressed my deep concern to the secretary of state and the secretary of defense about the safe recovery of Sergeant Bergdahl, and I’ve supported Senate legislation reinforcing that it is unacceptable to abandon the search efforts for any member of the armed forces who is missing or captured in the line of duty. We must remember the words of the Soldier’s Creed and the Warrior Ethos: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
This past June 6th, as I’m sure you know, was the 69th anniversary of D-Day. On that date in 1944, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline in a surprise attack against the forces of Nazi Germany.
The costs of the Normandy invasion were high. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded that day. But it was the beginning of the successful conclusion of the war.
On the 69th anniversary of D-Day, I met with a distinguished group of Kentucky World War II veterans. They were able to make the trip thanks to an admirable program that serves veterans called Honor Flight.
My good friend Brian Duffy is a leader of Honor Flight’s Bluegrass Chapter, which has brought over two thousand veterans to the nation’s capital to see the World War II Memorial that celebrates their service.
The World War II Memorial is more than just granite and steel. For many Americans, it’s a memorial for the service of long-lost friends and family members. It was for these heroes. And it is for my family, as well. My father served in World War II.
He fought in the European theater. One of my most prized possessions is the flag which draped his coffin in honor of his service. It was a privilege that June the 6th to shake hands with my father’s contemporaries, hear their stories, and thank them for answering the call to serve.
As World War II recedes further into the past, sadly, we are losing more and more of these living legends. The passage of time makes it all the more important that we thank these heroes for their service before it’s too late.
In fact, it’s never too early to say thank you to a veteran. As such, I want to thank you all for your service. Thank you to your families, for bearing the burdens of absence when your country needed you. And thank you for answering the call to sacrifice on behalf of your community, your country, and the cause of freedom around the world.