ORLANDO — At times drawing cheers from a ballroom full of disabled veterans, President Barack Obama today offered five priorities for “fulfilling our promises to all who served” and said his administration remains committed to stemming the “epidemic of suicides,” veteran homelessness and a backlog of disability benefits claims.
“Maybe you lost your sight but you still see the truth that our disabled veterans make strong contributions to the county every single day,” Obama told more than 3,000 people attending the annual Disabled American Veterans convention at the Orlando Hilton. “You may have lost an arm, but you still have the tenacity to pick up a friend or neighbor in need. Maybe you lost a leg, but you still stand tall for the values and freedoms that make America the greatest nation on Earth.”
Though government spending is being slashed everywhere, Obama reminded the crowd that under his watch, the budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased more than 40 percent. His most recent budget proposal calls for spending $152 billion on the VA.
Obama called for ensuring the resources veterans deserve; delivering the health care veterans were promised; ending the claims backlog; protecting the dignity and rights of the wounded and making sure all veterans have opportunities “to pursue the American Dream.”
To illustrate how daunting it is to care for the wounded, Obama pointed out the VA still is dealing with World War I.
“This time of war may be coming to an end,” the president said. “But the job of caring for our veterans goes on. The work of caring for the newest personnel has only just begun, but think about it. We lost the last veteran of the First World War two years ago, but we still care for the children of World War I veterans. To this day, we still help care for children of men who fought in the Spanish-American War, even a daughter of a Civil War veteran.”
Before discussing problems he wants to tackle, Obama took a swipe at Congress over the “reckless across-the-board budget cuts” called sequestration.
“I want to make it clear that your veterans benefits are exempt from this year's sequestration,” Obama said. “The best way to protect the VA care you have earned is to get rid of this sequestration all together.”
Since taking office, Obama said, an additional 2 million veterans have begun receiving VA health care. More Vietnam War veterans are receiving benefits as the result of exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used during that conflict. Veterans of Desert Storm are being treated for nine maladies considered part of Gulf War syndrome, a cluster of medically unexplained chronic symptoms. Those with post traumatic stress disorder have better access to care. And more women than ever are being treated and receiving care tailored for them, Obama said.
With more active-duty service members being killed by their own hand rather than by the enemy, and with veterans continuing to kill themselves at an alarming rate, Obama said, “We also need to keep improving mental health services and end this epidemic of suicides among veterans and troops.” In the past year, five troops have killed themselves at MacDill Air Force Base.
Shortly after his speech, the White House released a “National Research Action Plan,” improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries and mental health issues, reduce suicide and improve the diagnosis and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Under the plan, the Department of Defense, the VA, National Institutes of Health, and Department of Education “have made an unprecedented commitment to coordinate and share data and other resources to accelerate research progress,” the White House release stated.
Saying that “to be honest with you, we have not moved as fast as I want,” Obama hit on one of the biggest topics of concern to veterans in the Tampa Bay area — the backlog of VA disability claims. As of last month, the VA's St. Petersburg regional office had 50,347 claims pending, an increase of about 4,000 from February, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said in an interview in July.
Though the additional claims have caused longer waits, Obama said, the backlog “is unacceptable to me.” More VA employees now are processing claims, more claims processors have been hired and more employees are working overtime to help meet the VA's goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015 with 98 percent accuracy.
The president's speech was met with mixed reactions from those attending.
Andy Marshall, the Disabled American Veterans' national service organizer for Florida and a resident of St. Petersburg, served in the Army as a combat infantryman during the Vietnam War.
“I am more than satisfied,” Marshall, 63, said after listening to Obama, “especially when you realize that under his administration, the VA budget has increased by more than 40 percent.”
To Maryann Keckler, a Navy veteran from Valrico who helped organize the convention, the speech was “the same old rhetoric.
“I was not impressed,” said Keckler, 72, the DAV's state chair for volunteer services who volunteers on behalf of the organization at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, “It was just promises, promises, promises.”
Speaking of the VA's plan to address the backlog, Joseph A. Violante, DAV's national legislative director, said the goal of 98 percent accuracy “is a very high bar.
“There's been too much focus on 125 days,” said Violante, 63, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam. Ending the backlog with that level of accuracy “together will be impossible by 2015.”
Given the choice, Violante said “the more important part is 98 percent accuracy.”