President Obama told disabled veterans Monday that he’s disgusted with criticism of the nation’s military and rhetoric against Gold Star families — training his fire on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
While not mentioning Mr. Trump by name, Mr. Obama lashed out at the Republican nominee for calling the nation’s military weak and for his recent war of words with the Khan family, who lost a son in Iraq. Khizr Khan, who is Muslim, criticized Mr. Trump last week at the Democratic National Convention for anti-Muslim proposals on immigration.
“As commander in chief, I’m pretty tired of some folks trash-talking America’s military and troops,” Mr. Obama told the annual convention of the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta. “Our military is somewhat smaller after two major ground wars [have] come to a close. That’s natural. And we’re gonna keep doing everything we need to do to improve readiness and modernize our forces. But let’s get some facts straight: America’s Army is the best-trained, best-equipped land force on the planet. We have the most capable fighting force in history, and we’re going to keep it that way.”
The president also said Gold Star families have sacrificed more than any other Americans.
“No one — no one has given more for our freedom and our security than our Gold Star families,” the president said. “Michelle and I have spent countless hours with them. We have grieved with them. Gold Star families have made a sacrifice that most of us cannot even begin to imagine. They represent the very best of our country.”
The president referred to the Republican’s comments that Mr. Obama has allowed Iraq to become “Harvard for terrorism” with the growth of the Islamic State, and that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was effective at killing terrorists.
Mr. Obama said Saddam’s “brutality must be condemned, never praised,” while acknowledging indirectly to the veterans that some U.S. gains in Iraq have been lost since he withdrew all troops in 2011.
“No matter what has happened since, your valor in the desert in fierce urban combat will be honored in the annals of military history,” the president told the veterans.
He also countered Mr. Trump’s recent comments that suggested the U.S. might not defend NATO allies who don’t pay their fair share for the alliance.
“In the face of Russian aggression, we’re not going turn our back to our allies in Europe,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re going to stay united in NATO, which is the world’s strongest alliance.”
The address was essentially Mr. Obama’s good-bye to the nation’s veterans after his administration has struggled for nearly eight years to improve services to vets and to fix a series of scandals in the Department of Veterans Affairs. He blamed Congress for much of the agency’s problems, despite lawmakers having approved increasing the VA’s budget by 72 percent since 2009 — from $98 billion to $167 billion to 2016.
“Republicans in Congress have proposed cutting my VA budget,” the president said of his fiscal 2017 proposal. “When they return in the fall, they should pass the budget our veterans need and fund it fully. Don’t just talk about standing with veterans. Don’t just talk about me. Do something to support our veterans.”
A House Republican source said on condition of anonymity that the VA “doesn’t have a money problem, it has a management problem, and the many examples of wasteful spending at the agency prove it.” He noted construction of a still-unfinished VA hospital in Denver is more than $1 billion over budget, and the Central Arkansas Veterans Health Care System built an $8 million solar panel system knowing it would likely need to be torn down, among other examples of waste.
The president warned veterans against the push by some conservatives to privatize the VA, saying such “radical proposals” would hurt veterans.
“Don’t destroy VA health care. Fix it and make it work,” Mr. Obama said. “But don’t break our covenant with our veterans.”
He also claimed credit for reducing veterans’ homelessness by 47 percent over eight years and for reducing the disability claims backlog by about 90 percent, although the resulting backlog in appeals has skyrocketed.
Dan Caldwell, vice president of Concerned Veterans for America, said the Obama administration has failed to manage the VA effectively.
“Under the Obama administration, the VA’s budget and staffing increases far outpaced increases in demand, but at the same time wait times for disability benefits and health care rose substantially,” Mr. Caldwell said. “Despite replacement of the VA’s top leadership and more funding from Congress in the two years since the wait list scandal began [in 2014], the VA’s own data shows that wait times for health care have actually increased for many veterans. President Obama has nothing to be proud of in regards to his record at the VA.”