[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1995, Book I)]
[March 6, 1995]
[Pages 306-311]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Conference
March 6, 1995

    Thank you very much, Commander Kent, for that introduction. Ladies 
and gentlemen, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the VFW is 
very lucky to have a leader as forceful and as thoughtful as Gunner 
Kent. I also want to acknowledge the presence here of Secretary Brown 
and Deputy Secretary Gober; General Sullivan; your adjutant general, 
Larry Rivers; Charles Durning, who rode over here with me and regaled me 
with experiences. How lucky we are to have him going out and setting an 
example, visiting our hospitalized veterans all across the United 
States. And I appreciate the reception you gave him. I want to recognize 
the president of your ladies auxiliary, Helen Harsh. I also want to 
recognize these young people over here from the Voice of Democracy 
contest, the winners there. I'm glad to see them. I thank you for your 
support of the young people of this country and for this project. I very 
much enjoyed having my picture taken with the young people just before 
we came out, and I got to shake hands with all of them. And they took 
about 10 years off my life, so I feel pretty spry standing up here. 
[Laughter] I want to thank whoever organized this for putting the 
delegates from my home State of Arkansas up here close where I can keep 
an eye on them during my speech. [Laughter] And they were all pretty 
well-behaved when I walked out. I was glad to see that. Thank you very 
much, ladies and gentlemen.
    I want to recognize two veterans of the VFW, Jimmy Gates of Alabama, 
who has given more than 50 years of service to this organization, and 
your past national commander, Bob Merrill of California. People like Bob 
Merrill, who piloted biplanes in World War I and devoted their lives to 
fighting for their fellow veterans, who have helped the VFW to make a 
difference in the lives of so many Americans, those are the kinds of 
people that I think that we ought to keep in mind when we make the 
decisions that are being made here in Washington about what is in the 
interest of the veterans of the United States.
    It also gives me great pleasure to tell you that just as soon as it 
comes across my desk, I will sign the bill that will allow the VFW to 
reform its charter and expand your membership even further.
    This year we mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. 
Many of you fought in that great struggle. Meeting some of the men and 
women who sacrificed so much for our freedom, whether I met them on the 
windswept beaches of Normandy, between the crowded rows of the cemetery 
in England or Italy, or inside the tunnels of the rock of Corregidor in 
the Philippines, meeting those people has been one of the greatest 
privileges I've had as President. America owes to them and to all of you 
a debt that we cannot fully repay.
    With their lives before them, the World War II veterans left 
everything, family, loved ones, home, to fight for a just cause. From 
the Aleutians to Okinawa, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, they 
watched so many of their friends fall. We lost more than 400,000, and 
700,000 more were wounded. But still, our veterans never faltered. They 
gave everything so that future generations of Americans might be free. 
And we are all profoundly grateful.
    But to honor their deeds and those of all the veterans who fought 
for freedom in World War I, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and all 
around the world in between, gratitude and ceremonies are not enough. We 
must protect the benefits you have earned, address fully the dangers 
imposed by modern warfare, and preserve what you fought for: the 
American dream at home and our leadership around the world.
    I've said a lot in other places about preserving the American dream 
at home in this new global economy, and I won't talk a lot about it 
today, except just to say that it is going to be a constant struggle for 
us to make sure that in the next century every American has the chance 
to get a good education, to have a good job, to do better than their 
parents, to pass along the values of opportunity to their children. And 
I'll be saying more about that in other places. Today I want to talk a 
little about the tradition of America's leadership because that 
tradition is under siege.
    If the new isolationists in our Nation have their way, America would 
abandon policies backed by Republicans and Democrats that have

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guided us for half a century, policies that won the cold war and that 
won us unparalleled prosperity here at home.
    I know that at this time we have to spend more attention and more 
energy and more investment on the problems we have at home. And goodness 
knows, that's what I have been working to do for the last 2 years. But 
there are those who would back away from any of our commitments abroad. 
They would back away from institutions like the United Nations, which 
promotes stability around the world. They would have us give up our 
support for peacekeeping and for fragile democracies, support which 
enables others to share the burden with us, and which undermines the 
risks that we have to bear and makes us safer. They would cut deeply 
into our support for emerging market democracies. Even some would put 
our efforts to make peace in the Middle East on the chopping block.
    Now, no one knows better than the veterans the grave dangers of 
simply withdrawing from the world. The last time isolationism held sway, 
during the years after World War I, Europe and Asia slid into 
catastrophe, and we had to fight a Second World War because we walked 
away from the world at the end of the First World War. Now, those of you 
in this room, whenever you served, wherever you served, you know what 
could happen if we retreat from today's turbulent world.
    Yes, it is true that the cold war is over, that the nuclear threat 
is receding. And I'm going to do everything I can to push it back even 
further this year, with a whole series of ambitious and aggressive 
efforts to push back the nuclear threat. Yes, nations on every continent 
are embracing democracy and free markets. But open societies and free 
people still face many enemies. You know it as well as I do: the 
proliferation of other kinds of weapons of mass destruction; aggression 
by terrorists, by rogue states; threats that go across national lines, 
like overpopulation and environmental devastation, drug-trafficking and 
other organized crime activities; terrible ethnic conflicts; and as 
we've seen recently in Mexico, just the difficulties that poor nations 
are going to face when they try to embrace democracy and free-market 
economics and relate well to the rest of the world.
    Now, we cannot intervene everywhere; we can't be involved in solving 
all these problems. We shouldn't be. But we must be able to protect our 
own vital interests. And we must be able to work with other countries 
through multinational organizations to keep the world moving in the 
right direction. It is not an automatic. It is not given that 20 and 30 
and 50 years from now we'll have more democracy, more prosperity, more 
peace, and less danger. It is not an accident; we have to keep working 
for it.
    Just think about the recent history. Consider what might have 
happened in the last 2 years alone if we had abandoned our 
responsibilities. If we hadn't pushed for expanding trade, trade wars 
could have erupted without our leadership on the GATT World Trade 
Agreement, which will open great new markets to America, generate 
hundreds of thousands of jobs, but also give people all around the world 
a chance to work together in peace. Think what would have happened if we 
had not moved to try to help stem this crisis in Mexico, what could have 
happened on our borders in terms of an increase in illegal immigration 
and reduced ability to continue to fight the drug-trafficking that we 
fight every single week. Think what might have happened if we hadn't 
stood up in Haiti for democracy and against the military dictators. We 
could have had thousands and thousands more immigrants at our borders, 
people with no place to go because they couldn't stay home, living under 
oppression. Peace might not even have caught a foothold in the Middle 
East if we hadn't had the constant political and economic support there 
for the parties in the Middle East.
    These events and others prove the timeless wisdom of the words 
Franklin Roosevelt set down in the last speech he wrote, when he said, 
``We have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great 
responsibility.'' President Roosevelt observed, ``We as Americans do not 
choose to deny our responsibility, nor do we intend to abandon our 
determination that within the lives of our children and our children's 
children, there will not be a third world war.''
    Your devotion and the service of millions and millions of other 
veterans has helped to prevent that war and helped to bring an end to 
the cold war. You helped to stop the spread of Communist tyranny across 
the globe. You helped democracy and prosperity to grow for our allies in 
Europe and beyond. And when dictators raised their heads, you stood up 
and you stopped them.

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    We must be clear about this: In the understandable desire of 
millions of Americans to look first to our problems at home which are 
real, your legacy is being threatened, a half a century of American 
leadership that you worked for and that you fought for. At all costs, we 
must preserve America's leadership so that our children can have the 
future they deserve. We simply cannot be strong at home unless we are 
also strong abroad. There is no dividing line in this global economy. 
There is no dividing line when terrorism and ethnic conflicts and 
economic problems and organized crime and drug-trafficking spread across 
national lines. There is no place to walk away from.
    As Commander in Chief, I have done everything in my power to protect 
and build on the legacy that you have left your country, to make certain 
that our country moves into the next century still the strongest nation 
in the world, still the greatest force for freedom and democracy. And 
that's exactly what we have to keep doing.
    We will meet that goal only if first we protect and strengthen the 
Armed Forces. More than anything else, our Armed Forces guarantee our 
security and our global influence. They're the backbone of our 
diplomacy. They ensure our credibility.
    Just take, for example, the Persian Gulf. Last year, where our 
troops deployed swiftly and convinced Saddam Hussein not to make the 
same mistake twice, we would not have been able to do that had it not 
been for the lessons we learned from the Gulf war, the pre-positioning 
of our equipment, our continued efforts to be able to move our troops 
quickly and rapidly around the world wherever they needed to be.
    Take Haiti, for example, when the news that our forces were poised 
to invade convinced the generals that they had to go. If it hadn't been 
for the military, for the year of planning for the most truly jointly 
planned military operation in American history, and for the planes in 
the air, it would not have happened. Or in the last few weeks, when our 
troops showed such great professionalism in transferring Cuban refugees 
from Panama to Guantanamo and covering the safe withdrawal of United 
Nations peacekeepers from Somalia.
    Time and again, the American military has demonstrated its 
extraordinary skills. As I pledged from the beginning of our 
administration, the United States will have the best equipped, best 
trained, best prepared military in the world. We are keeping that 
promise every day.
    Our forces are ready to fight. But to maintain that high state of 
readiness and to keep our military strong, I have asked the Congress to 
increase defense funding by $25 billion spread over the next 6 years. We 
have fewer troops today, and yet we ask them to perform more and more 
different missions than ever before. So our combat pilots must fly as 
often as they need to fly to be properly trained. Our sailors must get 
the hands-on experience they deserve. Our ground forces must train so 
they can be at peak levels. And we also have to deal with the strains 
that all of these different missions put on the people who are in 
uniform today.
    So some of this money will be used to raise military pay and to 
provide better housing and child care for those who serve and the 
families who stand by them. We simply must improve the quality of life 
in the military if we want to continue to draw educated and motivated 
Americans who can be trained into the high professionalism that we have 
sometimes come almost to take for granted from the American military. 
Our men and women in uniform, some of them your sons and daughters, are 
clearly the finest fighting force in the world. And we must all be 
determined to keep them that way.
    We must also recognize another simple truth: the troops of tomorrow 
will only be as good as our commitment to veterans today. The people in 
uniform look to us to see how we relate to you. Long after you have shed 
your uniforms, not just for a few months or a few years, but for your 
entire lives, our Nation must meet its solemn obligations to you for the 
service you gave.
    When I sought this office, I vowed to fight for the interests of our 
country's veterans, and our administration has kept that pledge. The 
White House doors have been open to veterans as never before. Ask 
Commander Kent, who came to visit me recently, to discuss the case for 
protecting your benefits. We have consistently looked to veterans to 
help shape our policy for veterans. Much of your influence is due to the 
outstanding work of Secretary Jesse Brown. I thank him for that.
    We've protected veterans' preference for Federal jobs when your 
national commander wrote us last year and said it was in danger. When 
interest rates fell, we reached out to veterans

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all around America to tell you about opportunities to refinance homes 
bought under the GI bill. We made sure that military retirees received 
their full cost-of-living adjustments when Congress approved them 6 
months later than for civilian retirees. And of course, we have worked 
to improve health care for veterans. We expanded long-term care programs 
and established comprehensive care centers for women veterans. And we're 
working to process claims faster so that you can get the benefits you're 
    Last year, we sent to Congress the only health plan that would have 
expanded your choices of health care, improved veterans health 
facilities, and given those facilities the flexibility to serve you 
better. We have confronted head-on the long-neglected problem of Agent 
Orange. We have reached out to 40,000 veterans who were exposed to Agent 
Orange and told them about expanded benefits now available to them. We 
made certain that when a U.S. delegation visited Hanoi, representatives 
of the VFW and other veterans groups were there to discuss the painful 
issues of MIA's. And we have continued to press for the fullest possible 
accounting for those lost while serving our Nation.
    Our administration has brought the voices of veterans to the highest 
councils of government, protected your interests when they've been 
threatened, and worked hard every day to improve the services you 
receive. We have done this even as we have cut the Federal deficit by 
more than $600 billion, shrunk the Federal Government faster than at any 
time in modern history.
    In the last 2 years, we have cut more than 150,000 positions from 
the Federal bureaucracy. We have cut spending in more than 300 Federal 
programs. And this year, while we cut the budget of almost every Federal 
agency, we still are able to say we are going to the mat for America's 
future and America's obligations to the past, for Head Start for our 
children, for the School Lunch Program, for nutrition for pregnant women 
and their children, for immunizing kids in their early years, for 
programs for young people who don't go to college but do need good 
training to get good jobs, for more affordable loans for middle class 
young people, for 100,000 new police on our streets, for military 
readiness, and, yes, for better health care for America's veterans.
    Our administration is pushing for $1.3 billion more for the 
Department of Veterans Affairs over the next 5 years, $1 billion of that 
to the veterans health care system. That means care for 43,000 more 
veterans, 2 new hospitals, 3 new nursing homes, and other major 
    Sadly, some in Congress see that the need to improve your health 
care services is not very important. Indeed, legislation approved by the 
House Appropriations Committee just last week, if passed by the 
Congress, will cut very deeply. They seek to eliminate more than $200 
million for veterans health, including money for veterans' outpatient 
clinics and millions of dollars for new medical equipment for veterans 
health services. And their cuts would also abolish a successful 
Department of Labor program that reintegrates homeless veterans by 
providing them with temporary housing and with help with job training 
and job placement.
    Now, I believe these cuts are unwise and unnecessary. They would 
harm the veterans who need their nation's help the most. I pledge to you 
today that I will fight for those interests and for you every step of 
the way. But we need your help. You have to speak up. You have to speak 
out. Only your voices will make it clear. Caring for veterans is not a 
national option or a partisan program. It is a national tradition and a 
national duty.
    Let me say again that fulfilling that duty means more than just 
meeting the promises of the past. It also means today making every 
effort we can to respond to the needs of today's soldiers.
    Michael Sills of Villa Park, Illinois, is one of those soldiers. 
He's 34 years old, a veteran of America's victory in the Persian Gulf. 
He has a disabling illness. But neither he nor his doctors know how he 
got it. There are thousands of veterans like Michael Sills, thousands 
who served their country in the Gulf war and came home to find 
themselves ill. And neither they nor their doctors know how they got it.
    Even though in so many of these cases we do not know the causes of 
their symptoms, we know their problems are real and cannot be ignored 
while we wait for science to provide all the answers. And that's why 
last year I supported and signed landmark legislation that for the first 
time in our history pays benefits to disabled veterans with undiagnosed 
illnesses that have not been scientifically linked to their mili-

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tary service, when we know good and well that's what happened.
    Two weeks ago I met with Michael Sills, one of the first veterans to 
get benefits under this new law. I sat with him in the Oval Office for 
several minutes as I listened to his description of what happened to him 
and how he began to get sick and what the symptoms were and how it had 
affected his family. And then I listened to his plans about how he 
wanted to get on with his life. And I did my best to assure him that we 
will keep looking for the answers that he and his comrades deserve.
    In the past few weeks, the First Lady has visited Gulf war veterans 
at Walter Reed and the Washington V.A. Medical Center. Some of them are 
here today. She met with Gunner Kent and Bob Currieo of the VFW and 
other groups to discuss these illnesses and what must be done.
    When she was working on health care over the last 2 years, she kept 
getting letters from people all across America, saying, ``Mrs. Clinton, 
please look into this, there's something wrong here. I love my country. 
I wouldn't fake an illness. I don't want anything I'm not entitled to.'' 
We've read and reread so many of these letters from veterans, the 
accounts of the unexplained illnesses, of the breathing problems, of the 
joint and muscle pain, of the persistent headaches, of the memory loss. 
We received a letter from Dylan and Theresa Callahan, of Hampton, New 
Hampshire, who referred to Dylan's undiagnosed illness as the, quote, 
``never-ending nightmare,'' and added simply, ``Our lives may be in your 
    From the beginning of our administration, we have listened to these 
veterans' messages. Working together with Democrats and Republicans in 
Congress, we determined the treatment for these veterans couldn't be 
delayed as it was for Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. 
That's why we moved to provide medical care and to compensate fully and 
fairly these Gulf veterans while making every effort to find the 
    Today, as a result of these actions, Gulf war veterans are receiving 
comprehensive exams and treatment at VA and DOD medical facilities. 
Those on active duty receive specialized care in military hospitals. VA 
and DOD have opened specialized care centers that focus on veterans who 
are especially difficult to diagnose. Tens of thousands of Gulf veterans 
have received free physical exams, and those who are ill are getting 
free medical care. VA and DOD have registered more than 55,000 Gulf 
veterans with health concerns to help avoid the kinds of problems that 
delayed care and compensation for those exposed to Agent Orange.
    We've enlisted some of our finest scientists and more than 30 
research projects aimed at determining the causes of these veterans' 
illnesses. Research topics include the possible impact of oil fires and 
diseases common in the Gulf area. The Defense Department is 
declassifying all documents related to the possible causes of these 
illnesses. And both VA and DOD have set up toll-free hotlines to provide 
Persian Gulf veterans easy access to information about care.
    Still, with all this, I believe we must do more. That is why I am 
announcing today the creation of a Presidential advisory committee to 
review and make recommendations to me regarding Government efforts aimed 
at finding the causes and improving the care available to Gulf war 
veterans. This committee will be made up of scientists, doctors, 
veterans, and other distinguished citizens. It will work closely with 
the Secretaries of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Health and Human 
Services, and report through them to me. In the year ahead, we will also 
step up our treatment efforts and launch new research initiatives. The 
Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Health and Human Services 
will spend up to $13 million on new research. Projects will examine the 
possible causes of Gulf veterans' illnesses, including the potential 
effects of pesticides and other environmental toxins, antitank 
ammunition containing depleted uranium, and drugs used to protect 
against chemical and biological weapons.
    VA will begin to survey 30,000 veterans and active duty personnel to 
learn more about the frequency and nature of Persian Gulf illnesses. The 
study will also examine whether illnesses have been transmitted to 
spouses and to children. Data including information regarding cancers 
and other serious illnesses among Gulf war veterans will continue to be 
made more accessible to the public. And the Defense Department will 
strengthen future training for troops on the risks of toxic exposure and 
will follow up and document information about troops when they return 
from their service.
    We must listen to what the veterans are telling us and respond to 
their concerns. Just as

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we relied on these men and women to fight for our country, they must now 
be able to rely on us to try to determine what happened to them in the 
Gulf and to help restore them to full health. We will leave not a stone 
unturned. And we will not stop until we have done everything we possibly 
can for the men and women who, like so many veterans throughout our 
history, have sacrificed so much for the United States and our freedom.
    Last month at the Iwo Jima commemoration, we heard two Latin words 
repeated again and again: semper fidelis, always faithful. The Marines' 
noble motto is one which serves well for a great branch of our military 
service but also for our whole Nation. Being faithful to one another and 
faithful to our traditions, these are tied together. Being true to our 
tradition of leadership in the world means reaching out across the 
oceans to support democracy and freedom and all the benefits they bring 
back home to us. Being faithful to one another requires us to keep faith 
with our veterans as we keep faith with our future.
    You know better than anyone what these bonds of reliance are. As Dan 
Pollock, an Iwo Jima veteran and a member of the VFW, recalled just last 
month, and I quote his words, ``You never had to watch your back,'' he 
said, ``because in the midst of terrible battle, you belong to,'' what 
he called, ``a band of brothers.'' Whether it's five decades later for 
the World War II veterans or just 4 years later for the Gulf war 
veterans, you should know that your Nation will never forget your 
service and will always, always, need your support for America's 
strength and leadership.
    As long as I am President, the sacred tradition of protecting our 
veterans will continue and a strong America will march forward. You put 
your faith in America. America will continue to keep faith with you.
    Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 11 a.m. at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. 
In his remarks, he referred to Allen F. (Gunner) Kent, commander in 
chief, VFW; Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army; and 
actor Charles Durning, Chair, Department of Veterans Affairs 1995 Salute 
to Hospitalized Veterans.