KABUL — On what is likely their last Memorial Day weekend in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama sought to reassure deployed troops that they will be taken care of by a grateful nation when they return home and to civilian life — his remarks notable amid a scandal that has rocked the Department of Veterans Affairs just as America’s longest war winds to a close.
Following more than a decade at war, troops face grim prospects at home: the Department of Veterans Affairs a shambles, a shoddy military health care system and a tough economy.
After inheriting two controversial military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama promised to bring both wars to a close and to bring troops home. Now, with all combat troops due to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, his administration faces a new challenge — providing adequate support to veterans.
While Obama’s speech to troops at Bagram Air Field focused largely on thanking troops and reviewing progress made in routing al-Qaida and the Taliban and empowering Afghans, it was notable for his remarks on what troops can expect — and deserve — when they return home.
“So our combat mission here will come to an end,” he said. “But our obligations to you and your families have only just begun.”
Obama’s administration has been under fire in the wake of allegations that some VA hospitals may have falsified data to make wait times appear shorter and that long waits may have led to patient deaths.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, lamented a lack of specifics in the speech, saying the government needs less rhetoric and more action to address the current VA scandal.
“I think it’s well-documented that the Bush administration failed to prepare for the war, and now it’s apparent that the Obama administration failed to prepare for what comes after,” he said.
In his speech, Obama sought to reassure returning troops of the government’s commitment to veterans’ care.
“We’re going to stay strong by taking care of our wounded warriors and our veterans,” he told the audience of troops at Bagram, one of the main logistical hubs for coalition forces in Afghanistan. “Because helping our wounded warriors and veterans heal isn’t just a promise, it’s a sacred obligation.”
Obama, who flew in unannounced and spent only a few hours in Afghanistan, went on to praise the job skills troops learn in the military. He promised to “make sure you can enjoy the American dream that you helped to defend,” referring to transition assistance such as funding for education and credentials to help veterans find jobs.
“And I keep on saying to every company back home — if you want somebody who knows how to get the job done, hire a vet,” he said, repeating the last phrase three times.
One of those in attendance was Army Maj. Kelli Hooke, who previously deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She said she appreciated Obama’s message but thinks more needs to be done to combat stereotypes of dangerous soldiers addled by post traumatic stress disorder, which can scare away employers.
“I think corporate America should look at soldiers as an asset, not as charity,” she said.
Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis said this newest generation of veterans faces the same challenge as troops coming home from previous wars.
“The day you take off the uniform, there’s a lot of anxiety because what the military provides you is a safety blanket because you always know where to go and what to do at every moment,” he said. “You no longer have a checklist when you take off the uniform.”
Weary of constant deployments, troops gave Obama some of his biggest applause when he said, “For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan.” In stark contrast, there was near silence when Obama mentioned his hope for a residual force of troops to remain in Afghanistan past this year for a training and counterterrorism mission.
Army Spc. Johnathan Chanza, 23, who attended Obama’s speech, said he’s looking forward to a likely decrease in deployments.
“It gives me the opportunity to spend time with my family and further my education,” he said.
Legacy was also on Obama’s mind, as it is with many U.S. troops who have served in Iraq and watched that country’s recent downward spiral into violence and those who have served in Afghanistan and seen the resurgence of the Taliban insurgency.
Obama followed the thread from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the invasion of Afghanistan and the current plan for all international combat troops to leave the country by the end of the year, mentioning his recent visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York.
“And once again, we resolved to never forget what happened on that September day — and to do everything in our power to prevent something like that from ever happening again,” he said. ”That’s why you’re here.”
And he emphasized his hope that the next Afghan president, who will be chosen at a runoff election in June, will sign a security agreement with the U.S. — which Afghan President Hamid Karzai has rejected — that would pave the way for the much smaller, U.S.-led international training and counterterrorism mission to remain in Afghanistan after this year.
“Because after all the sacrifices we’ve made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win,” he said.