ORLANDO, Fla. — President Barack Obama praised the "fighting spirit of wounded warriors" at the Disabled American Veterans convention in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday while promising to reduce the backlogs that have made accessing veterans benefits for disability claims an abysmally slow and stress-inducing process.
Obama renewed his commitment to the nation's military veterans, laying out a five-point agenda aimed at ensuring funds, jobs, medical care and the respect he said they deserve during a lunch-hour speech at the annual gathering.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama spoke to roughly 4,000 injured veterans and guests attending a three-day convention at the Hilton Orlando Hotel.
Weaving the personal stories of disabled combat veterans he has to come to know as president, Obama promised a roomful of service members of every military branch he would "not give up" on helping them access the benefits they need.
"The backlog is shrinking," the president said, adding that it has been cut by 20 percent in the past five months. White House spokesman Jay Carney said there were 611,000 open claims on March 25. That number is down to 496,000 as of Friday, he said.
Veterans reacted with mixture of optimism and skepticism. The convention's theme this year is about fulfilling promises to service members who have heard it all before.
Korean War veteran Paul Morales of New York said he was encouraged by the president's remarks after he gave up on trying to receive benefits in the years after he came home.
"Despair. Anger. Resentment. It felt like nobody cared," said Morales, who needed help with post-traumatic stress and other health problems. "But things are better now, and I'm excited about more improvements."
Obama drew a round of applause when he mentioned the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which is under construction in Washington and set for dedication next year.
"Maybe you lost your sight, but you can still see the truth that our disabled veterans make extraordinary contributions to our country every single day. Maybe you lost an arm, but you still have the strength to pick up a friend or a neighbor in need. Maybe you lost a leg, but you still stand tall for values and freedoms that make America the greatest nation on Earth."
Promising sequestration will not cut funds allocated for veterans benefits, Obama said his administration has made "historic investments" and has prioritized budgeting for service members to make sure no veteran is left out.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has moved more resources to expedite the claims process, having workers pull overtime hours and handling the oldest claims first.
Persian Gulf War veteran Cynthia Brunette said she needed that kind of help in the years after she awoke from a coma following a war injury. She was ejected from her Humvee after being struck by an enemy vehicle during Desert Storm in 1991.
Brunette of Wildwood has struggled with memory loss and seizures ever since. At first, life after war was intolerable, but she said the government's response to her has changed in the past decade.
"Before I had to fight for it," she said. "But I see a big difference in 22 years in the VA; they appear to me to be putting forth the effort to help everyone get back on track and back in society."
Witnessing those improvements has altered Brunette's outlook as well.
"I gave up at a certain time, but then as I saw some of the changes," it motivated her to do something other than sit around and wait to die, she said.
During his speech, Obama also introduced three initiatives to help transitioning military families, including a national action plan for mental-health research and partnering with colleges and universities nationwide to help vets pursue degrees.
Rounding out his list of promises, the president said he hopes Congress will pass a jobs proposal for veterans "to put them to work rebuilding America."
Marine Paul Kubala of Kentucky said he skipped the president's speech because he disagrees with Obama's general governance.
"I don't like his pro-socialist point of view on things," said Kubala, who added he served as an embassy guard in Somalia. "The Constitution means more to me than his vet policies."
Veteran Ramon Torres, 88, of Puerto Rico said he served in three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — but had to continue fighting after those battles were over.
"I gave them my youth, if not my childhood, and nearly my entire life," Torres said, leaning on a metal cane. He was 18 when he enlisted and was sent to war in 1943. "All I got were excuses from officials and delays. Very little cooperation."
Though he said he was heartened by Obama's speech, Torres' doubts are years in the making.
"I think he promised a lot of things," he said. "Now, he has to fulfill them."