Veterans’ views on Obama legacy decidedly mixed
By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 21, 2015
PITTSBURGH — During a presidency marked by two wars and an ongoing crisis in veterans’ health care, the policy decisions that Barack Obama has made have acutely affected many in the crowd of thousands of combat vets he addressed here on Tuesday.
Those who made it to Pittsburgh for the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention, where the president spoke about health care, Iran and the recent murder of five servicemembers in Chattanooga, Tenn., had decidedly mixed views about Obama’s legacy on veterans’ issues.
Some VFW members were unhappy with Obama’s record, especially the perception that he was trying to cut veterans’ benefits to save money.
“Honest to God, I don’t want to listen to the man,” said former Green Beret Ron Johnson, 68, who served in Vietnam. “He’s wanted to balance the budget on the backs of veterans.”
One of Obama’s strongest endorsements came from the VFW’s incoming Commander John Biedrzycki.
“He went on the offensive about the VA (Veterans Affairs),” he said. “They’re moving in the right direction.”
Vets split on VA crisis
Obama came to office in 2009 with the controversial war in Iraq still being fought and the long-ignored war in Afghanistan becoming increasingly violent and unpopular. He pulled troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011, only to have to send a small contingent back after Islamic State militants took large swaths of the country’s territory. In Afghanistan, Obama declared the war over, though nearly 5,000 American troops will remain there through 2015, and violence and instability continue to rise.
Last year, revelations of veterans dying while on secret patient wait lists led to a national scandal over VA health care and exposed long-standing dysfunction entrenched in the federal government’s second-largest department. Obama forced out then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, replacing him with Army veteran and former Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald, who was tasked with an overhaul of the department.
“I made it clear I wanted those problems fixed,” Obama told the crowd.
On Tuesday morning, McDonald spoke to the VFW crowd, estimated at 5,000, and planned an afternoon visit to the VA Pittsburgh Health Care System in Oakland.
Veterans here were split about Obama’s response to the VA crisis. Some were upset that more senior VA leaders have not been fired, while others were impressed with the president’s continued focus on veterans’ health care.
Some of the unhappiness with Obama was heightened by disagreements on his other policies, such as immigration. Navy veteran Melissa Dawson, 58, said she was deeply disappointed with how the president has treated veterans, but she talked mostly about her desire to close the border with Mexico.
Like many at the VFW convention, Dawson was most concerned with seeing her benefits continue without being cut, echoing a common sentiment that the government should honor the pact they made with veterans when they joined the service.
“I want him to say that he will support veterans, period — for as long as it takes, without cutting our benefits and without cutting our pay,” she said.
‘He can only do so much’
Another pressing concern for the combat veterans at the convention was sequestration, the automatic cuts that threaten to reduce the ranks of the military even more than the cuts already planned — 40,000 soldiers.
“Sequestration is the most ridiculous damn thing our government can do to our soldiers,” Biedrzycki said. “How can they be the finest military in the world if they can’t be razor-sharp?”
In his speech, Obama decried sequestration, saying he would veto any budget that locks in more sequesters. “These mindless cuts have to end,” he said.
When Obama speaks about veterans, his speeches are often punctuated with the repeated refrain: “Hire a vet, hire a vet.” Veterans gave him credit for putting the focus on helping servicemembers find work once they leave the military.
“I think he’s doing as good a job as he’s allowed to do,” said Iraq veteran Leevon Leggins II, 44, addressing the rift between Obama and Congress. “He can only do so much, and the little bit that he has been able to do, he’s done a good job.”
Veterans listen to speeches at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Pittsburgh, where President Barack Obama addressed several thousand members on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. Some are worried Obama is trying to cut veterans benefits, while others gave him credit for tackling the VA scandal.
HEATH DRUZIN/STARS AND STRIPES