Remarks As Prepared For Delivery By Vice President Al Gore
American Legion National Convention
Wednesday, September 8, 1999
This is really a homecoming for me. My dad was a member of the American Legion. We lost him in December, three weeks shy of his 91st birthday. My uncle, Whit LaFon, has been active in the American Legion almost all his life. He is a past National Executive Comitteeman, and past Tennessee Department Commander. And he’s here.
And of course you better believe I’m honored to be a member of the American Legion myselfDepartment of Tennessee, Post 57.
And I was honored to wear my country’s uniform during the Vietnam War.
It is for this reason that my commitment to the veterans of America has always been more than a policy position. It is a personal and moral standard to bear.
A great nation is not built on fear. It is built on courageyour courage.
And when we send our courageous young men and women into harm’s way, we had better be prepared to take care of them. That is America’s obligation.
Today, I want to talk about three areas that are critical to our men and women in uniform, to our veterans, and to all who love freedom.
The first is a strong national defense.
For all my public life, I have stood for a strong Americafrom my consistent advocacy of military forces second-to-none, to my vote in favor of the Gulf War in 1991.
I have always known what you know: that nothing we do for our veterans after the battle will matter if we don’t back them up while they’re in the trenches and on the front lines, fighting for us.
So you have this iron-clad commitment from me: as long as I am in a position to do something about it, America will be the strongest force for peace and freedom in the entire world.
In my years in the House and in the Senate, one of the issues I worked hardest on was facing down the Soviet threat and reducing the mortal dangers of nuclear war. Today, the Soviet Union is goneand freedom is on the advance everywhere.
Without the people in this roomwithout an America that stood tall for freedom, decade after decadewe could never have ended the Cold War, made America more secure, and brought peace and freedom to hundreds of millions of decent people at home and abroad. I thank you, and all the veterans you represent. History will record that in the 20th Century, America’s legions were the world’s first line of defense against tyranny and oppression.
But victory calls on us for renewed vigilance, in the face of new and continuing dangers. As we move forward, we must honor this simple principle: let’s never ask our servicemen and women to do what they have not been equipped to do. Let us match their courage with armor. Let us always equip them to do what we ask.
That’s why we are now fighting for the first long-term, sustained increase in defense spending in a decade.
We want our Armed Forces ready to deploy in any crisis. We want our forces to be the best equipped in the world well into the next century. And we want our forces to be strong enough to meet and overwhelm traditional forms of aggression, as well as newer threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
And so I ask for your help: together, let’s keep our defenses strong.
Second, our soldiers, sailors, and airmen offer us no less than their lives. Surely, we should offer them the highest quality of life. We owe our men and women in uniform not just military strength and readiness, but also high living standards, and a high quality of lifeto make certain their service is not only rewarding, but well-rewarded.
We want to do right by our troops by upgrading and replacing aging equipment, barracks, and family housing. We are proposing the largest military pay raise since 1982. And we are going to reinstate military retirement benefits that were taken away over a decade ago.
Third, I pledge an unshakeable commitment to our tested American warriorsour veterans who have returned home from active duty.
Often, as I travel around America, veterans young and old express their gratitude for what our country does for them.
But let’s face it: we don’t give our veterans anything. You have earned itwith sweat, courage, blood, and sacrifice. You’ve earned a gratitude no price can match. And America must do more for those who have stood ready to risk everything to keep us free.
That’s why, when I was first in Congress, I co-founded the Vietnam-era Veterans Caucus. At a time when all too few respected our service, much less welcomed us home, we fought to bring attention to the plight of those Americans who had served during Vietnam and came back to civilian life with needs that were being ignored.
And in the last seven years, we have made real progress in improving and expanding benefits for all veterans.
You did not delay in answering your country’s call; your country, in turn, should never make you wait. You should get your benefits faster, with less bureaucracy. So we are working to improve the processing of veterans’ claims. And incidentally, I’m proud to report that all the critical systems supporting veterans’ benefits and health care are now ready for Y2Kand back- up plans are in place to make sure our veterans benefits are secure.
In addition, every veteran’s final resting place should be a place of due dignity and honor. We are opening four new veterans’ cemeteries around the countrynear Dallas, Cleveland, Chicago, and Saratoga, New Yorkthe largest expansion in our national cemetery system since World War II. And at the same time, we are committed to making honors details available to every single veteran whose family requests them.
For all veterans, and all Americans, we must save Social Security, so it is strong for todayand for tomorrow as well. Like your hard-earned veterans’ benefits, Social Security is yoursyou paid into it all your lives. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow it to be cut, or weakened, or taken away.
That’s why I will fight against the reckless tax schemes that some have put forward in this Congresstax schemes that would put us right back into deficits, in order to shower new benefits on the special interests, instead of taking care of first things first. I have a different idea: we should use the surplusyour surplusto save Social Security, strengthen Medicare, expand it to offer affordable prescription drugs, and completely pay off our national debt for the first time since Andrew Jackson was Presidenta generation before the Civil War.
As we strengthen Medicare, we must do more to allow veterans to take their Medicare benefits to veterans’ hospitals. We’re working to do thatand I urge you to join me in urging Congress to pass our plan into law.
We’ve already brought health care closer to your homes, by adding hundreds of outpatient clinicsto a total of over 600so even more veterans get the care they need when and where they need it.
I worked closely with the American Legion to improve veterans’ health benefits in our budget. I heard your concerns loud and clear. I shared them. And I acted on them. That’s why, two months ago in Tennessee, I announced that the administration would ask for an additional one billion dollarsabove and beyond our current request to Congressto reduce waiting times, expand outpatient care, and improve long-term care in the VA system. And I will fight to see that increase passed into law.
And I know we have a lot more to do. I want to ensure that each and every veteran treated by our VA system gets the quality care they need.
So this is the heart of my commitment to you: to stand for a strong national defense. To make sure our troops have all the resources the need while they are standing up for us. To make sure our veterans receive the benefits they fought for and thoroughly earned.
This is the kind of commitment you deserve.
Together, let’s build an America where not a single veteran is homeless, or hungry, or without the care he or she needs.
Let’s build an America where we have a full accounting of every POW, and every brave soldier who is missing in action.
Let’s build an America where we honor the values you fought forthe values that have sustained my life and career: faith, family, and freedom for all people.
Thomas Jefferson once said that “the cement of this Union is the heart blood of every American.” I believe that. Of all our citizens, it is truest said of our veterans.
Not long ago, I was looking through an old copy of American Legion Magazine. And it contained this description of the American veteran, which rang so true to me:
A veteran “takes personal pride in the freedom of othersin men and women attending the church of their choice; in friends voting how they choose; and in children sleeping quietly, without fear to interrupt their slumber.
“A veteran is every man grown up a little tallera person who understands the awesome price of life’s intangibles of freedom, justice, and democracy. His motto is to live and let live.
“But if he had to, if he had to choose between servitude and conflict, the veteran would once again answer a call to duty. Because, above all else, a veteran is an American.”
Let me close with a story that happened to me about ten years ago. A man and his wife, from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, knocked on my Senate office door. He was born in Czechoslovakia, and had escaped two decades earlier by riding a motorcycle across the Austrian border so fast that the border guards didn’t have time to get the machine guns to kill him, the way they killed so many trying to escape communism.
Years later, the Velvet Revolution freed Czechoslovakia from communist rule, and he said to his wife: I want to go back to my home town, and see if I can help. So they went back.
And he said that as the curtain of fear was lifted and the Russian tanks pulled back, the first thing the townspeople did was to rebuild a monument to the American G.I.’s who had freed that part of Czechoslovakia in World War II. And then, within a half an hour, he said that everywhere he looked he saw little American flags. It was like a movie set; he couldn’t imagine how that could be possible.
He couldn’t understand ituntil he looked a little more closely at the flags and realized that each one of them had 48 stars on them, because the townspeople had kept them hidden underneath the beds and in the cupboards for 45 yearswaiting until the day that they could be freeand celebrate the ideas and values and principles for which that flag and for which the United States of America stands.
I am proud to be an Americanand mighty proud to be one of you. And I look forward to fighting side-by-side with you againthis time to build a 21st Century in which America will always be secure, and our freedom and justice will continue to be a light to all nations. Thank you.