Although President Obama ended his State of the Union Address to the nation Tuesday recognizing a severely wounded Army Ranger, his 66-minute speech only briefly discussed the war in Afghanistan and avoided the brooding fight over benefits for current and retired troops.
The president hailed the sacrifice of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg and his fight to overcome partial paralysis and traumatic brain injury after he was hit by a roadside bomb on his tenth deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit," Obama said as Remsburg received a standing ovation.
Defense and national security issues were overshadowed in an address that was mostly devoted to jobs, the economy, and Obama's defense of the Affordable Care Act.
Obama spoke of ending the combat role for U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year. In the future, "America must move off a permanent war footing," he said.
"That's why I've imposed prudent limits on the use of drones -- for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence," Obama said.
Following a meeting with his top war commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, earlier in the week at the White House, the president wasn't ready to make any new announcements on his stance on U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year. U.S. officials continue to negotiate with Afghan President Karzai on a Bilateral Security Agreement that could keep up to 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism missions.
"After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future," Obama said. "If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida."
On policy, Obama pledged to veto any attempts to impose more sanctions on Iran while negotiations on dismantling Tehran's nuclear programs are underway. He called on Congress to join him in efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he committed to continuing the re-balance of U.S. forces to the Pacific.
The president notably avoided any discussion in his speech about the growing debate over pay and benefits for current and retired servicemembers. Military advocates swarmed Capitol Hill on Tuesday focused on rolling back cuts to cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for military retirees.
In a statement Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said that "with one quick glance at the pension cuts, military retirees and their families are left to wonder when DoD leadership and President Obama will speak out against these cuts and work to quickly overturn them."
Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine H. Fox re-stated DoD's position that military readiness could not be maintained without trimming pay and benefits.
"If this department is going to maintain a future force that is properly sized, modern and ready, we clearly cannot maintain the last decade's rate of military compensation growth," Fox said.
Obama's administration has proposed in recent budget requests to gradually roll back benefits in order to reduce these personnel costs. His recognition of Remsburg represents both the bravery troops have exhibited this past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the significant bill the nation will pay to make sure they receive the necessary care.
The 30-year-old Remsburg, a 12-year Army veteran, sat next to First Lady Michelle Obama during the speech. The president first met Remsburg in France at Omaha Beach on the 65th anniversary of D-Day before Cory was severely injured.
A few months later, on Remsburg's tenth deployment to a war zone, "Cory was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain. For months, he lay in a coma," Obama said in his speech.
"The next time I met him, in the hospital, he couldn't speak, could barely move," Obama said. "Over the years, he's endured dozens of surgeries and procedures, hours of grueling rehab every day."
"Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye, still struggles on his left side," Obama said. "But slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad, Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown stronger."
The president hailed the indomitable spirit of Remsburg and the many other troops like him who have sacrificed so much over this past decade of war. He said these servicemembers should serve as a symbol of inspiration to work through any challenges or differences.
"My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy," Obama said. "Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress."