Obama Defends VA at Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention

President Barack Obama arrives to deliver a speech at the 116th National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama arrives to deliver a speech at the 116th National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

PITTSBURGH - President Barack Obama told the national convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday that he would make sure the U.S. military had the budget it needs to protect the country and he would not rest until the Americans held by Iran are returned home.

Obama also defended the Veterans Affairs Department against congressional moves to cut its budget by more than a billion next year, saying the cuts come as the VA "is struggling to keep up with the surge in care" stemming from an aging veteran population and more veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking care.

Though VA has made progress in cutting down on wait times overall, Obama conceded that "in some places the wait times are higher today than they were last year."

"Let me tell you, I'm not satisfied and [VA Secretary Bob McDonald] is not satisfied," Obama said.

But he exhorted the 5,000-plus veterans seated in the convention center hall to push Congress and demand it give the VA what it needs to help veterans.

The Pittsburgh speech marked the fifth time Obama has addressed the VFW, his third time as President. He spoke before the organization twice as a candidate, VFW national spokesman Joe Davis said.

Obama, much like McDonald, who spoke to the group earlier in the day, asked the VFW to continue pressing Congress to allow the VA the flexibility it needs to transfer money previously appropriated as part of the VA Accountability Act in order to help fund other operations.

A number of lawmakers have made it clear they believe VA has mismanaged its construction and other programs, causing hundreds of millions in cost overruns, and believes the department needs to live within its budget caps. The House has lopped off $1.4 billion from the proposed 2016 VA budget.

"Our vets need [the funding] and our hospitals need it," Obama said. "And I would point out that the Republican budget falls short, and it's another reminder that the best way to protect VA funding going forward -- and, VFW, we need you to keep raising your voice on this -- is to get rid of sequestration for good. That's how we're going to make sure that our veterans have the resources they need."

Obama also pledged to "keep fighting to make sure you actually get the health care you've been promised."

Obama noted that under his watch al Qaida has been hit hard.

"Thanks to the skill of our military and counterintelligence professionals, we've struck major blows against those who threaten us," he said, proceeding to tick off names that, in each instance, drew a round of applause. "If you target Americans, you will have no safe haven," he said.

Obama also drew cheers when noting that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan had been brought to a responsible conclusion, and praised the men and women who served in America's longest war.

But the President acknowledged the U.S. continues to face threats, including on the home front, and he offered up the possibility that the killing of four Marines and a sailor in Chattanooga, Tennessee, this month was linked to terrorists overseas.

"We don't yet know all the details behind the attack in Chattanooga, but we do know that al Qaeda and ISIL have encouraged attacks on American soil, including against our service members," he said. "This threat of lone wolves and small cells is hard to detect and prevent. So … we are going to keep doing everything in our power to protect the American people, including our men and women in uniform."

Obama also referenced recent diplomatic initiatives -re-establishing of ties with Cuba after more than a half century and the nuclear deal with Iran. The President said the initiatives were necessary in order to move away from policies that have not been working

But the Iran deal does not mean the U.S. will stop pressuring Iran to halt support of terrorism or to release four Americans currently being held by Iranian authorities. The four are former Marine Sgt. Amir Hekmati, Pastor Saeed Abedini, journalist Jason Rezaian, and private investigator and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson.

"These Americans need to be back home with their families," Obama said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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