The Military Officers Association of America recently reached out to President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney for their view on issues that impact servicemembers, retirees, and veterans. MOAA gave each candidate the opportunity to respond in writing to an identical set of five questions.
I have posted the responses in two separate blog entries. The following are President Obama's unedited responses. Click here to see Gov. Romney's responses.
MOAA – In the past, large post-war force reductions have left insufficient forces to meet the next unexpected contingency. Considering the extraordinary stresses on our military over the past decade of war and continuing threats from Iran, North Korea, and others, what force levels (relative to current forces) do you believe are needed to be prepared for potential future contingencies?
President Barack Obama – As commander in chief, I have a profound responsibility to every servicemember who puts their life on the line for America. We owe them a strategy with well-defined goals; to only send them into harm’s way when it’s absolutely necessary; to give them the equipment and the support they need to get the job done; and to care for them and their families when they come home.
As we turn the page on a decade of war, our nation is at a moment of transition. Three years ago, we had almost 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have cut that number in half. And as the transition in Afghanistan continues, our troops will continue to come home.
We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes that were made in the past — after World War II, after Vietnam — when our military was left ill-prepared for the future. As commander in chief, I will not let that happen again. That’s why I called on our military leaders to develop a comprehensive defense review, released this year, to guide our priorities and spending over the coming decade. The force levels in that strategy were set with the full support of our senior military leadership.
As we end today’s wars, we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific. We will invest in capabilities to combat the full-range of threats. Our military will be leaner, but the U.S. will maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible, and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.
MOAA – Some studies propose making the military benefit package (retirement, health care, etcetera) more like that of civilian workers. In view of the dramatically different demands and sacrifices entailed in military versus civilian careers, to what extent do you believe the military must maintain a unique benefit package to attract a high-quality career force?
President Barack Obama – Our men and women in uniform have made incredible sacrifices, and as commander in chief, it is my duty to ensure that we provide those who have served with the benefits they have earned — unique benefits that our military men and women deserve.
For years, veterans have been asking for advance funding for VA health care programs, to ensure that those who have served their country can count on dependable and quality care. My administration fought for it, and we made it happen. I pushed for this because our veterans deserve to know their health care won’t be held hostage by the political gridlock of Washington. And because more than 40 percent of veterans in the VA health care system live in rural areas, we are expanding transportation and telemedicine services so that rural veterans get their health care and benefits faster.
But I am not only committed to tackling the wounds of war that we can see. That’s why I have made mental health care for servicemembers and veterans a top priority. My administration has increased the number of programs aimed at combating PTSD and traumatic brain injury to meet the unique health care needs of military and veteran communities. In 2010, I announced new rules making it much easier for combat veterans to file PTSD-related claims and get the help they need by simplifying the process and reducing paperwork requirements. Additionally, the VA has hired more than 3,500 mental health professionals since 2009, with plans to hire 1,600 more.
MOAA – Sequestration law requires the defense budget to absorb 50 percent of the nearly $1 trillion budget cut over the next 10 years. What is your view of that allocation and the share of future budget cuts that should be taken from defense?
President Barack Obama – As president, I have made historic investments in our armed forces. And as long as I’m commander in chief, we’re going to remain the strongest military in the world. We will stay the best-trained, best-led, and best-equipped military in history.
Bipartisan majorities of Congress voted for the sequestration mechanism. And we all know that, if the sequester goes into effect, it will mean across-the-board cuts in programs that affect a lot of people. The sequester was designed to force Congress to take action — which is why, to avoid these cuts, Congress needs to get back to work and agree to a balanced approach to reduce the deficit and keep our military strong.
To lead in this effort, I have put forward a balanced plan to get our fiscal house in order over the long run, one that reduces our deficit by more than $4 trillion over 10 years while replacing the sequester. It is a balanced plan that includes $2.50 in spending reductions for every $1 in additional revenue, but it would keep annual defense spending at the levels agreed to with Congress last year that would be in place in the absence of sequestration. Yet Republicans refuse to ask the wealthiest to pay a single penny more, putting defense spending at risk. That is the only obstacle to preventing this sequester and achieving real deficit reduction. It’s time for Congress to stop playing politics with our military.
MOAA – The past decade of war imposed dramatically increased demands on National Guard and Reserve forces. Under the current “operational reserve” concept, such demands likely will continue to disrupt their civilian work careers. To what extent do you believe these extra demands warrant an improved Guard/Reserve compensation and benefit package?
President Barack Obama – Over the past decade, the National Guard and Reserve have consistently demonstrated their readiness and ability to make sustained contributions to our national security. The challenges facing the U.S. today and in the future will require that we continue to employ and support our National Guard and Reserve forces.
During my first year in office, I directed the secretary of defense to conduct the 11th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (QRMC), which assessed the effectiveness of military pay and benefits. In these times of unprecedented expectations and demands, our attention must be on the well-being of our personnel in uniform. The QRMC’s review of reserve component benefits found that, in general, these benefits are comparable to reserve utilization, and in a large number of cases are the same as benefits afforded to active component members. It did, however, identify several cases in health care and education benefits where adjustments could be made to improve the current benefit structure. The Department of Defense is studying these recommendations for potential implementation and, if needed, will send selected proposals to Congress as proposed legislation.
MOAA – Recent VA budgets have been increased substantially, but many wartime veterans will need continuing support for decades. What is your view on how this national obligation can be met in the face of increasing budget constraints?
President Barack Obama – One of my highest priorities as commander in chief is to uphold our sacred trust with all our veterans and our men and women in uniform — not just today, but in the decades to come. This means making sure they have good job opportunities, high-quality health care, and disability and education benefits. And because we ended the war in Iraq and are drawing down in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of troops are coming home. As we wind down these wars, our commitment to our veterans will endure — even in the face of budget constraints.
That’s why I ensured that more than 800,000 veterans or their family members were able to pursue an education on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. That’s why I worked with Congress to sign tax credits into law for businesses that hire unemployed veterans and wounded warriors — which are putting vets back to work today. We’ve also made historic investments in the VA to improve veterans’ health care and benefits. And we’ve cracked down on mortgage lenders who were breaking the law and forcing servicemembers and veterans out of their homes.
But we still have more work to do. The wait on disability and medical claims is still too long for too many. Over the last two years, the VA has processed more than a million claims a year — more than it ever has before. And at the same time, we’ve opened up eligibility for those suffering from agent orange-related illnesses, illnesses associated with the Gulf War, and all combat veterans with verifiable PTSD. These actions have both dramatically expanded access to VA medical care and further stressed what has been an inefficient and paper-based system. Today the VA is aggressively working to break the backlog with more staff dedicated to handling claims, better processes, and better technology. My administration has set a goal and has a plan in place to eliminate the backlog completely in my second term. I know that we’re not there yet. But as long as I am president, I can guarantee that we will work every day to make our systems better able to serve our veterans.