Recalling "those awful attacks," President Barack Obama saluted the 9/11 generation of veterans Tuesday and publicly relished the prospect of U.S. forces getting out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. "For our troops and military families who have sacrificed so much, this means relief from an unrelenting decade of operations," Obama said in remarks to the American Legion National Convention in Minneapolis.
"Thanks to these Americans," he said, "we're moving forward from a position of strength."
Obama paid tribute to more than 6,200 Americans in uniform he said have given their lives during the past decade of war. He enumerated military successes, including advances in Afghanistan, the killing of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and, most recently, assistance to Libyan rebels to help them push out strongman Moammar Gadhafi. He pledged to honor his responsibility to veterans by spending more on assistance, working more efficiently to process disability claims and addressing higher numbers of brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder cases.
And Obama also said that fewer troops would serve in harm's way going forward, thanks to his policy of ending combat operations in Iraq and aiming for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014.
Speaking before thousands of veterans and their families, Obama said the Americans who have worn the uniform since 9/11 have earned their place among the greatest of generations. Even as Obama spoke, an Associated Press tally showed that August has become the deadliest month for U.S. troops in the nearly 10-year-old war in Afghanistan, where international forces have started to go home and have left Afghan forces take charge of securing their country.
A record 66 U.S. troops have died so far this month, more than the 65 killed in July 2010. This month's death toll soared when 30 Americans — most of them elite Navy SEALs — were killed in a helicopter crash Aug. 6.
Since taking office, Obama has set a course for drawing down both wars after a decade of continuous conflict. All U.S. troops are set to leave Iraq by the end of this year, though the Iraqis could still request that some American troops stay. And in Afghanistan, the 33,000 surge forces Obama deployed in late 2009 are set to come home by the end of next summer.
But Obama said the nation's commitment to service members must continue after they return home. He outlined steps his administration has taken to combat homelessness among veterans and support wounded warriors, especially those with traumatic brain injuries.
Despite pressure for Washington to slash its debt and deficits, Obama pledged to protect programs that assist veterans from looming budget cuts. "We cannot, will not, and we must not, balance the budget on the backs of our veterans," Obama said.
The President also acknowledged that the shaky economy means veterans face uncertain employment prospects when they return home. He touted initiatives he proposed earlier this summer that would create new training programs for veterans and give tax credits to companies that hire service members.
The White House has said 1 million military veterans are unemployed. Among those who joined the military after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the unemployment rate was 13.3 percent as of June. The nationwide unemployment rate is 9.1 percent.
Copyright © The Associated Press.