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Remarks By Al Gore
The American Legion
Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 23, 1999

This is really a homecoming for me. I'm proud to be a member of the American Legion —Department of Tennessee, Post 57.

I'm proud that I served my country in uniform, during the Vietnam War.

You see, I believe in the words of President Kennedy: "Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to untiring effort, to continual sacrifice, and to the willingness, if necessary, to die in its defense."

That is why my commitment to the veterans of America is more than a policy position. It is a personal and moral obligation.

It has been said that a great nation is not built on fear. It is built on courage—your 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.

I want to talk very briefly this morning 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.

All my career, I have believed in a strong national defense. All my career, I have believed that freedom demands not just courage and righteousness, but also strength.

Let's face it: nothing we do for our veterans will matter if we don't back them up while they're fighting for our nation.

And 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.

Some of you know that, when I was in Congress, I worked harder on arms control and nuclear disarmament than perhaps any other issue. Your courage made that work possible.

This afternoon, I'll be welcoming Russian Prime Minister Yevgeniy Primakov to America, to continue meaningful, bilateral talks about our common interests. Your courage made those talks possible.

Without the people in this room—without an America that stood tall for freedom, for four decades—the idea of America and Russia working together for peace and prosperity would have been unimaginable. Thank you, American Legion.

Now, as we move forward, we ought to honor this simple principle: let's never ask our servicemen and women to do what they are not equipped to do—and let's always equip them to do what we ask.

That's why we asked Congress for an increase of over $12 billion for defense readiness and modernization—the first long-term, sustained increase in defense spending in a decade.

We want our Armed Forces to remain ready to deploy rapidly in any crisis. We want our forces to remain the best equipped in the world—well into the next century. And we want our forces to play their part in meeting emerging threats to our security such as terrorism and proliferation.

Together, we're going to keep our defenses strong.

Second, we owe our men and women in uniform not just military strength and readiness, but also high living standards, and a high quality of life—to 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 a military pay raise of 4.4 percent, the largest since 1982. We are going to a restructure our system of paid-reward performance, and reinstate military retirement benefits that were taken away over a decade ago.

Third and finally, I believe in an unshakeable commitment to help our veterans once they return from active duty.

Often, when I travel around the country, I meet veterans young and old, who thank me for the benefits our country provides.

The truth is, we don't give our veterans anything. They earn it. And America must do even more to help those whose sacrifice keeps us free.

That's a commitment I've held since I first went to the House more than 20 years ago, and co-founded the "Vietnam-era Veterans caucus." We fought to bring attention to the needs of Vietnam Veterans—at a time when nobody really wanted to discuss them.

Thanks to President Clinton, we've made a lot of progress to improve and expand veterans' benefits these past six years.

For example, we've brought health care closer to home, by adding hundreds of outpatient clinics—to a total of over 600—so even more veterans get the care they need when and where they need it.

We recognize that our veteran population is aging—and many more are facing the challenges of long term care. While we're exploring the future of long term care at the VA, we are also taking action. Our new budget provides $105 million to support home and community-based services, so more veterans can receive their care in the comfort that comes from community.

We're also making sure that every veteran has a final resting place that reflects the honor and dignity with which they served—and we're working to make honors details available to all veterans who request them.

I know we have more to do. As all of you know, we worked hard to balance the budget for the first time in 30 years, to keep interest rates down and grow the economy—which enables us to have a strong national defense. And that has meant some tough constraints.

Just last week, I met in the White House with the Executive Director of your Washington office, John Sommer, and other leading veterans' advocates, to talk about what we can do to improve veterans' benefits in this budget. We hear your concerns loud and clear—and we're going to very closely with you on these issues.

The budget is just the beginning. We must save Social Security, so it is strong for today's veterans—and for tomorrow's as well. Like your hard-earned veterans' benefits, Social Security is yours—you 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.

We must strengthen Medicare—and we must do more to allow veteran Medicare recipients to take their Medicare benefits to veterans' hospitals. We're working on ways to do that—and I urge Congress to pass our plan into law.

This is the heart of my commitment to you: to stand for a strong national defense. To care for our troops while they care for us. To make sure our veterans receive the benefits they have earned and deserve.

I have one further mission as well: to build an America in the 21st Century that always stands for the ideals for which our veterans lived and died.

Thomas Jefferson once said that "the cement of this Union is the heart blood of every American." I believe that.

As I was preparing to come here today, I was looking through an old copy of American Legion Magazine. And it contained this description of the American veteran:

A veteran "takes personal pride in the freedom of others—in 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 taller—a 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."

I am proud to stand with you—I am proud to be one of you—and I look forward to working with you, to build a 21st Century in which our freedom and justice are a light to all nations. Thank you.


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