- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2016

With veterans’ issues looming as a major factor in the presidential campaign, President Obama called on Monday for Americans to do more for those who served their country in uniform and their families.

“We have to make sure our veterans get everything that they have earned, from good health care to a good job,” Mr. Obama said in the annual Memorial Day observance at Arlington National Cemetery. “We have to do better. Our work is never done.”

As he has in recent days, Mr. Obama also acknowledged that three U.S. troops who were killed fighting the Islamic State in Iraq in the past year died “in combat,” despite the administration’s claims that troops deployed to Iraq and Syria are on a mission as advisers and trainers.

The administration is taking increasing criticism for its handling of veterans’ benefits, and it promises to be a central theme in the general election. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told veterans on Sunday that the administration often cares for illegal immigrants in the U.S. better than the nation’s military veterans.

“Thousands of people are dying waiting in line to see a doctor. That is not going to happen any more,” Mr. Trump told veterans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial as part of the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally on Memorial Day weekend.

The billionaire businessman said that, if elected, he would ensure veterans could opt for private physicians, “and we’ll pay for it.”

A poll last week showed that veterans favor the Republican over Democrat Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points, a margin that’s only about half as big as the advantage that Republican nominee Mitt Romney held over Mr. Obama while losing the overall race to the president in 2012.

On Twitter, Mrs. Clinton said on Memorial Day, “Our fallen heroes deserve our profound gratitude for giving their lives to protect our freedom, today and every day.”

Mr. Trump said he will hold a news conference on Tuesday to unveil a full list of groups that received donations from a veterans fundraiser held in January, hoping to settle a lingering controversy over how much of his own money he donated and how much actually was raised.

“We’re announcing on Tuesday all of the groups that’ve gotten the money,” he said. “We’re having a big press conference, and it’s going to be a great day.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs has come under criticism again in recent weeks due to several foul-ups, including VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s comparison of wait times at VA hospitals to long lines at Disneyland. The agency also admitted that it cut off benefits from 2011-15 for thousands of veterans who were incorrectly declared dead, a mistake that also temporarily stopped benefits for their families.

And a Government Accountability Office study last month found that the VA still hasn’t corrected its failures with chronic delays in wait times for veterans seeking doctor’s appointments, finding that VA employees continue to provide misleading data to the public about the delays.

Rep. Ryan K. Zinke, Montana Republican and the only Navy SEAL veteran in Congress, said over the holiday weekend that he’s supporting Mr. Trump because the VA’s problems need to be fixed.

“We need a president that will put our veterans in front of the line rather than watch them die while in line,” Mr. Zinke said on the Breitbart News Saturday radio show.

Don Fowler, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and co-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Veterans and Military Families Council, said the nation “has made great strides for veterans and their families.”

“The post-9/11 G.I. Bill has helped veterans to attain a college degree, and we have continued further investments in veterans’ job training,” Mr. Fowler said. “But we have much more work to do. We will continue to fight for speedy access to quality health care for our veterans, including mental health care, and we will fight to end veterans’ homelessness.”

At Arlington, Mr. Obama especially praised the sacrifice of Gold Star families, noting that more than 20 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan in the past year and three others in Iraq

Among those he singled out was Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a special forces commando who was killed in a raid while rescuing hostages held by the Islamic State in Iraq last October. During 14 deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, he earned 11 Bronze Stars, including four for valor.

Sgt. Wheeler’s widow, Ashley, and their 10-month-old son, David, attended the ceremony.

“We have to be there not only when we need them, but when they need us,” Mr. Obama said of service members. “Not everyone will serve. Not everyone will visit this national sanctuary. But we remember our best in every corner of our country from which they came.”

The president also marked the holiday by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington.

At a Memorial Day parade in Rochester, Wisconsin, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said the willingness of troops to sacrifice their lives sometimes “seems hard, if not impossible, to understand” for those who never served.

“But then there are the hundreds of veterans in our community — hundreds of people who were just as willing to lay down their lives for the rest of us,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “This is a day to ask them about the hardships they endured, so we can begin to understand.”

In New Castle, Delaware, Vice President Joseph R. Biden attended the unveiling Monday of new signs naming the Delaware National Guard’s headquarters after his late son and Iraq War veteran, Beau.

The headquarters will be called the Maj. Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center. Beau Biden enlisted in 2003 and deployed to Iraq in 2008 for one year with the 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade, earning the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star. He also served two terms as state attorney general.

He died a year ago of brain cancer at age 46.

 

 

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