Garrison caps laden with pins are the current uniform of the choice at the Charlotte Convention Center. They are the trademark hats of the American Legion. On Tuesday, delegates at the group’s national convention were addressed by President Barack Obama.
The President’s speech comes after three tumultuous months at the Department of Veterans Affairs, including the discovery of secret wait lists for VA patients that allowed some hospital administrators to earn performance bonuses. President Obama used the appearance to help re-build trust with the country’s largest veterans group. And announce new programs for veterans.
THE PRESIDENT'S SPEECH
Before coming to Charlotte, President Obama knew this would not be an easy audience. The American Legion is one of the veterans groups who pushed for the prior secretary of Veterans Affairs to resign over issues at VA hospitals across the country. The president said changes have to be made.
"The misconduct we've seen at too many facilities with long wait times, veterans denied care, and folks cooking the books – is outrageous and inexcusable. As soon as it was disclosed, I got before the American people, and I said we would not tolerate it."
President Obama touted the new Veterans Choice and Accountability Act and announced 19 new executive actions, which don’t require congressional approval, to address veterans’ issues. This includes getting veterans to doctors more quickly and allocating more money to hire VA doctors, nurses and staff.
"We're reaching out to veterans -- more than a quarter million so far -- to get them off wait lists and into clinics," Obama said.
Veterans will no longer have to only go to VA facilities for treatment. He said veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or can't get an appointment quickly enough will be eligible to see a doctor outside the VA.
President Obama also said his administration is instituting a new "culture of accountability," which means VA hospital administrators can be more easily removed from their post. As the president told the delegates, "if you engage in unethical practices, or cover up a serious problem, you should be and will be fired."
The president also announced initiatives to help veterans get civilian certifications for work they did in the military and a program to make it easier to get lower mortgage rates for those who served.
President Obama also announced a new program to help prevent suicide among veterans and active duty military members, a problem that’s dramatically increased during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president hopes this will help "colleges and clinicians spot the warning signs and encourage our troops and veterans to seek help."
All this in an effort to rebuild a trust President Obama called sacred.
"What I want you to know directly from me is that we’re focused on this at the highest levels. We’re going to fix what is wrong. We’re going to do right by you and we’re going to do right by your families and that is a solemn pledge and commitment that I’m making to you here."
Despite the assurances, there were many in the audience who wondered if the appropriate actions would follow the words.
AMERICAN LEGION REACTION
The night before the president took the stage, veterans with the American Legion participated in a town hall meeting to air their grievances and talk about their experiences with the VA.
John Worholak of South Carolina was one of about two dozen veterans who attended the meeting. Many like him said they felt disrespected by VA staff and have had to wait months before they could get in touch with a doctor.
"I cannot tell you how many guys that I heard tell me: 'The VA's waiting for us to die,'" said Worholak, "it breaks my heart."
On Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged the problems, including long wait times and veterans being denied treatment.
He said the new VA secretary would have the tools to provide veterans with better care.
Marin James is a veteran who volunteers at the VA hospital in Baltimore.
"I feel that under the new administration, there will be a lot of changes," she said. "And I love the fact that they can fire people on the spot who have not been doing their jobs and falsifying records."
Delegate Clinton Thompson appreciated the president's emphasis on mental health care.
"I was a young fella when I went into Korea myself and I saw things there that I didn't need to see," he said.
Thompson said he was especially concerned for the new batch of veterans, those that served in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan:
"These people are being hit with goofy kind of explosive things that they're not expecting. Young folks don't need to see all that."
Veterans at the conference appreciated what President Obama had to say. But, the general mood was clear: actions speak louder than words.