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Speaking to thousands of veterans gathered in Minneapolis on Tuesday, President Obama vowed to ensure that returning soldiers have the job skills they need to succeed and made an ironclad commitment to the military and veterans.
He pledged to create a job training "boot camp" for veterans who are struggling to find employment in the private sector, a rising problem nationally. He also said he will press states to make it easier for vets to get professional licenses.
"As a nation, we're facing tough choices as we put our fiscal house in order. But I want to be absolutely clear -- we cannot, and we must not, balance the budget on the backs of our veterans," he said during a roughly half-hour speech to a national meeting of the American Legion, prompting a standing ovation.
The president's speech came after a fierce budget battle in Washington and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created mounting political pressure to get military spending under control. The president tried to comfort a group in which many did not vote for him or trust his commitment to the military and veterans, particularly with a new budget that could result in $350 billion in cuts to the Pentagon.
At the Minneapolis Convention Center, the president described a "sacred trust" between citizens and the military, expressing grave concern about returning veterans going straight from combat to the unemployment line.
To tamp down the 13 percent unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, Obama announced plans for a "reverse boot camp," allowing returning vets to develop and adjust their job skills to the private sector.
"These are the obligations we have to each other -- our forces, our veterans, our citizens," Obama said. "These are the responsibilities we must fulfill. Not just when it's easy, or when it's convenient, but always."
With 2.4 million members, the American Legion is the largest wartime veterans organization in the country. Besides concerns about veterans, the organization also has support of a strong military as one of its hallmarks.
Even as the U.S. winds down its combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama pledged to "keep our military the best-trained, the best-led, the best-equipped fighting force in history."
Obama's commitment to veterans and the military resonated with Mary Ann Roczynski, department commander of the American Legion Department of Connecticut, who nonetheless added after the speech: "We all said it at the same time: Get that in writing."
The president also talked about the complexities of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have bedeviled his administration and strained relations with many Democratic supporters.
He never used the word "win" or "victory." He talked instead about moving "forward from a position of strength" in the withdrawal of troops from the two fronts.
"As our mission transitions from combat to support, Afghans will take responsibility for their own security, and the longest war in American history will come to a responsible end," Obama said, receiving polite applause.
The Rev. Ronald Moore, an American Legion vice commander from Germany, said he did not vote for Obama because he did not believe the then-candidate understood the complex needs of veterans.
"I didn't think, at the time, he had the feeling for the veteran. [But] I think that's changed," said Moore, an African-American Vietnam veteran who identified himself as a Republican. "He stepped into a mess, and I approve of the fact he's trying to do a good job. I think it's a little bit unfair that everybody's turning around and trying to blame it on him."
Obama also highlighted administration efforts to reduce a backlog of benefit claims through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Those efforts include acknowledging new claims from Vietnam vets suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical widely during the conflict to clear jungle foliage, and from the demands of a greater number of women in the military.
Walking with a cane because of degenerative bone disease, Bobby Johnson, a Vietnam veteran and a delegate from an American Legion post in Milledgeville, Ga., said Obama struck the right tone about helping aging veterans, particularly those suffering from the effects of Agent Orange.
"That was one issue I wanted him to talk about," he said. "I think he has addressed veterans issues and done more for veterans than any other previous president has."
Obama's focus on jobs for veterans comes amid larger economic doldrums. In his speech, the president tried to reverse sagging voter confidence in his ability to turn things around.
"Our economy has to grow faster," he told the group. "We have to create more jobs and do it faster. Most of all, we have to break the gridlock in Washington that's been preventing us from taking the action we need to get this economy moving."
Obama previously called on the private sector to hire or train 100,000 returning veterans, proposing to offer tax credits for companies that hire vets or their spouses and veterans with disabilities.
With advancements in technology, veterans are returning with injuries that would have killed them in previous conflicts. The severity of those injuries often brings additional problems.
"Put simply, we're saving more lives, but more American veterans will live with severe wounds for a lifetime. So we need to be there for them-for their lifetime," Obama said.
It was the second time this month that Obama visited Minnesota. On August 15, he began a three-day Upper Midwest tour in Cannon Falls. The speech on Tuesday was Obama's only event of the day in the state. About 200 protesters, most of them antiwar, gathered across the street from the Convention Center as he spoke. No arrests were reported.
Staff writers Mike Kaszuba and Randy Furst contributed to this report. Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434