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Clinton Promises TLC for Nation's Vets

WASHINGTON -- On the brink of possible military strikes against Iraq, President Clinton hailed America's armed forces, past and present, and promised to provide for their care. America owes its freedom to its veterans, the president said Nov. 11, during Veterans Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery here. Our achievements are built on their sacrifices, he said, "We owe the most solemn debt to these brave Americans who knew their duty and did it so very well." In return for their dedicated service, Clinton said, the nation must provide for its veterans and their families, including protecting their health, helping them buy homes, and improving education to help them find jobs. Shortly before the ceremony, the president signed the Veterans Program Enhancement Act, which will increase compensation payments to veterans with disabilities and benefits to survivors of Americans who died serving the nation. He also directed the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Human Services to set up a Military and Veterans Health Coordinating Board to improve health care for service members and veterans and their families. The board will "make sure we know what the health risks are to our soldiers when we send them into harm's way," he said. Along with helping veterans and active duty service members today, Clinton said, the nation also has a duty to preserve military history. "We owe this to every American who fought in this century's wars," particularly those who served in the Cold War, he said. "Because they stood ready, we live in a very different world. No longer is there a single overriding threat to our existence. Former adversaries are becoming our partners." Today's world, however, with its threats of terrorism, drugs and weapons of mass destruction, remains a dangerous place, the president noted. He then saluted those service members now serving in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Korea and elsewhere. "Too often we forget that even in peacetime their work is hard and often very dangerous," Clinton said. "Just three days ago, four brave, dedicated American flyers -- Navy Lt. Cdr. Kirk Barich, Lt. j.g. Brendan Duffy, Lt. j.g. Meredith Carol Loughran and Lt. j.g. Charles Woodard -- all four were lost in a crash aboard the USS Enterprise. Today, our prayers are with their families." The four EA-6B Prowler aviators died Nov. 8 when they crashed into another plane while practicing night landings aboard the carrier. The crew ejected, but Duffy was found dead and the others are missing and were presumed dead after a fruitless day-long search. Taking care of America's service members is a top priority, the president said. "As commander in chief, I have no higher duty than this: to make certain our troops can do their job while maintaining their readiness to defend our country and defeat any adversary; to ensure they can deploy far from home, knowing their loved ones have the quality of life they deserve." In light of the new challenges of the post-Cold War era, Clinton stressed, service members must be equipped to perform their mission. "The more we ask, the greater our responsibility to give our troops the support and training they require and the tools they need, from basic spare parts to the newest technology." Concerns over military readiness prompted the president to commit more money to the defense budget to keep readiness "razor sharp" and to improve recruitment, he said. As a result, Congress approved a $1.1 billion in new readiness funds. Another $2 billion in emergency funds was allocated to cover operations in Bosnia and another $1 billion was put in the budget to meet readiness needs, he said. "We have approved pay raises that will significantly reduce the discrepancy between military and civilian pay," the president said, drawing applause from the audience at the cemetery amphitheater. Further budget and policy changes are being studied for the year 2000 budget and beyond, he added. Clinton concluded, dedicating the day to all veterans from Gen. George Marshall to Gen. Colin Powell, and to Sen. John Glenn, a veteran and the nation's oldest astronaut. "To all of them and all they represent, we dedicate each and every day spent in service to our country and its ideas," the president said. "May God bless them and their families. May God bless the United States of America."

By Linda D. Kozaryn American Forces Press Service