Kerry: 'Can America Continue to Lead the World?'

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:30 PM EDT

( - "Keeping faith" was the theme of Sen. John F. Kerry's speech to Veterans of Foreign Wars on Wednesday.

Addressing the VFW convention in Cincinnati, the Democratic presidential candidate saluted and thanked all men and women in uniform; disputed President Bush's claim that he is "getting the job done" for veterans; and indirectly mentioned the controversy surrounding Kerry's own anti-war past.

Kerry also criticized President Bush's plan to bring tens of thousands of troops home in the years ahead as vague and ineffective.

Criticizing Bush's plan

Kerry said nobody wants to bring U.S. troops home more than "those of us who have fought in foreign wars."

But he said it needs to be done in the "right time and in a sensible way." He dismissed President Bush's redeployment plan as "vaguely" and "hastily" stated.

"It in no way relieves the strain on our overextended military personnel," Kerry said, noting the ten-year time frame for bringing U.S. troops home from Europe and Asia.

Kerry said Bush's plan also raises doubts about America's intentions and commitment: "For example, why are we withdrawing unilaterally 12,000 troops from the Korean peninsula at the very time that we are negotiating with North Korea, a country that really has nuclear weapons?" he asked.

Kerry quoted Republican Sen. John McCain, who also has expressed concern about moving U.S. troops out of South Korea. "This is clearly the wrong signal to send at the wrong time," Kerry commented.

Kerry stressed the need for "closer alliances" in every part of the world to fight and win the war on terror. He suggested that bringing troops home might undercut some of those alliances.

"The big question before us," Kerry said, "is not just who will lead America -- it is whether America will continue to lead the world.

"I am running for president because I believe that if we honor our highest values; if we do right by our men and women in uniform; America will always continue to be a beacon of hope and of freedom for all in the world."

Returning vets deserve respect - and benefits

"Like veterans of all wars past, today's fighting men and women deserve our prayers and support, and then when they come home, they deserve the respect and welcome of a grateful nation," Kerry said.

"After all, the first definition of patriotism in my judgment, beyond service to country, is keeping faith with those who have worn the uniform of the United States of America."

Some veterans have criticized Sen. Kerry for failing to keep faith with his fellow veterans, when he joined the anti-war movement in the early 1970s, at a time when Americans were still fighting and dying.

On Wednesday, Kerry told the VFW the best way to keep faith with returning troops is to make sure that they get the "transitional assistance" they need to adjust to civilian life.

He indicated that President Bush has not done what veterans need him to do -- on health care, VA hospitals, co-payments and enrollment fees, and other veterans' benefits. He indicated that President Bush has shortchanged veterans and cheated them out of benefits, including pensions and disability payments, they deserve.

"I'm not going to come to the VFW and tell you the job is done when it isn't done," Kerry said.

"For 35 years I have stood up and fought and kept faith with my fellow veterans," Kerry said. "As president, I will stand with you to complete that mission. The sacrifices that you have made on the battlefield are well-known. But what is not as well known is [Kerry's own] long battle of these 35 years.

'Controversial period of time'

Touching on his anti-war years, Kerry told the VFW, "I can remember when we came back from service, in what we all know was a controversial period of time. I wish it hadn't been. I volunteered for my country...I didn't make it controversial. The war and the times were," Kerry said.

"And as too many of us know, it was a time when the war and warriors became confused. I say to you with my experience, never again in America should the warriors ever be confused with the war. And our nation should always be prepared to stand and say thank you.

"But here's what I know in my heart and my gut - when I visited hospitals after I returned, I saw vets who weren't getting the care they needed. And we raised our voices, and we fought hard and we got additional funding for those VA hospitals," Kerry said, as he enumerated the ways he has fought for veterans over the years.

Although such things are hard to measure, Kerry drew frequent applause from the VFW, particularly with his remarks on boosting veterans' benefits.