Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)
International Association of Fire Fighters
Bipartisan 2008 Presidential Forum
Washington, DC
March 14, 2007
[Prepared Remarks]

Look at all of you, Brothers and Sisters—I’m truly fired up today.

This is a hall filled with heroes.  To all of you who do the work every day to protect us and save us, thank you.  To the heroes who are serving and saving lives in the desert sands thousands of miles away, we thank you.  And to the heroes who have been called to another House, we miss you.

It is a noble calling to see a building a blaze and want to rush in.  It is a noble calling what you do.  You know that.  I know that.  This country knows that.

The alarm sounds and you are there.  You were the strength they needed to help rescue and recover after the tragic tornados in Alabama.  You were the force to tame the wildfires in California.  You were the calm in the chaos of Katrina.  And we love you for what you did on September 11th.

It is a noble calling what you do.  You know that.  I know that.  This country knows that.  But sometimes Washington forgets.  They praise your work.  They cheer you on when you race up the stairs.  But when it’s time for you to get health care or buy the radios and equipment you need, those supporters disappear like a puff of smoke.

Instead of making your job easier, they create other kinds of fires that you have to put out.  They tried to cut funding so that you couldn’t buy the masks and suits you need.  They wanted to stop the hiring of 75,000 new firefighters.  They wanted to hide the US Fire Administration under layers of bureaucracy at Homeland Security.  And 5 years after September 11th, they still won’t give our first responders the health care they earned by doing the Lord’s work that day.  Instead of making your job easier, they tried to create those other kinds of fires.  Well, we are working together to put those fires out.

What keeps Washington from doing all that it needs to do to better protect our firefighters, police officers, and EMT’s—it’s not a lack of ideas and solutions that’s holding us back.  It is the smallness of our politics.

Washington has become a place where politics has become a business instead of a mission; a place where the cynics and the lobbyists have turned our government into a game only they can afford to play; a place where we spend a lot of time keeping score of who’s up and who’s down and not enough time rolling up our sleeves and figuring out what to do about better serving our first responders, our veterans, and our men and women standing guard in Iraq.

We can’t afford the games they play in this town anymore.  The times we live in are too serious – the challenges too great.  So I know they like to say that I haven’t been in Washington all that long, but I’ve been there long enough to know that it’s time for Washington to change.

The American people are in a serious mood.  They want Washington to get to work.  And with more than 820 of your Brothers and Sisters serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, we owe you nothing less.

When you are saving lives here and saving lives on the streets of Baghdad in a war that never should have been authorized, your actions teach us how to be better citizens.  You run marathons and raise money for our veterans.  You help train army transportation units to care for the wounded.  And you have donated thousands of t-shirts to our soldiers fighting overseas with the Hero-to-Hero program.

You sign the shirts with messages of hope and support for your friends in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Your Brothers and Sisters from all across the country are working with police officers and you have sent more than 10,000 shirts to our soldiers.  I’m not a firefighter, and I am certainly not a hero.  But I have one more for you: a signed shirt from me.  It reads, “Thank you.  Be safe.  You’re coming home soon.”

And I mean that; they will be coming home soon.

Your Brothers and Sisters and the more than 1.6 million of our best and bravest who have been deployed since September 11th.  They will be part of a homecoming not seen in a generation.

Now, this is personal to most of you.  You know someone who used to ride next to you on the truck who is on their 2nd tour in Iraq.  Some of your family members are serving in Iraq.  Many of you have served in the Guard and Reserves.  And you know, just like those people who say that they support firefighters and then disappear when it’s time to give them health care and the necessary equipment—they’re doing the same thing with the troops.

They say that they support them.  They give long speeches about valor and sacrifice.  They say the words with a preacher’s ease.  But when it comes time to sending our troops into battle with the proper equipment and ensure that veterans have what they need when they get home, they don’t do anything except slap a yellow ribbon on the back of their SUV.  That’s how body armor doesn’t reach Baghdad.  That’s how come our men and women have to use scrap metal to protect their Humvees.  That’s how Walter Reed happens.

Our veterans end up living among mice and mold.  They stare at stacks of paperwork.  They’re given the run-around when it comes to their care.  They are learning to walk again and talk again.  They thought they left the frontline in Iraq but they came home to a new frontline of red tape and bureaucracy.

This is unacceptable.  When our veterans come home, I don’t want them forgotten in run down buildings.  When our veterans come home, I don’t want them crawling around a dumpster for a meal or a box for shelter.  When our veterans come home, I don’t want them drowning in whiskey to silence the PTSD.  When our veterans come home, I don’t want them begging to see a doctor.  When our veterans come home, I don’t want their wives or mothers or husbands to have to choose between caring for their loved-one or keeping the job that pays the bills. When our veterans come home, I don’t want them sitting in a room all alone with tears in their eyes because they can only get voicemail at the VA.

I don’t want that for our veterans.  We know they deserve more.

You and I believe in the sacred trust between this country and those who serve it.  That trust begins the moment a soldier signs on.  If they put on the uniform and serve this country, then this grateful nation will train them and equip them with what they need to complete the mission.  If they put on the uniform and serve this country, an honorable nation honors that service by making sure that our veterans’ cares and concerns are met when they return home.  This trust is sacred and we need to build it back so that the best and the bravest always put on the uniform.

Our veterans have come home with their bodies broken and their nerves shattered.  Today, we have more than 631,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.  According to a recent VA health care report, one third—more than 205,000—have sought treatment at VA health facilities.  That number is much larger than the 23,000 wounded in action number the Pentagon tells us and what gets reported on the news.

The reason the number of veterans seeking care at a VA facility is so high is because the wounded in action number is incomplete. It doesn’t include the nearly 7,000 who have been injured and needed to be medically evacuated out of Iraq.  It doesn’t include the nearly 19,000 who have been stricken with a disease and needed to be medically evacuated out of Iraq.  The total of number of soldiers who have been hurt in Iraq is almost 43,000.  Help me get the truth out because whether or not a veteran is wounded in action, injured or becomes sick—they still deserve the recognition and the best care in the world.

So let’s make a promise today—to put this fire out too—and say that, right here and right now, is when we begin to put together a comprehensive plan for our veterans.

It is time for us to start taking care of our own again: to say what we mean and mean what we say.  If we support first responders, then let’s give them the equipment they need to save our lives.  If we support our troops, then let’s send them into battle with the body armor they need.  And if we say that we support our veterans, then let’s give them the heroes welcome they deserve.  It is time for us to renew our sacred trust with people who serve and work hard to make America the best place on earth.

Last weekend, I was in Iowa and I took a bus ride with a group of firefighters.  We rode together from one event to the next.  I did a lot of listening on that ride as they told about their concerns.  They talked about how cities and towns were expanding around them.  And yet, as more and more people were moving in, there were fewer and fewer dollars available to hire more firefighters.  They were deeply concerned that was putting people at risk.  As we expand into rural area and as suburbs grow, we ought to be able to hire more firefighters to keep us safe.

On that bus ride, we talked about the need for higher wages.  Budgets are tight across this country.  Folks are worried that as wages stay flat and health care cost go up, mortgage rates go up, the costs of your kids’ clothing goes up, college tuition goes up—they won’t be able to afford to do the job they love.  These folks have to be able to negotiate higher wages.  If firefighters are putting their lives on the line to save, then it shouldn’t cost them the shirt off their backs.

That’s the message I carried back with me.  We need to get to work so you can do the work you love without having to live from paycheck to paycheck.

We’re going to change the politics in Washington so we are safer.  We can do this.  We can change the politics in Washington, push the big money and the special interests aside and we can put the people’s hopes and your concerns back at the center of our public debate.   We can end the can’t-do, won’t-do, won’t-even-try style of politics in this country and tackle the challenges we face today.  We can do this.

We can reform a health care system where we spend more than any other country in the world but still have families who skip seeing the doctor because they can’t afford the bill.  We can and will have universal health care in this country by the end of the next President’s first term.

We can stop sending $800 million a day to Middle East dictators for oil that’s a danger to our planet and a drag on our economy, and we can start using renewable fuels that are grown right in Iowa and Illinois, and we can help our car companies use technology we already have to start churning our cars that use less oil.

We can start giving kids the education they need to compete with kids not just across America but around the world – we can recruit an army of new teachers who we pay more, and support more, and ask more of.  And we can end the Washington mindset that says the answer to better schools is either more money or more reform because we know it’s both.

But none of this will come to pass until we do what everyone in this room knows what we must do and end this war in Iraq.

As many of you know, I opposed this war from the beginning – in part because I believed that if we gave this President the open-ended authority to invade Iraq, we would end up with the open-ended occupation we find ourselves in today.

Now nearly 3,200 of our soldiers have given the last full measure of devotion to their country.  Tens of thousands more will return home with wounds that last a lifetime.  And yet still, every day, we send our sons and daughters, our friends and neighbors to go fight in the crossfire of someone else’s civil war.

We learned that 14,000 Guard members across the country are leaving for a second tour before they’re supposed to, before they’re ready, and before they have the proper equipment to do the job they’re being sent for.  That means one more suit hangs on the hook every time the alarm bell sounds.  That means one more set of boots sit still for months.  That means one less Brother or Sister to watch your back in a burning building.  This is wrong.

We shouldn’t be sending more troops to Iraq, we should be bringing them home.

It’s time to find an end to this war.  That’s why I have a plan that will begin withdrawing our troops from Iraq on May 1st of this year, with the goal of removing all of our combat forces from the country by March of 2008.

I’ve also said that we have to make sure we’re not as careless getting out of this war as we were getting in, and that’s why this withdrawal would be gradual, and would keep some U.S. troops in the region to prevent a wider war and go after Al Qaeda and other terrorists.

But above all, it’s a plan that recognizes a fact that just about everyone in the world understands except the White House – there is no military solution to this war.  Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last, best hope to pressure the Sunni and Shia to come to the table and find peace.

It’s time to find an end to this war.  It’s time to refocus on the wider struggle against terror and restore our standing in the world.  And you can help.  Thanks to your emails and your letters and your support, we now have more than 60 members of Congress – Democrat and Republican – supporting our plan.  And if you keep it up, we can get more.  We can pass this plan and send a message even George Bush can’t ignore.

So when those voices start sounding the alarm that we can’t change Washington and its ways and start engaging in a serious debate about the serious times we face, just say those three words that have made America what it is today:  “Yes we can.”

When people say that we can’t take care of your Brothers and Sisters when they get sick from breathing in too much soot and smoke, we say, “Yes we can.”  When they say that we can’t finally buy the radios you need to talk to one another in case of an emergency, we say, “Yes we can.”

When they say that we can’t bring your Brothers and Sisters home from Iraq so they can do the job they love back home, we say, “Yes we can.”  Thank you.