Duckworth Delivers Keynote Address at Commercial Club of Chicago’s Annual Veterans Recognition Program
[CHICAGO, IL] — Today, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) delivered the keynote address at the Commercial Club of Chicago’s Annual Veterans Recognition Program, where she discussed how Congress’ failure to pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) represents a broken promise to some of America’s bravest sons and daughters. After her keynote, Duckworth also took part in a fireside chat with David Hiller, President and CEO of the McCormick Foundation. Photos from the event are available here.
“If we truly want to take care of our troops and Veterans, we need to start by reflecting on the fact that most of this country has simply accepted—no, seemingly forgotten—that we’re still in the thick of two wars with no end in sight,” Duckworth said. “Until we muster up the courage to ask and answer the tough questions that will actually tell our troops what they’re fighting for, we won’t be living up to their sacrifices.”
A full copy of Duckworth’s remarks are below:
Hello everyone! Thank you for having me here today. It’s an honor to speak to you all.
Sunday marks Veterans Day—those 24 hours once a year when our heroes are honored for all they’ve done to keep the rest of us safe.
Despite the risks, despite the terror they know they could face, tens of thousands of the bravest people you and I could ever know still volunteer to serve every year… just as they have since a group of young patriots stood their ground at Lexington and Concord.
So when these heroes get home, they deserve more than just an ovation on Veterans Day. They deserve to be honored the other 364 days of the year, too.
But people often confuse what it means to actually support our troops and Veterans—thinking it amounts to letting them pre-board at the airport or giving them discounts at Home Depot.
Those are nice things, sure.
But just as true patriotism isn’t about who can stand the tallest and sing the loudest when the National Anthem plays before a football game, actually honoring our troops takes a more concerted effort than giving dollar-off discounts to those who risk everything for our country.
It starts with making sure that no Veteran is homeless: Because we’re all dishonored when any Veteran is forced to lay their head down to sleep on the same streets they risked their life to defend.
It means making it easier for Veterans to access the retirement or disability benefits they’ve earned... easier for them to go to school and find good-paying jobs… easier to afford safe housing, too.
It takes passing policies to ensure that they have ready access to good health care… that they won’t have time to read every single magazine in the VA waiting room while waiting around for a simple checkup.
It means investing a few more dollars so that the VA can afford to hire the 40,000 mental health counselors and female health providers and other staff it needs to fill its vacancies and serve our warriors.
And finally, it means making sure the VA pays their provider bills so Veterans don’t go into collections—something I myself nearly had to do after I had first daughter, when the VA failed to pay my obstetrics bill.
I was in Congress at the time—so imagine how hard it must be for that 20-year-old with post-traumatic stress who’s desperately seeking help in rural Illinois.
This isn’t “just” a matter of doing right by those who’ve done so much for the rest of us.
It’s a matter of national strength and national security, too.
Our young men and women are gonna think twice about volunteering to serve if they see that our nation won’t provide for them after they take off the uniform.
Or if they see their friends coming back from war, suffering from PTSD and struggling to get the mental health care they’ve earned… if they see that military sexual trauma still isn’t taken seriously.
That’s unacceptable. Every part of it.
Which is why since I got to Washington, I’ve worked day and night to pass policies that will actually help our Veterans in the ways they deserve.
I’ve introduced legislation to expand the GI Bill and get more Purple Heart recipients into classrooms.
Another bill—now law—that would help Veterans translate the skills they learned in the military into the credentials needed for civilian jobs… and another that would help them find good-paying work in growing sectors like clean, renewable energy, too.
Legislation that would help our heroes’ families keep roofs over their heads.
That would make medication more affordable while cutting down on opioid over-prescription… that would expand mental health services to help end the suicide epidemic among Veterans.
And yet another bill that would help them grow their small businesses—which cleared committee with unanimous support last month.
The truth is, there are a lot of policies that would help Veterans and servicemembers, even if their impact might not be as obvious.
If we invest in things like cyber, manufacturing, green energy and biofuels, maybe we could finally stop wasting our troops’ heroism on foreign oil.
If we invest in public education and public health or even just reform our criminal justice system, we could help reduce the burdens on military families and improve military readiness by expanding the base of citizens our military can recruit from.
Right now, only 29% of Americans between 17 and 24 are considered fit to serve…
The other 70% either fail basic math or English tests or are unable to pass a physical or are barred from enlisting because they made a mistake years ago that still lies on their record.
But if we truly want to take care of our troops and Veterans, we need to start by reflecting on the fact that most of this country has simply accepted—no, seemingly forgotten—that we’re still in the thick of two wars with no end in sight.
We need to think about how casually we’re shipping teenagers off to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then we have to question why the hell we’re asking them to die 6,000 miles from home when we don’t even know why they’re there… when we can’t even verbalize what their mission is or visualize what winning these wars would actually look like.
This past year, Americans who weren’t alive when the Twin Towers fell became eligible to enlist in our Armed Forces.
18 year olds who’ve grown up knowing nothing but a nation at war—who weren’t even born when we first airlifted Green Berets into Afghanistan—will be sent into the sandbox themselves… risking their lives with no end-goal in sight…
Most people run away from gunfire. But our servicemembers run toward it.
They watch their brothers and sisters die. They miss births and funerals, school plays and college graduations, then come home bearing the wounds of war—both visible and hidden.
Our troops will always do their job defending our country, no matter the sacrifice.
So they deserve to know that they have the moral support and legal backing of this nation.
But for more than 15 years, our elected leaders in Washington have failed to give them even that.
One of Congress’s most solemn duties is deciding when and how we send Americans into combat, by debating and passing Authorizations for Use of Military Force that set the legal framework and constitutional basis for military action…
That are supposed to define the mission of our men and women downrange.
But lately too many on the Hill have shrugged off that duty entirely, hiding behind the outdated AUMFs that were used to launch the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars all the way back in ‘01 and ‘02.
Scared of the political risks that come with bringing these wars back into the spotlight…
Staring down Election Days…
Congress has shirked its responsibility to our troops.
These documents have justified nearly two decades of war—and the deaths of thousands of American heroes.
But they’ve been rendered meaningless as those in power have stretched and skewed their original intent…
Leaving our troops mission-less. Untethered. Shadowboxing a faceless enemy everywhere from Niger to Iraq.
Enough of being more worried about political consequences than we are concerned for our women and men in harm’s way.
Enough of watching on as another mother learns her son has gone missing somewhere near Kabul... as another father is forced to bury his daughter in Section 60 at Arlington.
Until we muster up the courage to ask and answer the tough questions that will actually tell our troops what they’re fighting for, we won’t be living up to their sacrifices.
Instead, we’ll be leaving them in an endless loop—refusing to even look for an off-ramp.
I know guys who’ve done seven, eight rotations—who go in knowing that they’ll probably be back on that same stretch of sand in a couple years, fighting for that same patch of desert over and over again.
Gaining a few feet one tour. Losing an inch or two the next. Watching their buddies bleeding, dying over that same piece of ground, time and time again.
Let’s be real. This past year we’ve spent more time debating if athletes should kneel during the National Anthem than we have discussing what our troops are actually supposed to be doing in the Middle East.
This shouldn’t be this hard.
Anyone who claims the mantle of patriotism can’t keep demanding such sacrifices from our servicemembers while refusing to even have this debate.
Listen, I’ll always make sure our troops have the equipment they need, but it’s not enough to just throw together huge new defense budgets each year.
We also need to have a discussion about why the Department of Defense needs that money in the first place.
Are our troops’ lives not worth a vote? Not even worth a discussion?
To me, part of the problem lies in the growing disconnect between those who serve overseas and those who serve on the Hill.
Right now in Washington, we just don’t have active duty servicemembers or Veterans with combat experience the way we did in the years after Vietnam, when those returning from war would put down their rifles and head to the Capitol Building to fight for their country in a different kind of role.
The era when John McCain and John Kerry would reach across the aisle to solve some of our nation’s biggest problems because both of them were more concerned with protecting our troops than brandishing partisan labels.
But now far fewer Veterans come to Washington, and the divide has sharpened—with those sitting in the houses of power evermore removed from those sent off to battle.
I can tell you this: it’s a whole lot easier to cover your eyes and avoid taking tough votes if you’ve never feared for your life in the heat of a warzone.
If you’ve never tasted blood in your mouth and sent up one last prayer while under attack.
If you’ve never held your family close before heading off on yet another tour, kissing your loved ones for what you know could be the last time.
Yes, it’s clearly easy for some to ignore the everyday realities of war from the hallowed halls of the Capitol.
But it’s near impossible if you’ve been there yourself.
Today though, there are just a handful of us in the Senate who’ve been in combat.
The same is true for our country at large, as the same families keep volunteering to serve, generation after generation.
In Vietnam, because of the draft, a boy from rural Missouri could’ve ended up in a fighting position next to someone from the upper crust of New York society.
Of course, the rich could get out of service then, too. But in that bygone era, service touched nearly every corner of this country, regardless of tax bracket or race or education.
Now it falls onto the shoulders of the same families to volunteer over and over again.
Or it gets foisted upon those who’ve fallen on hard times: service as a means of escaping poverty.
And so the gap widens, with the vast majority of Americans never having served and having little idea what it’s like, other than what they see from Hollywood.
And so it becomes easy for most of us to live our lives disconnected from the daily nightmare going on 6,000 miles to our east.
Disconnected from the fact that Americans are still dying in the Middle East.
Americans like Chief Warrant Officer 3 Taylor J. Galvin—a hero by anyone’s estimation, who was killed in the middle of his ninth combat tour just a few months ago.
He, like me, was a Blackhawk pilot.
He, like me, was at the helm when his helicopter went down.
He, like me, had a family.
But, unlike me, he was never given the chance to wake up at Walter Reed.
Instead, he gave his last full measure of devotion in his love of this nation.
We should damn well know his name in return… and his family shouldn’t be left with the knowledge that he died fighting for a country that’s turned a blind eye to his sacrifice.
We have to do more to bridge this divide, which is one reason I’ve spent years urging Veterans—no matter their party—to run for office:
Because when those in Washington start beating the drums of war, we’ll need elected officials who are able to speak up about the true costs of battle.
Who understand the sacrifice we’re asking our troops to make.
Who know what Gold Star families deserve.
And who get what reforms the VA really needs—because they, too, have waited for days… weeks… months on end for a simple doctor’s appointment.
So even as we celebrate Veterans Day this weekend, the truth is that our Veterans will never be truly honored if we keep saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning then reverting back to tribalism by the afternoon.
True patriotism requires doing the hard work necessary to actually change our country. To make it a better, fairer place where sacrifices aren’t just borne by a few but carried by all.
Because America is already great—but we also need to be good… to one another, to our troops in harm’s way and to those who’ve come home from war.
So this Veterans Day, let’s all promise to no longer just hear Veterans, but to listen to them. To not just salute them, but to honor them—every day of the year.
Because no Veteran should feel invisible—just as no troop should feel mission-less.
They fought for us for so long. When they get home, they need us to fight for them, too.
We’ll never be able to repay the debt we owe them. But this… well, at least this is a start.
Thank you, again, for having me here today.
God bless you all. God bless our troops, our Veterans and their loved ones. And God bless America.
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