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AFPS Blog: Obama Spends Birthday Focused on Vets

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 10, 2009 – President Barack Obama strode into the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Aug. 4, uttering apologies for being late as he approached the four military journalists to shake their hands and thank them for coming to talk about veterans’ issues.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
President Barack Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki conduct a media roundtable at the White House with military reporters, Aug. 4, 2009. Participating, from left, are Leo Shane of Stars and Stripes; Tom Philpott of Military Update, Donna Miles of American Forces Press Service, and Bill McMichael of Military Times. White House photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

It was the president’s birthday, and the fact hadn’t been lost at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Reporters filing through the security gate passed a group of revelers in pointy party hats assembled outside the fence line. They called out birthday greetings to TV cameras, hoisting a larger-than-life image of the president high under the oppressive afternoon sun.

Inside the White House, Obama had a full schedule of events, including lunch with the Senate Democratic caucus just before his session with me and three other military journalists.

Each session, he explained as he sat across from the reporters with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki at his side, had included birthday festivities that he hadn’t known about and hadn’t factored into his schedule.

It was shaping up to be a good birthday, he reflected. His Secret Service agents had presented him with a fishing rod. His military aides gave him a display for his military coin collection.

“I’m making out,” he said with a smile. “I want to see what Michelle gives me.”

The pleasantries exchanged and his visitors now at ease, the president explained why he’d called the session to talk about what his administration is doing to support veterans.

Congress is about to take its summer recess and several major veterans conventions are coming up within the next month. “And we think we’ve got a great story to tell about where we are moving when it comes to how we treat our men and women who served in the United States armed forces,” he said.

Obama praised troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, forming “as experienced and as battle-hardened a group of veterans as we’ve seen in a generation, basically.

“They have performed with extraordinary valor,” he said, only to return home to a weakened economy brought on by the financial crisis.

So rather than just “tinker around the edges” to improve VA services for them, Obama said, he opted to “take a forceful series of steps to make sure that the VA was equipped to provide the services that our veterans so richly deserve.”

That’s the thinking behind the fiscal 2010 VA budget, with its largest funding increase in 30 years, he said. The additional $25 billion over the next five years will go a long way: “more robust” treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, new VA clinics in rural areas to make services more accessible, more claims adjudicators to reduce backlogs.

Obama calls passage of the budget a big success that will enable these and other changes needed at VA to occur. They’ll put VA on “a much firmer footing, moving forward,” he said. “The key now is implementation, execution.

For that to happen, he said, he’s counting on Shinseki to make VA “a much more customer-friendly operation oriented to bringing people in, not keeping them out, and toward giving them the services they need in a cost-efficient way.

Obama ran down a litany of initiatives under way, and took questions on a broad range of other VA issues. Although all four of us reporters had notes in front of us on the table, the president had none. Shinseki filled in some of the gaps, but there weren’t many.

The clock was ticking and the staff behind Obama, sitting along a flag-filled wall, was getting nervous. They were, again, behind schedule.

Obama remained at ease, but deliberated a bit less as he responded to the last two questions.

Overall, he said, he’s pretty satisfied with the direction things are going as he works to make good on his campaign promises to do right by America’s veterans.

“Of all the things we’ve accomplished over the first seven months of my administration, one of the things I’m most proud of is that I really believe we have been true to our commitment to our veterans,” he said. “The promises that I made during the campaign, we have followed through on. And it will provide tangible, concrete benefits to our veterans for years to come.”

The interview was now over, the tape recorders off, and suddenly Obama was preparing to dash off to his next appointment -- again, behind schedule.

Hands were shaken and thank-yous exchanged, along with a fresh round of “happy birthdays.” The president paused before returning to the Oval Office across the hallway, asking the reporters, “Tell all your readership I appreciate what they do for our country every day.”

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