Minneapolis Convention Center
11:56 A.M. CDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Commander Rohan, incoming Commander Reistad, distinguished guests, to all the cherished veterans who have fought for the freedom of the people of the United States in the uniform of the United States of America, and your families: It is my great honor to be at this celebration, the 100th National Convention of the American Legion. (Applause.)
And to all the Legionnaires today, and to every member of the Legion Family across America, I bring greetings and congratulations from a leader that you heard from last year, and a great champion of our armed forces past, present, and future. I bring greetings and congratulations from the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump. (Applause.)
This week, the American Legion returns to the city of Minneapolis — the site of your very first convention, 100 years ago — where your forebears adopted a constitution, voted to establish your national headquarters in the great city of Indianapolis, Indiana — (applause) — and embarked on a century — a century of service and sacrifice. And thanks to the men and women of the American Legion, we are now at the start of a new century of American strength. And American Legion has been there every step of the way. (Applause.)
And I’m here today, on behalf of our Commander-in-Chief, to put down one more installment on the debt of gratitude that we owe to each and every one of you who’ve worn the uniform. It’s a debt that we know we can never fully repay.
Freedom isn’t free. To be preserved, it demands vigilance. To be defended, it requires strength. To be secured for our children and our grandchildren, it calls for the loyalty of patriots and the courage of warriors. It requires Americans to answer the call, and you Legionnaires answered that call in your time. (Applause.)
You come from the rest of us, but you are the best of us. And the American people cherish all of the men and women who bear the title of “Veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States.”
You veterans are emblematic of American greatness. You stepped up to serve your country, to serve a cause greater than yourselves. And that also describes a particular veteran that I know is on the hearts and our minds of people all across America as we gather here.
He came from a long line of service in the uniform. He served in the Vietnam War, spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war, and he did not yield. After he made it home, he took on a new kind of service, in the halls of our nation’s Capitol. And in the Congress of the United States, he would become one of the most unwavering advocates of our armed forces to ever serve.
We remember this man in Arizona today. Tomorrow, and the day after, in our nation’s Capitol, before he is laid to rest at the United States Naval Academy. But I can assure you, America will always remember and honor the lifetime of service of United States Senator John McCain. (Applause.)
And by honoring him, we also honor all of you, his fellow members of the American Legion, who, for 100 years, have proudly stood “for God and country.”
This centennial celebration that begins this week is a time to reflect on the roots of your founding, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, when the guns of the First World War fell silent.
As the world searched for meaning in the unfathomable horror of that struggle, an idealism about the future arose: A hope that the total destruction of the Great War might chasten the hearts of men and, in the end, make it “the war to end all wars.”
The fathers of the American Legion fought for freedom in that war. And while they, too, sought to “promote peace and good will on earth,” they also knew that peace only comes through strength. (Applause.)
They created the American Legion to promote that strength at home and abroad. And they, and all of you who follow in their footsteps, have fulfilled this mission with distinction, now 100 years later.
For the past century, you’ve fought tirelessly to ensure our national defense, seeing in the lessons of history the truth that weakness arouses evil.
For 100 years, you’ve instilled in our nation’s youth a love for the principles of “Americanism,” including through that National Oratorical Contest, which, the Commander just mentioned, I competed in more than four decades ago, and it began my lifelong love for the Constitution of the United States. (Applause.)
And most importantly, for 100 years, the American Legion has been known for your matchless work to fulfill the words of our 16th President, to “care for him who shall have borne the battle.”
You gathered here know the challenges that await America’s warfighters when they return home from the battlefield. And you step into the gap, day in and day out, to help your brothers-and-sisters-in-arms adjust to civilian life in ways that only a fellow veteran can.
Every year, Legionnaires generously volunteer time and resources to provide comfort and care to America’s wounded warriors. You support active-duty military families during difficult times of overseas deployment, and provide scholarships to the sons and daughters of America’s fallen heroes. This is a legacy of kindness and generosity of which the American Legion should be proud. (Applause.)
And throughout your storied history, the American Legion has advocated for our nation’s veterans at the highest levels of our government. And your work over the past century has made an incalculable difference for our nation’s veterans, our future leaders, and all those who served in the armed forces today and their families.
And in case you haven’t noticed, you have an ally and a champion in President Donald Trump. (Applause.) Just as you have fought for our freedom, we will always fight for you. (Applause.)
In this White House, under this President’s leadership, we know that veterans’ benefits are not entitlements. Veterans’ benefits are simply the earned compensation for men and women who served in the uniform of the United States. (Applause.)
Since day one of this administration, we’ve taken decisive action to ensure that America keeps the promises that we made to each and every one of you and all of our nation’s heroes.
Last year, on the stage of this very convention, President Trump signed into law a historic bill that would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of the American Legion: the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act. (Applause.)
This new law brought the veterans — the VA’s appeals process into the 21st century. It gives our nation’s heroes the answers they need on a timeline that you deserve. Over the past year, the VA has actually awarded more than $55 million in retroactive benefits to America’s veterans, and we’re currently on pace to process the most appeals cases in a single year in American history. (Applause.) And I promise you, this VA, this administration, will not rest until we end the backlog at the VA once and for all. (Applause.)
President Trump also signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, with the strong support of the American Legion, ensuring that our veterans receive the highest levels of service across the entire VA system. And I’m pleased to report today, under our administration, just a year and a half in, with the new strength found in that legislation, we’ve already fired, suspended, or demoted more than 3,200 VA employees for negligent behavior. (Applause.) They’re gone.
And at the same time we’re restoring accountability at the VA, we’ve also been working to keep our promise to give veterans healthcare freedom and choice. And nearly three months ago, President Trump signed the historic VA Mission Act. We’re now giving veterans access to the real-time healthcare choices they deserve. (Applause.)
The Mission Act was one of the largest and most important VA reforms in a generation. And we’re going to continue to make sure that our veterans have access to the world-class healthcare that you earned in the uniform of the United States of America. As the President has said, “No one who defends our country in uniform should have to fight for their lives when they come” home.
It’s a new day at the VA. (Applause.) Thank you. Truthfully, it’s a new day at the VA. And working with Secretary Wilkie, we’ve also implemented the “Decision Ready Claims” initiative to ensure that veterans’ claims are processed quickly and efficiently. We’ve already reduced the average wait time from months to just two weeks. (Applause.)
We’ve been working hard. We’ve been working hard to live up to President Trump’s promise to reform the VA. We’ve expanded telehealth options, we’ve opened a brand-new White House VA Hotline run by veterans for veterans, and we’ve made it easier for America’s veterans to access the mental health services that they need to treat the invisible wounds of war.
You know, I stand before you today deeply humbled because while I am the son of a combat veterans and the proud father of a United States Marine, my life’s journey did not take me into the uniform of the United States. But my dad’s did.
He saw action in the Korean War. And a few years after he passed away, I was visiting a cousin of his, now 30 years gone. He’d grown up with my dad in Chicago, and he talked to me about the way the war had changed my dad.
When I asked him how, he said, “You know, when I knew your dad growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he was one of the most happy-go-lucky guys I ever met.” But he said, “The war changed him and he never was quite the same when he came home.”
And I asked him, “How do you mean?” My dad’s cousin looked at him, and said words that I’ll literally never forget. He said, “I don’t think your dad ever got over the guilt of coming home.”
You know, in those words, in an instant, this son of that veteran understood every unfinished sentence, every far-away look on my father’s face whenever the war came up. And that’s when I began to understand the quiet cost of freedom and the burden that so many of our veterans bear when they return from combat to everyday life.
Understanding that burden, our administration is taking unprecedented steps to improve access to counseling and mental healthcare services for our veterans, especially those in the first year of transition from uniformed service.
Today, for the first time ever, every VA medical facility in America provides same-day emergency healthcare services. And to all of our veterans that are looking on, just know we are with you. You do not carry that burden alone. (Applause.)
Beyond healthcare, beyond the VA, I’m proud to say this administration has also taken decisive action to get the economy moving again, to get it working for America’s veterans, so that when our warfighters come home, return to civilian life, they have an opportunity for a good living and to pursue their dreams.
I’m proud to report to you that thanks to the pro-growth policies of this administration — tax cuts, regulation, unleashing American energy — the unemployment rate among American veterans has fallen by nearly 40 percent since Election Day 2016. (Applause.) Veterans’ unemployment has reached its lowest level in nearly 20 years. (Applause.)
Every day our administration works to honor you and ensure that our veterans have the benefits you earned and the opportunities that you deserve for all that you’ve done for this country.
But finally, I know you would want to hear that we also honor your service by ensuring that we learn from the lessons of history, and we protect all that you have won for us on fields of battle in cold wars and in combat.
In this centennial year of the American Legion, as we prepare to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War that inspired your founding, be assured that this administration has not forgotten the lessons of that era.
The First World War represented a turning point in the history of our country and the world. In the span of just a few years, the United States went from being isolated between two vast oceans to becoming the preeminent power in the world.
But while we won the war, in time, we lost the peace. And a little more than a generation later, America’s best and bravest were again crossing the Atlantic to return to a continent at war.
Much like the time between the two World Wars, the world that our administration inherited is filled with widening challenges and unknowable threats. Rogue regimes race for nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Radical Islamic terror networks spread as never before, and rising rival powers aggressively seek to undermine American interests at every turn.
For too long, the national policymakers stood silent while others exploited the international institutions and rules that we helped build, and subsidized foreign industries at great risk to our own.
Today, Russia and China challenge American power and influence wherever they can. And dangerous dictatorships in North Korea and Iran destabilize their regions and threaten our people while brutalizing their own.
But today, America is no longer ignoring these threats. Thanks to the leadership of President Donald Trump, we are confronting these challenges head on. (Applause.)
We are once again putting the security and vital national interests of America first. Under our administration, the United States is pursuing a new National Security Strategy based on, as the President said, “a principled realism, guided by our vital national interests, and rooted in our timeless values.”
At the heart of this new strategy is the belief, born out of history, that the United States and our armed forces are the world’s greatest force for good. (Applause.)
And with that conviction we have taken decisive action, under President’s Trump’s leadership, to make the strongest military in the history of the world stronger still.
After years of budget cuts to our military, just last year, President Trump signed into law one of the largest increases in our national defense since the days of Ronald Reagan. (Applause.) The era of budget cuts to our armed forces is over and a new era of American strength is underway.
And to all of you who served, and who even now have loved ones in the armed forces, let me make you a promise: We will continue to rebuild our military, restore the arsenal of democracy, until we give our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard the resources and the training they deserve to accomplish their mission and come home safe. (Applause.)
With renewed American strength, the United States is once again standing without apology as leader of the free world. Thanks to our President’s leadership, our NATO Allies have increased defense spending by over $33 billion and they’re now paying more to support our common security than ever before. (Applause.)
And together — together with our allies, we’ve taken the fight against radical Islamic terrorism, on our terms, to their soil. In Afghanistan, we’re giving our warfighters the resources and the tools they need to fight and win. And in Syria and Iraq, thanks to the courage of our armed forces, ISIS is on the run, their caliphate has crumbled, and we will soon drive ISIS from the face of the Earth. (Applause.)
And earlier this summer, as our President secured a historic commitment for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, he also had our fallen on his heart. President Trump secured a promise from Chairman Kim to return the remains of all our missing fallen servicemembers lost in the Korean War.
And I will tell you, this son of that combat veteran from the Korean War was honored beyond words to be there when the first 55 flag-draped cases bearing the remains of our missing fallen arrived on American soil. Thanks to the leadership and compassion of President Donald Trump, our boys are finally coming home. (Applause.)
Now what I have described to you today, men and women of the American Legion, is nothing short of a great renewal of American strength at home and abroad. Over the past year and a half, with the strong support of the American Legion, our administration has replaced weakness with vigor, doubt with confidence, and timidity with leadership. And under President Donald Trump, together with all of you, we are forging a new century of American strength.
So thank you again. Thank you for the honor of addressing you, in this historic year, at the start of your centennial celebration. For 100 years, the American Legion has brought together heroes who stepped forward to serve, and who still serve their nation long after you hang up the uniform.
In this year of celebration, it’s fitting and proper to dwell on what distinguishes you the most, the defining characteristic that’s made you members of this storied organization, and heroes to your entire nation.
In the words of a veteran, from 50 years ago, we are reminded:
“It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet,
Who has given us freedom of speech.”
It’s all of you. Each and every one of you who have served in the uniform of the United States and the brave men and women, who are serving at this very hour, standing a lonely post, manning a deck on a rolling sea, patrolling the skies, or marching into darkness who have given us freedom, who have preserved that freedom since the birth of this nation.
This is the land of the free, because it is still the home of the brave. And you are that brave. (Applause.)
You counted your lives — you counted our lives more important than your own. You were, in your time, prepared to lay down your lives for your friends, your families, your nation, and our freedom.
So on behalf of your Commander-in-Chief, and on behalf of a grateful nation, 100 years on from the founding of this great organization, I say to each and every one of you from my heart: Thank you for your service.
And to the American Legion, thank you for a century of service, for doing your part, not only in years past, but in the century that is to come, to preserve this last, best, hope of Earth, for ourselves and our posterity.
So, God bless the American Legion. And God bless our armed forces. And God bless the Unites States of America. (Applause.)
12:22 P.M. CDT