PHOENIX — Speaking to more than 5,500 veterans, President Obama on Monday renewed his commitment to dismantling Al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- a struggle he said was "fundamental to the defense of our people" -- and offered assurances that his healthcare overhaul would not touch veterans' medical benefits.
"This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity," Obama told the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars conference -- cautioning that the insurgency would not be defeated overnight. "Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."
With U.S. forces scheduled to leave Iraq by 2011, Obama pledged that in the future, he would only send service members "into harm's way when it is absolutely necessary."
"When I do," the president said, "it will be based on good intelligence and guided by a sound strategy. I will give you a clear mission, defined goals and the equipment and support you need to get the job done" -- a clear criticism of the George W. Bush administration's actions in Iraq.
The appearance in Phoenix gave the president a chance to tout recent White House efforts to modernize the military, streamline veterans' medical care and eliminate wasteful military spending.
He ridiculed House plans to buy a costly new presidential helicopter. "Maybe you've heard about this -- among its other capabilities, it would let me cook a meal while under nuclear attack," Obama said, drawing laughter. "Now, let me tell you something. If the United States of America is under nuclear attack, the last thing on my mind will be whipping up a snack."
The president praised his campaign rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as a partner in efforts to scale back unnecessary defense programs.
Obama also noted that the administration was moving to end the controversial stop-loss troop deployment policy, expand the Army and Marine Corps ranks to give service members more time between deployments, and provide additional helicopters, protective gear and armored vehicles for troops in Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, Congress authorized $1.4 billion to build nursing homes and extended care facilities for veterans, upgrade medical centers and hire an additional 1,500 workers to handle medical claims.
The president has proposed adding $25 billion in funding for the Veterans Affairs Department over the next five years, which he said would be the largest increase in three decades. The money would help create rural VA clinics across the country, speed the processing of health claims, and expand care for post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries faced by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama said caring for veterans with those ailments was a "defining purpose of my budget -- billions of dollars for more treatment and mental health screening to reach our troops on the front lines, and more mobile and rural clinics to reach veterans back home."
Those moves drew praise, even from several veterans who voted for McCain.
"He has given us what we need for our veterans, and he is letting the generals handle Afghanistan," said Army veteran David Cauley, a Republican from Larchwood, Iowa.
But, Cauley said, he did not support the president's healthcare overhaul -- a feeling shared by a number of audience members, as well as protesters outside the Phoenix Convention Center. One cause for alarm, some older veterans said, was the plan to help pay for the overhaul by making Medicaid and Medicare programs more efficient.
"I'm kind of concerned about what is going to happen with my Medicare," said Air Force veteran Henry M. Edwards, 78, of San Diego.
Alluding to what he has called misinformation surrounding the debate, the president tried to soothe concern.
"Let me say this -- one thing that reform won't change is veterans' healthcare," Obama said. "No one is going to take away your benefits. That's the truth."