Updated 2:05 p.m. ET, 8/26/2014
Charlotte (CNN) – President Barack Obama detailed Tuesday how his administration is attempting to rectify shortfalls in caring for war veterans, just as new threats abroad could require more sacrifices for American military families.
Speaking at the annual American Legion conference in Charlotte, Obama announced new executive actions aimed at improving mental health services and financial opportunities for servicemen and women, months after allegations of massive wrongdoing surfaced at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
His remarks came as the United States contemplates further action to stem the expansion of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, including airstrikes. The President declared in front of roughly 7,000 legionnaires in Charlotte on Tuesday he was ready to “take direct action where needed to protect our people and to defend our homeland,” but added that under no circumstances would American combat troops return to Iraq.
“Rooting out a cancer like ISIL won't be easy, and it won't be quick,” Obama said, using the administration's name for the terrorist group which last week beheaded an American freelance journalist, James Foley.
“Our message to anyone who harms our people is simple: America does not forget our reach is long. We are patient. Justice will be done,” he said.
The actions to improve veterans care Obama announced Tuesday included expanding research into post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, developing ways to prevent suicide among veterans, and making it easier for veterans to transition into mental health services provided by civilian doctors or the VA after leaving active duty.
The President also announced new partnerships with financial lenders to make it easier for veterans to negotiate lower mortgage and student loan interest rates.
The systemic problems within the veterans’ department led to the resignation of Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general who had headed the troubled agency since Obama took office in 2009. The American Legion, whose annual conference Obama spoke at Tuesday, was among several veterans groups calling for Shinseki to step down.
His replacement, former corporate chief Robert McDonald, was approved unanimously by the Senate at the end of July. Lawmakers also green-lighted $16 billion in new funding to build more VA facilities and hire more workers, though some said the measure didn’t do enough to criminalize the wrongdoing at the agency.
Obama on Tuesday said revelations veterans waited months for care while managers attempted to cover it up were “outrageous and inexcusable.”
“We’re focused on this at the highest levels,” Obama told the American Legion crowd. “We are going to get to the bottom of these problems. We're going to fix what is wrong. We're going to do right by you. And we are going to do right by your families. And that is a solemn pledge and commitment that I'm making to you here.”
His appearance in North Carolina comes as that state’s incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces a tough battle for re-election. Attacks by her Republican rival heavily feature her support for some of Obama’s more controversial programs.
It was initially unclear whether Obama and Hagan would appear together Tuesday. She greeted Obama with a hug and a kiss on the cheek on the tarmac after Air Force One’s arrival. She also spoke after him on the American Legion stage.
But before their friendly encounter, Hagan released a statement saying Obama’s administration hasn’t yet done enough to regain the trust of veterans after the agency scandal.