Transcript: CNN Presidential Town Hall: America's Military and The Commander and Chief
September 28th, 2016
10:26 PM ET

Transcript: CNN Presidential Town Hall: America's Military and The Commander and Chief

CNN’s Jake Tapper sat down with President Obama in Fort Lee, Virginia, home of the Combined Arms Support Command, for a CNN Presidential Town Hall to discuss veterans, national security and foreign policy issues impacting the US Military.  



 JAKE TAPPER, HOST :  Good evening from Fort Lee in Virginia.  We are coming to you from this U.S. Army installation for a crucial conversation with the military and the commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama, about some of the most pressing issues facing the United States today, our national security, our leadership abroad, the service of more than 2 million troops in our active and reserve forces, and the condition of our more than 20 million veterans.  

These exceptional men and women comprise the finest military force in the world, bravely tackling a host of challenges from conventional threats abroad to helping prevent terror from coming to our shores.  Yet, it is a critical time for the military.  With unresolved debate over size and scope and mandate, and the role of women in armed forces, and the treatment of veterans, who often come home only to feel as though they are still at war.

 This evening, we brought together people here who represent all branches.  Military spouses, their children, their parents, including those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, gold start families.  And we want to hear from as many of them as we can in the hour ahead.  These men and women are incredibly proud of their service and incredibly proud of their country, but today, they're going to focus on the challenges they face.  No subject is off limits.  President Obama will arrive momentarily, but before we begin this very special hour, please stand for the Army Logistics University Color Guard and the national anthem which will be sung by Staff Sergeant Tiara Brown.

TAPPER:  And now, the commander-in-chief.  This is the first time a president of the United States has ever visited this installation.  Please join me in welcoming President Barack Obama.  


TAPPER:  How are you?

OBAMA:  Good to see you.

 TAPPER:  Good to see you, sir.  Thanks for being here.  Appreciate it.  Please have a seat.

 OBAMA:  Thank you.  Thank you so much.  Please be seated, everybody.

TAPPER:  I'm going to get to them in a sec.  I have a few questions, national security issues that are in the news right this second.  

 OBAMA:  Please.

 TAPPER:  So we learned today that you're sending 600 more U.S. troops into Iraq to help the fight against ISIS.  After almost eight years of being president, I can't help but think that you seem more reluctant today to send large groups of U.S. forces into harms way than you did at the beginning of your presidency when you tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan.  Can you offer us a glimpse of what goes through your mind when you make the decision to send men and women like this into places like Iraq and Syria?


OBAMA:  Well, first of all, I want to thank everybody here at Fort Lee, Major General Williams, the entire team.  This is one of the crown jewels of our military infrastructure, because part of what makes us the greatest fighting force in world history is our ability to project anywhere, anytime around the world.  And the work that's done here on logistics, on transport and ordinance, facilitates us being able to do the incredible work that we do every single day, so I want to thank both military and civilian for the mission they do.


Jake, I've always been very mindful that when I send any of our outstanding men and women in uniform into a war theater, they're taking a risk that they may not come back.  And so there has not been a change from the time I came into office to the time that I leave office in which that is not a somber decision.  


I think what has changed is the nature of the missions that we've been trying to accomplish.  When I first came into office, Afghanistan was crumbling, in part because we had devoted a lot of resources to Iraq, and it was necessary for us to stop the bleeding and required us to send a large number of troops there.  Once we stabilized and we were able to make sure that Afghan security forces were in the fight on their own and we were able to transition into a advise and assist posture, then we were able to draw them back down, and we now have about 9,000 U.S. troops there, but we're not in the combat role.


In Iraq, our goal is to provide air support, and we've flown 100,000 sorties, 15,000 strikes, to decimate ISIL.  But our job is not to provide the ground forces that is rolling back territory.  That's the job of the Iraqis, where we provide training and assistance, logistical support.  


We do have some special forces operators where if we're targeting a high value target, or we're going after some key intelligence that's going to help us dismantle ISIL, they're going to be more forward leaning.  And so now we have a little over 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, around 300 or so in Syria.  But it's the nature of the role that has changed rather than how I assess it.  I am always mindful that any time our men and women in uniform are in war theater, there is risk.  


And although, when I came into office, we had well over 100,000 U.S. troops, and now we have about 15,000, between Iraq and Afghanistan.  Each one of those individuals are still carrying out a critical mission.  They are engaging in a fight that is dangerous, and we are grateful for the sacrifice, and I never forget it so that each and every time we make a decision, I want to make sure that the Pentagon is describing how it is that those folks are going to add to our ability to dismantle ISIL in a smart and sustainable way.


TAPPER:  Keeping with that theme, let's move from Iraq to Syria.  You said you're confident there were no good options for the U.S. to be able to stop what's going on in Syria without getting our troops involved in a quagmire.  You've also recently said that you are haunted constantly by what's going on there, the nearly half a million killed, the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.  When you see images from Syria, do you ever doubt yourself, do you ever second guess the decisions you've made?


OBAMA:  I think any good president has to go back and reexamine the decisions that he or she made so that you can learn something from it.  And there hasn't been probably a week that's gone by in which I haven't reexamined some of the underlying premises around how we're dealing with the situation in Syria and explored whether there are additional options that we haven't thought of.  


And that's not just an exercise I go through.  That's an exercise we have our entire team go through.  I'll sit in the situation room with my Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we'll bring in outside experts - I will bring in critics of my policy to find out, OK, you don't think this is the right way to go.  You tell me what it is that you think would allow us to prevent the civil war that's taking place in Syria.  


And I will be honest with you, that one of the things I think we have to be mindful of is, we have, by a mile, the greatest military on earth.  And we are going to always be in a position to defend the United States, defend our personnel, defend our people, our property, and our allies.  But there are going to be some bad things that happen around the world, and we have to be judicious in thinking about, is this a situation in which inserting large numbers of U.S. troops will get us a better outcome, knowing the incredible sacrifices that will be involved.  And in Syria, there is not a scenario in which, absent us deploying large numbers of troops, we can stop a civil war in which both sides are deeply dug in.


There have been critics of mine that have suggest that, well, if early enough, you had provided sufficient support to a moderate opposition, they might have been able to overthrow the murderous Assad regime.  The problem with that is, as we've seen, that Assad regime is supported by Russia, it's supported by Iran.  Because they have not threatened us directly, we would have been violating international law, as it's understood to just go in there and invade, and unless we were willing to sustain a large presence there and escalate, if and when Russia or Iran got involved, then we were going to be in a situation where at some point, the situation would collapse, except we would have a bunch of folks on the ground and be very much overextended.


In addition, keep in mind that we still had a situation in Iraq in which we had to support a fragile government.  We still had a situation in Afghanistan which, despite the incredible sacrifices that we've made, we've given them an opportunity to succeed, but they're not out of the woods yet.  We have spend well over a trillion dollars.  There is a long tail of costs in terms of us caring for those who come home with wounds seen and unseen, and so it's in these situations where you have to make judgments about, what is best for the national security interests of the United States, even though what you see is heartbreaking.  


And that's one of the most difficult decisions that you make as president, but historically, if you look at what happens to great nations, more often than not, they end up having problems because they are overextended, don't have a clear sense of what is their core interests, and what are things that they've liked to help, and the key in Syria at this point is, unless we can get the parties involved to recognize that they are just burning their country to the ground, and get it on a diplomatic and political track, frankly, there's going to be a limit to what we can do.  We will try to mitigate the pain and suffering that those folks are undergoing.  This is part of the reason why our approach to refugees, for example, has to be open hearted.  Although also hard headed to protect our homeland.  But at the end of the day, there are going to be challenges around the world that happen that don't directly tough on our security, where we need to help - we need to help lead, but just sending in more troops is not going to be the answer.


TAPPER:  I'd love to keep going, but this event is about the men and women around us and I'd like to introduce you right now to Major Jonathan Yost.  He's a chaplain here at Fort Lee.  He serves in the West Virginia Air National Guard.  Major -


MAJOR JONATHAN YOST:  Mr. President, since you assumed office in 2009, there has been a substantial increase in terror attacks around the world.  Likewise, here in the U.S., we've had major attacks in large cities such as Orlando, New York City, and elsewhere.  Sir, my question to you, are we doing anything now greater to combat Islamic jihadists?


OBAMA:  Well, I think that - first of all, it's important to recognize that if you look worldwide, the number of terrorist incidents has not substantially increased.  What we've seen are some very high profile attacks, mostly in the Middle East, also in our European theaters.  ISIL's emergence, obviously, has underscored the fact that even after we killed Bin Laden, even after we dismantled al-Qaeda, which was the primary threat when I came into office, that the ideology of hatred and killing had metastasized.  


And we've now seen a number of incidents here in the homeland, but they're different in kind from the sorts of attacks that we saw on 9/11.  Part of what has happened is because of the outstanding work of our men and women in uniform, and us dismantling al-Qaeda, partly because of hardening the homeland, the incredible ramp up of intelligence work that we do, the much more effective cooperation between law enforcement and the military so that information sharing, for example, between the FBI and cities and law enforcement officials there has much improved, because of the improvements we've made on aviation, it is much harder for terrorist organizations to carry out large scale attacks.  


The challenge we have, and this is going to be a challenge that we have for a while, is that it is possible for individuals or small groups of people to be inspired, and if they're willing to die to carry out significant harm, even though they're not directed from the outside, even though there's not a complicated plot, and these so-called lone wolf terrorist actors are going to be our biggest danger because they're the most difficult to see coming, and that's why our goal right now is, dismantling ISIL will reduce the appeal of what they're broadcasting through the internet, the poison that they're feeding people oftentimes who may have other mental illnesses or be troubled in some way.


But you take an example like the situation in Orlando.  You have an individual here who has not broken any laws, who, because of the way we organize our ability to purchase firearms, can go into a store legally, buy a bunch of firearms, and if he goes into a club and decides he wants to shoot a lot of folks, he can do a lot of damage.  


And so part of what we're having to do is to, even as we go after ISIL and dismantle them, we're also going to have to work to figure out, how do we block or counteract some of the hateful ideology that's coming over the internet, and we're also going to have to take some common sense precautions about how people who may have been inspired by these jihadists are able to get firearms, for example, and go into a club or into a mall and start shooting people up.  And that's going to be a challenge.  But I do think it's important for us to maintain perspective here.  The work that this military has done and the work that our law enforcement has done has made us significantly safer today than we were when 9/11 happened.


TAPPER:  Thank you, Major.


I want to introduce you to Donna Coates.  She's the widow of army veteran Barry Coates.  He waited more than a year for a colonoscopy at a VA hospital.  By the time he got one, it revealed terminal cancer that had metastasized.  The family sued the VA.  That claim was settled.  Donna -


DONNA COATES, WIDOW OF ARMY VETERAN:  Mr. President, I stand before you today with my hopes (inaudible) was always his desire to meet you, and sadly he never got a chance.  However, two years ago, (inaudible) testified in front of Congress, and we heard a lot of promises about reforms in accountability, but still, nothing has changed.  In fact, the contracted doctor that misdiagnosed my husband is still treating our veterans at the same VA clinic.


My mamma's always told me that if you stop talking about stuff and do it, then you don't have to talk about it any longer.  So when are we going to actually start holding these contracted doctors and the VA employees accountable?  For it's a difference between life and death.  And families like mine, they're tired of waiting.  And the only true change that's come since we began talking was that I am now a widow.  And my family, we will never be the same.


OBAMA:  Well first of all, my heart goes out to you.  I heard the testimony of your husband.  Bob McDonald, the head of the VA, heard that testimony, and because we can't bring your husband back, I don't want to in any way sugar coat the fact that there have been significant problems in the VA that have accumulated over decades.  And the incidents that we saw in South Carolina, the incidents that we saw in Phoenix, I think were inexcusable, but they were also an indication that you have a system, a bureaucracy that had gotten overwhelmed, built up over time.  And now when you have a lot more veterans coming home, needing treatment, even with some of the improvements that were made, there were still inexcusable wait times.


Now, we have actually made progress.  And again, I don't want to in any way pretend that we're where we need to be.  But we have in fact fired a whole bunch of people who were in charge of some of these facilities.  I don't know the particular case of this individual doctor, but you can bet, I'll find out after this meeting.  We now have a situation where about 80 percent of individuals who interact with the VA are satisfied that they're getting timely treatment.  I want that to be 100 percent, and that requires more work.


Since I came into office, just to give you some sense of perspective, we have increased the VA budget by 85 percent.  No president has increased the VA budget faster and more aggressively than I have because I believe that we've got to meet the sacred vow that we make to our troops that, if you are fighting for us, when you come home, you're going to get good service.  But it's not enough just for us to put more money into the system if the system itself is dysfunctional.


So part of what was happening, and we're beginning to fix it, but we're not there yet, is, in taking appointments, we were using old systems where somebody would answer the phone, they'd write down, try to schedule it, then they'd hand it off to somebody who then would input it into some old, rickety computer, and then somebody would print it out and it would get passed on to somebody else, and, so the system itself was so antiquated, so old, that it was hugely inefficient.  So we're having to rebuild information systems, intake systems - part of what we've done, working with Congress, was also making sure that if somebody is in a situation where, for example, they live far away from a facility, that they now have recourse to go to a private doctor, and to get, that doctor can get reimbursed.  


So across the board, we're working on these issues.  But I think it's really important to understand that the VA schedules 58 million appointments every year.  58 million.  And I want zero errors in all that process.  We're not anywhere near zero errors, and sadly, there are real consequences for people when that happens.  But I don't want you to ever think that it's because people like Bob McDonald, his deputies, are not taking this very seriously, because we understand this is a life or death situation, and we are resourcing it, but the VA is a big ocean liner, like a lot of the federal government, and when you initiate changes, you're trying to steer it, maybe you get it over on the right course, but you're not going to see fully the impact of all the changes we're making until a few years out.  But I appreciate you sharing what I know is a heartbreaking situation.  I promise you, it's not something that we ever stop thinking about.


TAPPER:  Thank you so much.  


This is First Lieutenant James Sutter.  He's an executive officer here in Fort Lee.  He serves in a mortuary affairs company.


FIRST LIEUTENANT JAMES SUTTER:  Mr. President, we honor those who have given deep meaning to the phrase, home of the brave, by making the ultimate sacrifice for the land of the free.  Lately, some players in the NFL have been choosing to take a knee during the national anthem, a time which I believe should be reserved to respect our service members.  As commander-in-chief, how do you feel about those NFL players choosing this typically respected time to voice their opinions?


OBAMA:  Well, as I've said before, I believe that us honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation.  And I think that for me, for my family, for those who work in the White House, we recognize what it means to us, but also what it means to the men and women who are fighting on our behalf.  But I'm also always trying to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people's rights to have a different opinion and to make different decisions about how they want to express their concerns.  And the test of our fidelity to our constitution, the freedom of speech, to our bill of rights, is not when it's easy, but when it's hard.


We fight sometimes so that people can do things that we disagree with.  But that's what freedom means in this country.  And so my hope would be that as this debate surfaces, we're always reminding ourselves that in a democracy like ours, there are going to be a lot of folks who do stuff that we just don't agree with.  But as long as they're doing it within the law, then we can voice our opinion objecting to it, but it's also their right.  


And I think that it's also important for us to recognize that sometimes out of these controversies, we start getting into a conversation, and I want everybody to listen to each other.  So I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat, and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing.  But I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who's lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.  


And one of the things that I always say about American democracy is, it can be frustrating, but it's the best system we've got.  The only way that we make it work is to see each other, listen to each other, try to be respectful of each other, not just go into separate corners, and I do hope that anybody who's trying to express any political view of any sort understands that they do so under the blanket of protection of our men and women in uniform, and that that appreciation of that sacrifice is never lost.


TAPPER:  Thank you, sir.  Our next question comes from Tina Houchins.  She's a gold star mother here in the Fort Lee community.  Her 19-year-old son, Aaron Goteer was killed in Baghdad in 2007.


TINA HOUCHINS:  Hi, Mr. President.  As a gold star mother, my son gave his life for acts of terrorism.  Do you still believe that the acts of terrorism are done for the self-proclaimed Islamic religious motive?  And if you do, why do you still refuse to use the term racially - I'm sorry, Islamic terrorist?


OBAMA:  Well, first of all, I want to thank your son, obviously, for his service.  I spent a lot of time with gold star moms, as does Michelle, and it's always one of the most profound things we do in office, is just spending time with families and hearing about not just the sacrifices, but also the incredible life and patriotism and talent that these men and women live their lives with.


The truth of the matter is that this is an issue that has been sort of manufactured, because there is no doubt, and I've said repeatedly that where we see terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda or ISIL, they have perverted and distorted and tried to claim the mantle of Islam for an excuse, for basically barbarism and death.  These are people who kill children, kill Muslims, take sex slaves - there's no religious rationale that would justify in any way any of the things that they do.  


But what I have been careful about when I describe these issues is to make sure that we do not lump these murderers into the billion Muslims that exist around the world, including in this country, who are peaceful, who are responsible, who in this country, are our fellow troops and police officers and firefighters and teachers and neighbors and friends.  


And what I learned from listening to some of these Muslim families both in the United States and overseas is that when you start calling these organizations Islamic terrorists, the way it's heard, the way it's received by our friends and allies around the world is that somehow Islam is terroristic.  And that then makes them feel as if they're under attack.  In some cases, it makes it harder for us to get their cooperation in fighting terrorism.  So do I think that if somebody uses the phrase Islamic terrorism that it's a huge deal?


No.  There's no doubt that these folks think that - and claim that they're speaking for Islam.


But I don't want to validate what they do.  I don't want to - if - if you had a - an organization that was going around killing and blowing people up and said we're on the vanguard of Christianity, well, I'm not - as a Christian, I'm not going to let them claim my religion and say you're killing for Christ.  I would - I would say that's ridiculous.  That's not what my religion stands for.  Call these folks what they are, which is killers and terrorists.  And - and that's what we've been trying to do, is to make sure that A, we don't validate their claims that somehow they speak for Islam, because they don't.  And, B, making sure that we do not, uh, make Muslims who are well-meaning and our natural allies on this fight, because these groups are killing more Muslims than they're killing anybody else, make sure that they don't feel as if somehow the - this is some contest between the West and Islam.


And, you know, I think that - I'll just be honest with you, the dangers where we get loose in this language, particularly when a president or people aspiring to get pres - become president get loose with this language, you can - you can see in some of the language that we use - in talking about Muslim-Americans here and the notion that somehow we'd start having religious tests in - in who can come in the country and who's investigated and - and - and whether "The Bill of Rights" applies to them in the same way.


And that's a slippery slope.  And - and - and the way we're going to win this battle is not by betraying our ideals, it's by making sure that we hold true to our ideals and one of our core ideals is - is that, you know, if you're an American and you are, you know, subscribing to the ideals and the creed and the values that we believe in as a country, you know, then we don't have a religious test in this country.


TAPPER:  Just to interject...


OBAMA:  Yes?


TAPPER:  - you were clearly talking about the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, just then.  You think his...


OBAMA:  No, I wasn't.  But...


TAPPER:  You weren't?


OBAMA:  - I - because - no, I - I...


TAPPER:  Well, you just said...


OBAMA:  - I would just say this, Jake, because...


TAPPER:  - aspiring to this office...


OBAMA:  - no, but it's not - it's not - it's not unique to the Republican nominee.  And - and, again, I'm I'm trying to be careful.  We're on a military base.  I don't want to - I don't want to insert partisan politics into this.


I think that there have been a number of public figures where you start hearing commentary that is dangerous because what it starts doing is it starts dividing us up as Americans.


When I go to Arlington Cemetery, mostly I see crosses.  Sometimes I see stars of David.  And sometimes I see Islamic crescents.  And those families are just as proud regardless of their religion that - that, um, a member of their family who they love just as much as anybody sacrificed for this country.


And I want to make sure that we, as a nation, stay unified because that's how we're going to achieve our missions.


TAPPER:  The role of women in combat, not in the military, but specifically in combat...


OBAMA:  Right.


TAPPER:  - has been a big one during your presidency.  Our next question comes from Captain Lauren Serrano, who's an active duty Marine.  She earned a Bronze star for her service in Iraq and has a question on that subject.


CAPTAIN LAUREN SERRANO:   Good afternoon, Mr. President.


A study by the Marine Corps revealed that mixed gender combat units performed notably worse and that women suffered staggeringly higher rates of injury.  Just one of those statistics showed that mixed gender units took up to 159 percent longer to evacuate a casualty than all-male units.


As the wife of a Marine who deploys to combat often, that added time can mean the difference between my husband living or dying.


Why were these tangible negative consequences disregarded and how does the integration of women positively enhance the infantry mission and make me and my husband safer?


OBAMA:  I don't think any of - any studies are going to be disregarded.  I think that what we have to do is to take a look at the particular deployments, the particular situations.  There are going to be situations in which women are on the front lines.  And they're doing a bunch of stuff now.  We - sometimes we can call them combat or not, but the truth of the matter is they're in war theater and they are at great risk.


There are going to be other situations in which the commanders in the field have to make decisions about what's going to be best in order for us to accomplish the mission.  But the one thing that I do know is that as a consequence of women serving in our military and opening up what used to be closed situations to them, we've gained a lot of talent.  We've gained a lot of incredible soldiers, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen.  And it is - I want to make sure that our starting assumption is if you can do the job, you should be able to get the job.


Now, if you can't do the job, if there is a problem with performance, then that has to be taken into account.  But keep in mind that there are a lot of jobs that are considered combat that don't necessarily involve you being on the front lines going door-to-door in Fallujah.  And part of the - the task of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of Defense and others is making those determinations and not just simply painting a broad brush and saying, you know what, women can't be in combat, because there may be situations in which they could do the best job.  It may not involve physical strength or how many pull-ups you can do, it may involve the precision with which you can operate and you being able to keep your cool you being able to carry out a task with a low error rate.  And it may be that in those situations, a woman can perform better than a man.


So what I would - my instructions to the secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs is not to engage in political correctness.  This isn't some symbolic issue.  This is let's make sure that we're not fielding half a team if we've got a whole team.  Let's figure out who can do what and who can do it best.  And if they can do it best, I want to make sure they've got opportunities.  I don't want the presumption to be that a woman can't do the job, because I'm looking at you right now and I'm pretty sure that you're in better shape than I am and you can do a lot of stuff I couldn't do.  And I don't want you not to have that opportunity.


I agree with you that we can't just out of some ideological notion make it more dangerous for your husband.  But I don't want to - I don't want a military, an institution that starts with the premise that women can't do something.  If it turns out they can't do something, then we'll deal with that specific situation.  But I don't want to start off with that assumption.


TAPPER:  Thank you, Captain.


We're going to take a very quick break.


Our town hall conversation, America's Military and the Commander-In-Chief continues right after this.






TAPPER:  Welcome back.


We're at the Fort Lee Army Post in Virginia continuing with our CNN town hall with President Barack Obama and members of our armed services.


Before we continue, Mr. President, there are a few people in the audience I just want to point out to you for particular recognition.


And first, we'll start with the - the two oldest veterans here, Colonel Porture L. Taylor (ph), who's right there.  He's 91, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  In both the Army and the Navy.  And then we are...




TAPPER:  To my left, we have Staff Sergeant Millie Dunveazy (ph), who served in the Women's Army Corps during World War II.  She is, believe it or not, 98 years old.


OBAMA:  I don't believe it.


TAPPER:  No, I don't believe it, either.




OBAMA:  I don't believe it.




TAPPER:  You recognized already retired Army Captain Floren Groberg (ph), who tackled a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, sustained serious injuries but saved many lives.  He received a Medal of Honor from you last year, Mr. President, for his bravery.  And we'll honor him right now.




TAPPER:  And then, of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank our host.


We have Major General Darrell K.  Williams.  He's the commanding general of the U.S.  Army Combined Armed Support Command in Fort Lee.


For those of you watching at home, this is the guy in charge.


Thank you so much for your hospitality.




TAPPER:  I want to get back to the men and women, but I have one quick question for you.


Congress has done something today that they have never done to you before.  You vetoed a bill that would have allowed 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia.  They, today, overrode your veto.  That has never happened to you before.


OBAMA:  Right.


TAPPER:  Your reaction?


OBAMA:  Well, I think it was a mistake.  And I understand why it happened.  Obviously, all of us still carry the scars and trauma of 9/11.  Nobody more than this 9/11 generation that's fought on our behalf in the aftermath of of 9/11.


And, you know, those families deserve support and they deserve resources.  That's why we set up a victims compensation fund.  And on average, the families receive about $2 million each.


But what this legislation did was it said if a private citizen believes that having been victimized by terrorism that another country didn't do enough to stop one of its citizens, for example, in engaging in terrorism, then they can file a personal lawsuit, a private lawsuit in court.


And the problem with that is that if we eliminate this notion of sovereign immunity, then our men and women in uniform around the world could potentially start seeing ourselves subject to reciprocal loss, right?


So if you have a situation where we're doing disaster relief in the Philippines or some other - or Haiti, and a traffic accident happens where, tragically, a citizen of that country is killed, if they passed the same kind of legislation that we just passed, now, potentially, that family in that country could start suing the United States.  They might say we're going to take jurisdiction over that individual.


And we've set up what are called status of forces agreements so that when we deploy, our people are not vulnerable to these kinds of private lawsuits.  And other countries agree to do that but mainly because we reciprocate with them.


And the concern that I've had is - has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia per se or my sympathy for 9/11 families, it has to do with me not wanting a situation in which we're suddenly exposed to liabilities for all the work that we're doing all around the world, and suddenly finding ourselves subject to the - the private lawsuits in courts where we don't even know exactly whether they're on the up and up, in some cases.


So - so this is a - it's a - it's a dangerous precedent and it's an example of why sometimes you have to do what's hard.  And, frankly, I wish Congress here had done what's hard.  I didn't expect it, because voting - if you're perceived as voting against 9/11 families right before an election, not surprisingly, that's a hard vote for people to take.  But it would have been the right thing to do.


And I am - I'm concerned - and this is not just my concern.  General Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said this is a bad idea.  The secretary of Defense said it was a bad idea.  And then we found out some of the people who voted for it said, frankly, we didn't know what was in it.  And there was no debate of it.  And it was, you know, basically a political vote.


I - I understand that.  But, you know, my job as commander-in-chief is to make sure that we're looking ahead at how this is going to impact our overall mission, because what this also means is this time it's Saudi Arabia, but let's say that there's a terrorist who comes here from Great Britain, our closest ally.  We do all kinds of work with them to prevent terrorism.


But they've got some people like the radicals who are living in our country who may be British citizens.  They come here, they carry out something.  Now, under this legislation, somebody who had been harmed by that terrorist could sue the British government and start asking for all kinds of documents and sending in a bunch of trial lawyers and - and, by the way, the last point I'd make, if we know that a country was helping a terrorist, then we'd call them a state sponsor of terrorism.


And they don't have immunity and you can sue them anyway.  But that's a judgment that we make based on the intelligence that we have, based on our military assessment and in this situation, we did not make such an assessment, that Saudi Arabia was as state sponsor of terrorism.


This is taking that out of our military and our intelligence and the hands of our national security professionals and putting it into the courts.  And that's a mistake.


TAPPER:  Let's get back to the men and women here.  You might also recognize Marine Corporal Brandon Rumbaugh.  During his second deployment to Afghanistan, he lost both of his legs in an IED blast while carrying a stretcher to help his friends, who had been injured in an earlier explosion.




CORPORAL BRANDON RUMBAUGH:   First, I want to start by thanking you for being here today to address, you know, some of the needs of our veterans all over the country.


And second, for, you know, the numerous times you specifically checked on me during my recovery at Walter Reed.


But my question, it regards a very small percentage of this country, the - the 1 percent that - that serves this country.


OBAMA:  Right.


RUMBAUGH:   We have men and women that serve in combat theaters four, five, even six times in such small amount of time.


What can we do to take the burden off of these service members and also, at the same time, increase the number of citizens that serve our country?


OBAMA:  Well, first of all, it's good - it's great to see you.  Each time I see him, his arms are a little bigger.  Those are some guns, man.


RUMBAUGH:   Thank you.


OBAMA:  And - and, you know, it's just one of the - one of the things that has been most satisfying as - as president and commander-in-chief is just getting to know folks like Brendan and their heroism and courage.  But, also the people who help them along the way.  You know, the folks at Walter Reed, the folks at Belvoir and other facilities around the world.  It's just incredible what they're doing in terms of helping folks heal and the next thing you know they're running races and, you know, doing all kinds of stuff can't do.  So I'm - I'm really proud of you.


You're raising a really interesting question.  One - one of the challenges we have is we - we've got the best all-volunteer army in history.  I mean the fact is, people step up to serve, they want to serve and that means, you know, we - we are able to get the best of the best and people are enthusiastic and patriotic and that's why our force, I believe, is at its peak.  I mean the - our military personnel are unbelievable across the services.


But what does happen is because our all-volunteer army is so good, you start getting like a - a professional warrior class of 1 percent and then you get 99 percent who, you know, will salute and, you know, cheer at a ball game and, you know, will honor our veterans on Veterans Day, but beyond that, don't really have that much of a stake.


And that is dangerous, because, what happens then is it's very easy, for example, to say, well, let's just go send some more troops in to solve this problem or that problem because those folks aren't directly affected, just a small number are.


I would like to see more of our young men and women serve including people who are, you know, underrepresented right now.  And a lot of those are folks who are from higher income brackets, you know.


I - I'd like to see a situation in which we're more actively recruiting and lifting up the need for all of us to serve in some ways.  There may be ways in which we can modify our recruitment efforts so that we're casting a wider net.


I do think that the heroism of the 9/11 generation and the - the genuine honor of the people are showing, of men and women in uniform today, which is different than it was in Vietnam.  Hopefully, will attract more people to an interest in serving.  But it - if you're not serving directly in our military, at minimum, you can join the kinds of efforts like Michelle has talked about with Joining Forces, where your company can hire more veterans, your community can do more to actively provide services to veterans.  You can volunteer for - with one of the amazing VSOs to help a wounded warrior who's getting back on their feet.  You know, if you've got a - a movie theater, you can provide discounts to folks who are coming back, right?


So there's a lot of ways that people can serve even if they're not directly in uniform and - and I want to give a shout-out to Michelle and Jill - Dr. Jill Biden because they're Joining Forces program has resulted in about 1.2 million members of our military and spouses getting training, employment opportunities and other benefits from the private sector that previously had not been involved.


So we've got to do a better job at showing them how they can help.  And I think people will be willing to help.

 TAPPER:  Thank you so much.

 Appreciate it.

Let's bring in Amanda Souza.

She's a Gold Star wife and a Blue Star mom.

 Her husband was a 25-year veteran who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress and committed suicide last year.

She created a foundation in his honor to help other veterans, service men and women, and their families improve their lives.  Her son is an active duty Marine.


AMANDA SOUZA:   Good afternoon, Mr. President. 

Thank you for being here.

Throughout my husband's military career, he spent a lot of time overseas, many, many deployments and very, very dangerous missions.

 Unfortunately on his last deployment, they were under enemy attack and not everyone made it.  The things that may husband had to go through, he had to live with after he came home.

He was diagnosed with PTSD, but unfortunately, like many of our service men and women, this was his career, this was his livelihood and he was too scared to go get help because he did not want to risk being labeled as unstable or weak.

Unfortunately, he did not get the help that he needed.  He had a family to support and he ended up joining the ranks of the on average 22 veterans a day that commit suicide.

My question to you is how can we ensure that our military men and women understand that it's OK to get the help that they need and that they're not going to risk their careers, that they are not going to be labeled?

 How can we enforce and ensure that especially my son's generation that's - that's coming into the military as careers, that they understand that it's OK to get the help that they need?

 How can we change the stereotype?

 OBAMA:  Well, first of all, I just want to thank you so much for sharing your story and creating your organization, because this is something we just have to talk about more.  And I - I honor your - your husband's service and I thank your son for his service.  And I thank you  for your service because you're serving along with them.  And, you know, sometimes the - the weight of - of battle comes home.  And - and we see this all across our veteran populations.  

Two points I'd make.

The first is I have instructed the Joint Chiefs and up and down the chain of command that they have a responsibility to destigmatize mental health issues and issues of PTSD and help to explain to everybody in all of the units under their command that there's nothing weak about asking for help.

If you break your leg, you're going to go to a doctor to get that leg healed.  If, as a consequence of the extraordinary stress and pain that you are witnessing, typically, in a battlefield, something inside you feels like it's wounded, it's just like a physical injury.  You've got to go get help.  And there's nothing weak about that.  That's strong.  And that is what will allow you then to continue to - with your service and there shouldn't be a stigma against it.

And so we've tried to do that.  I mean I've done PSAs myself about it.  We've had events in the White House to emphasize this.  We've worked with Congress to try to amplify that message.

But ultimately, that has to pervade the culture of our military.  There's no weakness in asking for help.

Now, you also have to back it up with resources, so this brings me to my second point.  We have increased the funding for mental health services since I've been president by about 75 percent.  We've increased the number of mental health providers by about 42 percent.  And part of what we're trying to do is start early by embedding, in some cases, clinicians, people who can help, in the units in theater, not just when they get back home, so that when something happens, we're able right away, in addition to going to a chaplain or somebody to - to - to help you process it, you know, you're not waiting for it to fester or, in some cases, self-medicate, which obviously causes problems, as well.

 So we're putting money behind this.  We are hiring more mental health professionals.  But the fact that there's still 20 a day who are feeling hopeless means that we've got to do more.  And, you know, anybody who's watching right now, if you call the, you know, veterans help line, there's going to be somebody there to answer.  And unfortunately, the vast majority of the 20 that you're talking about are not people who are receiving services.

I'll just tell you one last quick story.  One of the most moving moments of my presidency, I get 10 letters a day from people who write me letters.  And I got a letter from a woman whose husband was going through this.  And she loved him so much, he was such a patriot, but she was scared that he was going to do something to himself.  And she asked was there something that I, as commander-in-chief, could do?

And the letter was moving to me and so I do what I often do with these letters, I - I contacted the bureau.  I said, can you contact this family and this guy?

I had forgotten about it.  And then three years later, at a White House tour, when I'm shaking hands with somebody, a beautiful family, husband, wife, three gorgeous kids and as I'm going down the line shaking hands and I get to this family¸ the guy says, I - sir, I just want to thank you for saving my life.  And I say, what do you mean?  He said, well, my wife wrote a letter and as a consequence, somebody at the VA actively contacted me and I started getting help and that's why I'm here with my little kids here.  

So intervention can work.  And I think part of what we also have to do is make sure that the families recognize some of the signs.  And in some cases, you may need to help that individual get help.  And that's hard to do, because folks are proud, but it's something that I think we all have to be thinking about.  Because we're putting folks under such strain, and it adds up, no matter how tough you are.  But God bless you.  Thank you for everything that you've done to help lift this story up.

TAPPER:  Mr. President, let's turn to Colonel Adam Butler who is the Fort Lee Garrison Commander.  He has served more than 30 years in the Army.  He just got back from Afghanistan.  

COLONEL ADAM BUTLER:  Good afternoon, Mr. President.  Sir, I served twice in Iraq in areas that were recently, later occupied by ISIL.  Also recently redeployed from Afghanistan.  Now my question to you, Mr. President, is, what do we need to do to ensure the gains made in Afghanistan don't meet similar fate as they did in Iraq, particularly as it's related to ISIL occupation?

OBAMA:  Well, the situation in Afghanistan is a little bit different from Iraq, obviously, because the dominant fighting force against the government in Afghanistan is the Taliban, who are not only not affiliated with ISIL right now, but in some cases are fighting ISIL for control of territory.  

The key thing that we're doing in Afghanistan is twofold.  One, is continuing to train, assist, support, build up capacity for the Afghan security forces, and they are fighting.  They're still fighting the Taliban.  And they're not where they need to be as a fighting force yet, but they're getting better because of the support that we provide them, and this is why I have maintained a certain troop level there until I feel confident that they can walk, and then ultimately run.  But they're not quite there yet.  And it's important for us to maintain that support and to continue to get other countries working with us as part of the coalition to provide them support.

The second thing we're doing is, we are maintaining a CT platform in Afghanistan, because we don't want ISIL or al-Qaeda or anybody coming back and creating a platform whereby they can attack the homeland.  And in order for us to have a counter terrorism platform there, which gathers intelligence, allows us to monitor activities, we have to have a certain number of troops just to protect that platform.  So that's - those are our two core missions right now. 

I'll be honest with you, though, there's going to be a third factor, and this is true in Iraq and it's true in Afghanistan, and we are having to recognize this.  Those governments also have to be responsive to people.  And they have to work to eliminate corruption.  And their leadership has to say, we're not going to treat Sunnis differently than Shiite or Kurd or whatever ethnic groups are in these countries.  And we're going to actually provide education to kids, including girls, not just boys.  

We can help in these countries, but one of the challenges we're going to have, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in places like Libya and Yemen and Somalia and other parts of the world, we're not going to have the capacity to police every one of these countries, or run every one of these countries.  And at a certain point, our goal has to be, we'll be your partner, but you guys have to take responsibility.  Not just for the security situation, but also creating an environment in which radicalism and extremism is not the best option or the preferred option for young men.  And there are too many countries that aren't doing enough of that, and so that's why we have to combine what we do militarily also with the diplomatic efforts, our investments in schools -

One of the things that Democrats and Republicans agree on is, we don't like foreign aid.  If you take a poll, the thing people hate most is the idea, well, why are we sending money to other countries to help when we've got so many things to do here at home?

But part of what we have to start understanding is, if we can help build some schools and teach kids a better way of doing things and create jobs, improve the productivity of a farmer, that's part of our national security agenda, and we can't think of that separately from our military agenda because - we'll never have enough troops - we'll never have a big enough budget to be able to simply govern and police every one of these countries around the world.  Thank you for your service.

TAPPER:  Our final question comes from William Butcher.  He retired as a colonel in the Army after 30 years of service in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.  Sir -

WILLIAM BUTCHER:  Mr. President, you've acknowledged it here today.  Our military continues to be a great place for young men and women to gain the skill, have life experience, and serve proudly in our nation.  What would you say, and what advice would you give, to Malia and Sasha, if they approached you and expressed interest in serving in our military?

OBAMA:  I'd say, go for it.  I will tell you, look - I signed up for selective service when I was 18, the Vietnam War had just wound down, there weren't any active wars, we hadn't been under attack, and so I took a different course and I didn't end up serving in our military.  And then during the course of my work as an adult, and eventually first as a state senator, then a U.S. senator, and finally, as president, I started having a lot of interactions with our military and our veterans.

I cannot tell you how incredibly proud I am of our military as an institution.  There's a reason why it's held in the highest esteem of any institution in our country at a time when people are cynical just about everything.  And the reason is that the quality of the people who are serving right now - I meet 20-year-olds and 23-year-olds and 25-year-olds who are in charge of life and death decisions, and maintaining $100 million pieces of equipment, and taking on responsibilities that their peers, who are still going to keg parties, couldn't even imagine. 

 And Michelle and I, we always talk about this, just how incredibly impressed we are with the quality of young people, the training they're receiving, the discipline they're receiving, the patriotism that they're expressing in our military.  

And so if Malia and Sasha decided that that was an avenue that they wanted to take, I would be proud of them.  Now, I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't sometimes get nervous about possible deployments.  Your kids are your kids.  You want to keep them tucked in in their pajamas for the rest of their lives, if you had the chance.  But I'd be proud to have them serve, and I think every parent who's seen their children enter the military are proud.

It's interesting.  We have a number of members of my staff in the White House who themselves have served and their children now are serving, and they were nervous about it initially, and are now saying the way the characters of their children are being shaped, it's terrific.  And if you think about how our military is handled, a lot of social issues - our military is not perfect, but it's handled race issues, for example, better than most other institutions.  It's more integrated and provides greater opportunity to a more diverse set of people.

 I know that the issue of don't ask, don't tell, was controversial, but once the order came down, military executed, and now we've got people who, regardless of who they love, are serving their country and doing a great job and our military does it right.   

So there's a lot to be proud of.  We've got work to do.  We've got to make sure that funding for our military doesn't dip.  There's this whole thing called sequestration that Congress has been dealing with sometimes where just arbitrary cuts could potentially affect readiness and modernization plans.  

I'll be honest with you.  When it comes to military budgets, sometimes members of Congress are very protective of programs that the Pentagon says we don't need anymore, and that then takes billions of dollars away from resources that we could be putting into the health of the force and quality of life and childcare and things that military families need, and that's kind of frustrating.

 Overall, though, when I hear anybody say that America is somehow weaker now than it used to be, blah blah, it's nonsense.  This is the greatest military on earth.  Nobody even comes close.  Our personnel are better, better trained and more focused and exhibit excellence every day.  And we need to take great pride, but we also need to cherish it, not be careless with it.  And my hope is that my successor, and any one of my successors in the future, always understands, this is something you don't take lightly.  And if you're going to deploy our military, make sure you're doing it for a mission they can achieve, that they're properly resourced, the mission is clear, and that we're going to take care of our folks when they come back home.

But thank you very much, all of you, for the outstanding work you do each and every day.

 TAPPER:  And Mr. President, thank you very much for your time.  We really appreciate it.  I also want to thank all the members of the military, active and former, and their families who took part tonight, and all the people from Fort Lee who made us feel welcome.  Of course, we thank them all for their service and their sacrifice.  CNN Tonight continues right now.

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